The Holy and the Secular
This week’s Parasha, Mishpatim, opens with the following lines, “And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them.” Rashi is bothered by the apparent extra words, “before them” and comments, “Before them - But not before gentiles. Even if you know that they [gentiles] judge a certain law similarly to the laws of Israel, do not bring it to their courts.”
As a rabbi and a lawyer, I often have this Rashi in the back of my mind (as well as the underlying Halacha and its many exceptions). This was one of the very first things I learned at Yeshiva University, before going to law school. The verse also ties into a more fundamental question regarding how to balance Torah (the “Yeshiva”) with secular knowledge (the “University”), and how to interact with the outside world in general.
So why is it so important to judge something according to Torah law, even when the result would be the same as in secular court? Rashi gives a reason on the Peshat (simple) level, “For one who brings Jewish lawsuits before gentiles profanes the [Divine] Name... ” It is simply embarrassing to the Torah and to Hashem Himself to have a non-Jewish court judge a legal matter among Jews. After all, isn’t that what the Torah is for?
On a deeper level, Reb Nosson of Breslev, the main disciple of Rebbe Nachman, in Likutei Halachos, explains the spiritual dimension of what takes place when a Jewish court is summoned to resolve a dispute. He states the the matter only arose because both sides (even the one that will ultimately prevail) at some point did not apply the Torah correctly, and now they require a Tikkun (a “fixing”). By taking the dispute and resolving it according to Jewish law, the judges fix the entire situation and transform it into Torah.
It is very important to always be aware of the difference between the holy and the secular (L’Havdil bein Kodesh L’Chol), between what is sacred and what is merely good and just (definite prerequisites!). In addition, we should appreciate how truly magical it is when we are able to connect the secular to the holy, to elevate the mundane and transform it into Torah. We do that by finding the Divine wisdom contained in every situation, in every single thing.
These two above concepts are contained within the opening lines of Rebbe Nachman’s Magnum Opus, Likutei Moharan, “By means of the Torah, the grace and importance of Israel are raised… For the Israelite must always observe the intellect in everything... in order that [it] should enlighten and draw him/her close to Hashem may He be Blessed."
We look forward to the day when the world whole understands that everything is connected to the Torah and to Hashem, and when our Jewish courts are used again to their full capacity, as noted in the Amidah, “Restore our judges as in former times... and reign over us, You Alone.”
To fulfill that prayer, Hashem needs our help: in the holy realm, in the secular one, and in both combined.
Rabbi Daniel Kahane
High School Judaic Studies Teacher