Last week, in Parasha Yitro, we read the Aseret Hadibrot, the “ten utterances” or general principles. Now, this week, in Mishpatim come the details, what is to become “Torah min Hashamayim “or “Torah mi Sinai”
The word “Torah” is untranslatable. It means different things that only appear together in the book with that name, Torah means “law.” But it also means “teaching, instruction, guidance,” or more generally, “direction.” It is both narrative and law. It is historical record and a way of life.
In the 12th century Maimonides wrote the Guide for the Perplexed.
In the 16th century, Joseph Caro, in his introduction to the Shulchan Aruch, (“ready table”) stated “I will not take the trouble to make them understand the reason and significance of the law. …‘you shall set before them like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating.”
In the 19th century Moses Isserles, in his notes to the Shulchan Aruch, expressed reverence and respect, and, whenever possible, endeavoured to uphold it and to explain its origin. He refused to follow his predecessors blindly. When convinced of the unsound basis of a Minhag (custom), he was ready to repudiate it regardless of its acceptance by the people.
During the later 19th century, against a background of turbulence in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Jacob Ganzfried elaborated minute detail in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
All of them wrote with a regard to the people, the place and the time in which they lived. Today we seek modern responses from the Torah to questions for our own time. To quote Rabbi Louis Jacobs, we seek “reason to believe”. This is a proud continuation of a long tradition in which our own Masorti voice has a valid place.