On November 26, 1936, Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel delivered a lecture to a gathering of rabbis in Jerusalem. Speaking to rabbis who would become part of Israel’s national rabbinic leadership, Rav Uziel articulated his vision for rabbinic priorities in the emerging Jewish state:
When it comes to public and national matters, the issue of Mishpat – The Torah’s Civil Laws – is a weighty responsibility on a rabbi, for it is these matters that establish the path of life towards success or disaster, peace or dispute.
When Rav Uziel used the term “mishpat” to describe the Torah’s civil laws, what was he referring to?
“And these are the laws – Mishpatim – that you shall set before them.” With this opening verse from Parashat Mishpatim, God legislates the Torah’s system of civil legislation. Mishpatim refers to civil laws and ordinances, and by making these laws the Torah’s first laws following the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments), God sends a powerful message on how the Torah envisions a “religious society.”
Most people looking to create a “religious community” would begin by building a house of worship. God sees things differently. As the Jewish people build their new community after the exodus from Egypt, civil laws governing relationships between people (Bein Adam L’Havero) are legislated first. Batei Din (courts) come before the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Dayyanim (Judges) precede Kohanim (Priests).
Parashat Mishpatim deals in matters that don’t seem “religious or spiritual” to most people — personal injury, damages due to negligence, paying employees on time, borrowing items or lending money, but these form the core of the Torah’s vision of a Jewish religious society. It’s much easier to behave “religiously” within the confines of a synagogue. The true challenge is maintaining that “religiosity” in the workplace and in our business dealings.
When he composed his Mishpetei Uziel halakhic responsa, Rav Uziel devoted a special introduction to the volume that dealt with Civil Law:
Amongst all of the various disciplines and halakhot, Mishpatim distinguishes itself, as it guides and directs the way of life for all areas and aspects of society. This body of laws reflects the distinctly unique character of Judaism.
Rav Uziel concluded his remarks with a powerful plea to the rabbis:
As you approach the seat of the rabbinate, take to heart that the full domain of mishpat — including all of its problems & issues — has been placed in your hands. It will be upon you – through trustworthiness, love, honor and admiration — to bring the nation closer to the values of law, righteousness and truth.
In the Israel of 2024, Rav Uziel’s grand vision for rabbis remains as powerfully compelling as it was in 1936.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the international director of the Sephardic Educational Center.