Mishpatim – Why Have Law?

Different writers have offered various rationales for society legislating laws. The general view is that they conform to human reason (though reason is variable). In Judaism law is an expression of G-d’s intention and will, thereby even the most reasonable of laws have higher meaning. Many a jurisprudential writer has argued the basis of the promulgation of laws in society. Are they there to create optimal self-expression, happiness and fulfillment for the greatest number?  Are they there for protection of members of society? Or are they passed to exact punishment and retribution? More profound rationales might question whether laws are the sub conscious product of orderly human minds.  Or they may be a reflection of a universe governed by system, order and laws of science and mathematics. Nowhere is this more perplexing than when applied to issues of ethics and morality. These go to the very core of law. Is law a way of instituting right from wrong in society? This week’s Parsha Mishpatim is all about laws but interestingly Judaism divides laws into categories of reason (Mishpatim), celebrating cycles of time (Eidut) and non-rational (Chukkim). It is this third category that provides the ultimate rationale for laws – a form of imitation Dei – doing what G-d intends for the world and its future. Therefore, even the most reasonable of laws are obeyed not because of their reasonableness, but because they express G-d’s will, and hence their placement in the Torah itself even though human societies have nearly all adopted these through pure reason such as do not murder, and do not steal. We may well have reasonable laws, honoring time We sometimes find in life that perfectly capable and good parents produce two divergent children – one toeing the line of positive values and behaviour, and the other rebelling against the norms of society. Ethics and morality may be incidentally ‘reasonable’ (albeit reason varies from culture to culture) but ultimately morality is an expression of G-d’s intentions and will.