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ב"ה

Jurisdiction

Friday, 12 February, 2021 - 10:17 am

I can’t keep up with the current discussions about what is considered constitutional jurisdiction.

But, it did get me thinking about the concept of jurisdiction in a spiritual sense. Who has jurisdiction over the ethical decisions I make? Obviously, we follow the laws of the country we inhabit. But, is that the end of the conversation?

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This week’s parsha Mishpatim follows the landmark event of Revelation at Sinai (in last week’s parsha). Interestingly, most of the Torah portion is devoted to ethical and civil laws, things like reparation of damages, treating the disadvantaged fairly, granting loans and the like.

The Talmud, commenting on the opening verse of the parsha, teaches that when two Jewish individuals enter into a dispute they should turn to a Jewish – not secular – court to hear their case. (In fact, Rabbinic arbitration is a widely recognized form of resolution in secular law today).

Why is this important? If the secular courts can manage to resolve the issue, why insist on a Jewish court of law (where appropriate)?

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The Torah’s civil laws probably resonate most widely, in contrast to its ritual laws. Ironically, precisely because they are so logical, they exhibit a slippery slope in which it’s easy to justify certain behavior. It’s also easier to forget that these are Divinely ordained laws. For example, if the Torah stipulates a formula for compensating an injured person and the secular courts mimic that formula, it’s natural to ignore any holy dimension to this law.

Indeed, we can ask-- why is it important to include G-d in the equation? If the result is identical, who cares which court administers it?

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The Talmud, introducing us to a very familiar voice inside of us, declares that the Yetzer Hara (the Evil Inclination), “Today he tells him, ‘Do this’; tomorrow he tells him, ‘Do that,’ until he bids him, ‘Go and serve idols.” In other words, the Yetzer Hara knows that you won’t listen if it instructs you to blatantly rebel against G-d. So, he begins a slow war of attrition. He urges you to compromise on the smaller things and slowly erodes your standards and sensitivity until you are ready to make significant concessions to your moral and spiritual values. It’s a tried and tested technique, with an alarmingly high success rate.

The Chassidic Masters take this a step further and note that the Yetzer Hara does not begin by suggesting a violation of G-d’s Will – not even a minor transgression. Rather, his starting point of engagement is convincing you to do good things and mitzvahs, but on his terms. Feed the poor – but do it because it makes you feel good (not because it helps others). Celebrate Shabbat – but do it because it makes sense to take a day off (not because G-d asked you to). Slowly, the Yetzer Hara takes hold of your psyche.

How can we counter this invasive erosion of our values and souls?

The answer lies in the Talmudic statement cited above. The courts may reach the same verdict. But, one court is designed to remind us of the sacred and G-dly nature of the verdict. The other is created by humans to address human concerns. By definition it celebrates human endeavor, not Divine instruction. We should never rob the Torah of its Divine nature and reduce it to a rational set of laws created by humans.

(This is not a critique on a secular court system. There is plenty that the Torah left for society to discover, define and adjudicate on its own. In fact, it’s a mitzvah in the Torah for societies to establish courts of law).

By telling us that secular courts aren’t the proper jurisdiction for G-d’s laws, the Torah is also giving us the tools to address the Yetzer Hara.

When our negative impulse attempts to sway our mitzvah observance by condoning it – but on his terms, we should smell a rat and tell it one simple response: This is not your jurisdiction! Stop infiltrating my holy space with your unholy goals.

This is one jurisdiction argument that will always win the day.

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