The  Convergence  of  Spirituality  and  the  Law: The  Interface  of  Yitro  and  Mishpatim I.

Richard  Axel,  whose  fundamental  work  mapping  the  neural  networks  responsible   for  processing  olfactory  stimuli  was  recognized  with  the  2004  Nobel  Prize  in  Physiology   and  Medicine,  was  once  asked  something  of  a  personal  question.    Given  Dr.  Axel’s  intricate   knowledge  of  the  scientiIic  mechanisms  underlying  smell,  Axel’s  interlocutor  wondered,   could  he  still  enjoy,  on  a  purely  aesthetic  level,  going  into  a  bakery  and  inhaling  the   delightful  aromas  wafting  from  warm,  freshly  baked  pastries?  On  the  one  hand,  the   question  was  completely  understandable,  whilst,  simultaneously,  it  was  highly  revealing  of   an  unfortunate  bias  characteristic  of  particular  modes  of  contemporary  thought;  the   presumed  antithesis  of  inspired  aesthetic  appreciation  and  precise  mathematical   knowledge.     In  religious  communities,  the  analogue  of  this  alleged  dichotomy  is  one  often  posed   between  spirituality,  on  the  one  hand,  and  legalistic  precision,  on  the  other.    Sociologically,   this  type  of  schismatic  polarization  may  increasingly  have  become  the  norm;  sadly,  we  all   know  learned  halakhists  who,  to  one  degree  or  another,  dismiss  less  quantiIiable  yet   profound  feelings  and  expressions  of  spirituality  in  others,  and,  conversely,  committed   spiritualists  and  social  justice  advocates  who  embrace  universalistic  expressions  of   spirituality  and  prayer  but  demean  not  only  observance  of  particular  halakhot,  but,  more  to the  point,  disparage  tenacious  legalism  more  generally  as  a  constricting,  or  worse,  perhaps   even  regressed,  mode  of  existence.     The  overarching  structure  of  these  contiguous  sedrot,  Yitro  and  Mishaptim,  speaks   precisely  to  this  point,  jointly  comprising  a  stirring  vision  for  the  synergistic  relationship   between  law  and  spirituality.    Revelation  at  Sinai,  Iirst  presented  in  Yitro,  constituted  not   only  the  telos  of  all  of  creation  itself,  but  a  singular  moment  of  spiritual  elevation  and   transcendence  as  well1.    From  this  spiritual  acme,  the  Torah  pivots  and  drives  us  headlong   to  the  legal  thickets  of  this  week’s  Sedra,  Mishpatim,  which  contains  some  Iifty-­‐three   commandments  (according  to  the  count  of  the  Sefer  Ha-­‐Chinukh)  ranging  from  the  classical sections  of  the  bondsman,  custodian,  torts  and  creditor,  to  the  Sabbatical  year  and  the   festivals,  and  much  in  between.    Finally,  in  the  coda  of  Mishpatim,  the  Torah  returns  us  to   the  revelation  at  Sinai,  climaxing  with  Moshe’s  dramatic  ascent  into  the  cloud  hovering  atop the  mountain.  The  point  is  inescapable;  as  sincere  as  our  initial  feeling  of  elevation  evoked   during  our  naïve,  Iirst  encounter  with  Sinai  was,  back  in  Yitro,  it  utterly  pales  in  comparison to  what  we  can  and  do  experience  the  second  time  around,  now  that  we  know  the   substance  of  the  mishpatim.    Systematic  and  rigorous  knowledge  of  the  halakha  does  not   inhibit  spirituality,  but,  on  the  contrary,  is  conditio  sine  qua  non  for  its  existence,  and   represents  the  single  greatest  catalyst  for  its  subsequent  enhancement.     For  us,  when  it  comes  to  what  others  may  perceive  as  a  fork  in  the  road,  where  one   .‫1. כי לבעבור נסות אתכם בא האלוקים )שמות כ:יז(. ועיין רש'י שם, לשון הרמה וגדולה‬

must  chart  a  course  of  either  Iidelity  to  the  halakhah  or  an  abiding  sense  of  profound   spirituality,  we  cannot  choose,  nor  do  we  feel  that  there  is  any  need  to  do  so.    We  assert  that the  most  profound  love  of  the  Torah  and  He  who  bestowed  it  upon  us,  is  indeed,  directly   proportional  to  our  knowledge;  not  merely  of  its  highways  and  interstates,  as  it  were,  but,   its  nooks  and  crannies  as  well.    As  Richard  Axel  went  on  to  reply,  having  mapped  the   transduction  pathways  associated  with  olfactory  processing  made  him  enjoy  trips  to  the   bakery  not  less,  but  that  much  more. II Perhaps  the  synthetic  view  of  Yitro  and  Mishpatim  is  most  famously  buttressed  by   the  conjunctive  'vav'  which  opens  the  Sedra.    Rashi,  citing  the  Tanchumah,  notes  that  this  is   indeed  the  precise  function  of  the  'vav'  in  question,  to  connect  what  might  otherwise  have   been  perceived  as  disjunctive;  what  is  being  fused  is  not  just  one  set  of  laws  to  another,  but   far  more  signiIicantly,  the  alleged  space  between  the  rapturous  mode  of  religious   experience  which  reached  its  most  heightened  form  under  the  canopy  of  Sinai,  and  the   techincal-­‐legal  framework  of  Mishpatim.

Moreover, Rashi goes on to cite a seemingly unrelated statement of Chazal, which derives, on the basis of the juxtaposition of the judicial framework of Mishpatim and the concluding verse of Yitro, featuring the altar, that the rightful location of the Sanhedrin is in the proximity of the altar. It seems to me that the second half of Rashi is merely an extension of the first. The need to integrate the respective roles of the Sanhedrin and the ritual sphere of the altar as complementary dimensions of the religious experience is yet another way of formulating the imperative of reconciling the transcendatal-emotional dimension of religious experience with the legal-technical one. The presence of the judicial luminaries2 of Jewish society casting their shadow, both figuratively and literally, over the altar, has a grounding and restraining influence on what the modality of religious experience symbolized by the altar can otherwise become; an orgiastic, hedonic cult.3 It was precisely this concern which Moshe articulated on his ascent to the
2. Presumably, this is also a possible rationale for the dual character of the priesthood; (‫ .יורו משפטיך ליעקב ותורתך לישראל ישימו קטורה באפך וכליל על מזבחך )דברים לג:י‬The priest is not merely the overseer of the cultic-sacrificial rite, but, first and foremost, jurist and educator. One hopes that combining, somewhat counterintuitively, the roles of jurist and ritualist exerts a legalistic impact on the sacrificial realm. 3. The Torah itself explicitly articulated its concern regarding the encroachment of any human sexuality into the sphere of the altar, even in relatively innocuous form; (‫.ולא תעלה במעלות על מזבחי אשר לא תגלה ערותך עליו )שמות כ:כג‬

mountain following Revelation itself, as he attempted to fortify the elders and establish the authoritative legal presence of Aharon and Chur4. Sadly, the center could not hold, and the cult of the Golden Calf was born in the absence of the legal giant, Moshe Rabbenu. The three thousand casualties of that particular incident would not be either the most illustrious, nor the last, victims of passional religious activity centered on the sacrificial cult, unfettered by the strictures and boundaries of the norm; Nadav and Avihu's demise at the very moment that the sacrificial rite was being instituted stands as a an eternal monument of the dangers inherent in the sacrificial cult, when legal precision, constricting in essence, is disregarded. It is not for naught that R. Eliezer asserted that Nadav and Avihu's spiritual deviance as having been judicial lese-majeste, literally trampling the procedures and protocols of the legal-technical framework.5 The ultimate subordination of the cultic realm to the judicial is most powerfully expressed by the command to remove the murderer from the refuge he seeks at the altar.6 The transcendent realm of Divine cleavage afforded by the altar can never serve as an escapist portal for those who would disregard the most basic elements of legal-technical life, represented, in extremis, of course, by the crime of murder. The prospects for the altar to serve as a vehicle for genuine spiritual elevation, somewhat ironically, though certainly not paradoxically, rest on its remaining literally tethered to the legal, halakhic norm.7

‫4. ואל הזקנים אמר שבו לנו בזה עד אשר נשוב אליכם והנה אהרון וחור עמכם מי בעל דברים יגש אליהם )שמות‬ .(‫כד:יד‬ .‫5. ירושלמי, שביעית, פרק ו‬ .(‫6. וכי יזיד איש על רעהו להרגו בערמה מעם מזבחי תקחנו למות )כא:יד‬

The prohibition of offering sacrifices on an altar suspended above the ground on stilts (‫ )זבחים נח:, רמב'ם הלכות בית הבחירה א: יג‬might be interpreted as symbolic of this ideal. The altar cannot serve its function if its foundation does not stand rooted in the terra firma of the concrete and the real. As a counterexample, Jacob's ladder comes to mind, with its rootedness in the concrete, and perhaps only its rootedness, one imagines, enabling it to reach soaring heights, ‫.)מצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה‬