Politics & Parsha: Mishpatim 5771

Posted on January 27, 2011 In Archives

Politics & the Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”

Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.

Mishpatim 5771: Details are Lost in Translation

Get the Attorney General & a copy of the Constitution. – Glenn Close as Vice President Kathryn Bennett, Air Force One (1997)

One just has to wonder sometimes, do our elected officials, cable news pundits and citizen-lobbyists ever bother to actually read the thing?

It’s pretty short. At a little over 4,500 words (or just under 7,600 if you count all the amendments) the United States Constitution is the shortest in the world. We ask quite a lot from it: the common defense, blessings for us and our posterity, life, liberty. Of course, we gave the Constitution some help. In fact, most first year law students can tell you (though third years probably could not) Congress enacts laws and the President executes them. When needed, Federal judges rule on the constitutionality of those laws. In other words, the Constitution is the framework. Legislation, administrative regulation and case law are the [insert your favorite, appropriate cliché metaphor here].

The Torah is a Congressional Record of sorts, including floor speeches by Moses and Abraham, among others, and it is a statutory reference too, listing, at least in headline or bullet form, the laws we are to follow. But at its most basic, the Torah is our constitution. It is the why of our what. Why we do what we do was last week in Yisro. This week, Mishpatim is the how.

Similarly, the US Constitution tells us what we can – and can’t – do. But how are we to do it? Under what guidance, rules and oversight? That’s for a Congress and, increasingly, since the New Deal, a resurgent executive branch, to determine. The president deploys our armed forces and serves as Commander-in-Chief. He (or she) decides how many carrier battle groups or how many strategic bombers to launch. (The president too, has help. For starters, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense and the intelligence community.) Congress, they get to fund, underfund or defund the military, but they have no say in strategy or tactics. It is the president who nominates judges, generals, cabinet heads and the like. The Senate’s role is limited to determining their qualification. (This hasn’t stopped Senators from quashing nominees for political or ideological reasons. Think, Mr. Bork (this one; not that) and Ms. Miers. But their true role is more consenting than advising.) The courts, even the Supremes, can only review laws or cases for their legality. They may not – it would be unconstitutional, not to mention ironic – if they draft or rewrite otherwise constitutionally proper laws. As at least one justice noted, they aren’t asked to decide a law’s wisdom or folly, only its constitutionality.

Last week in Yisro, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and received the Torah from G-d. This week, in Mishpatim, come the laws. The Decalogue gives us our First Principles: G-d, Sabbath, Honor, Basic Morality. Mishpatim gives us the details.

Like our fictional vice president, it’s not enough to know a constitution exists. We need to read what it says. But then we must translate G-d and godliness from the theoretical on high to the nitty gritty: trade and commerce, agriculture and urban development, war, counterintelligence, and diplomacy, courts of law and criminal justice. Yisro is the principles. Mishpatim is the translation.

Or in the words of Mr. Clemens, “The weakest of all weak things is a virtue that has not been tested in the fire.” Decalogue is nice. But G-d, as they say, is in the details. So too, is humanity.

Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.