After legislating the multiplicity of laws in what has become known as Sefer Ha-Brit, the “Book of the Covenant,” Parashat Mishpatim concludes on a pessimistic note—a warning to the Israelites. Once they enter the Land of Israel, they are not to tolerate the practices of idolatrous nations. Exodus 23:24 declares, “you will not bow down to their gods in worship or follow their practice, but will tear them down and smash their pillars to bits.” More than that, the Israelites are told to be on guard. God will not displace the native nations suddenly, but over an extended period of time. Ultimately a promise is made: “They will not remain in your land, lest they cause you to sin against Me; for you will serve their gods—and it will prove a snare to you” (Exod. 23:33). How are we to understand this divine fear, and to what extent is it grounded in reality? Are the Israelites so weak as to be seduced by their surrounding cultures?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains,
The fact of their remaining in the land without giving up idolatry will become a snare unto you. Do not depend on the heights of purity that you have attained, do not trust yourselves, not to have to be afraid of the proximity of impurity and false ideas, that living together with these people full of their false ideas, you will be able to raise them up to your true ideals, and not on the other hand let them drag you down to false ones. It is only in isolation that you can grow strong and firm enough for your ultimate spiritual conquest of the nations of the world. Until that time is reached, being with these other nations will only be a snare to you. (Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, 418)
Far from admitting of the potential benefits of living among other peoples and cultures, Hirsch and Parashat Mishpatim seem to embrace a pessimistic view of Israelite impulses. Perhaps such a view derives from the relative power (in numbers and in practice) of the nations that were then resident in the Land of Israel. Alternatively, Torah could have been cautious because of the weakened state of the people. Having only been recently freed from the bonds of slavery, these same people could easily be seduced into servitude once again. Only through a process of acclimating themselves to freedom and maturing in that sense of identity, sovereignty, and power could the Israelites gain their place of honor and security in the world. Rabbinic Judaism (see especially Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4) and successive generations of Jews attest to a radically different worldview from the one expressed in Parashat Mishpatim. Judaism has survived and flourished because of its rich and sustained interaction and accommodation with surrounding cultures. Wherever we have lived, be it the “idolatrous” cultures of Greece, Italy, or India, we have acculturated—building bridges between the Jewish world and outside cultures. That delicate balancing act between remaining true to one’s identity and borrowing from other peoples and cultures will remain one of the greatest challenges and blessings of Judaism.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.