On Mishpatim, Feminism and A Caring Community by Ivy Helman.

Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18 and 30:11-16) is the Torah portion for February 18, 2023.  Its name, mishpatim, means laws or ordinances, and the portion is essentially just that – a list of laws to be followed.  It is not the easiest parshah to follow as it jumps around, backtracks numerous times, and sometimes contradicts itself, particularly in the sections with Moses. 

That being said, there are two main themes in Mishpatim; both of which I have discussed in past blogs.  First is the death penalty.  There is an overabundance of crimes that result in the death penalty in this parshah.  Way, way too many.  Another theme is idolatry.  In many ways, that is a theme in the Torah itself.  For more on these themes from my feminist perspective, see here: Sh’lach; Ki Tisa; Shofetim ; and on b’tzelem Elohim.

Besides these themes, the ordinances of Mishpatim are doing something more profound – attempting to create community.  There are aspects of this community building that speak to the concerns of feminists.  The first is the acknowledgment of victims, and specifically that women can be the victim of a crime.  So often in the Torah, women are not mentioned, their lives are not deemed important, and their voices are not recorded.  But, here in Mishpatim, when it comes to living in community, they are remembered and honored as important members of the community (Note 1).

Read more: On Mishpatim, Feminism and A Caring Community by Ivy Helman.

For example, Exodus 21:15 proscribes the death penalty for any Israelite who hits their mother or father.  In addition, there is a verse that lays out the punishment for the hitting of a manservant or a maidservant (21:20).  Finally, there are a number of verses in Mishpatim that outline the penalties for the goring by a bull (21:28-29, 31-32).  Each of these verses tackles one pair: man and woman; boy and girl; and manservant and maidservant.  From a feminist perspective, this equality among victims is refreshing.  Likewise, even though they are in the role of victim, it is still good to see a concern for women, maidservants, and girls.  

Women are also important in Mishpatim in their own right and, thus, situations unique to them are discussed.  For example, Exodus 21:22 describes the punishment for hitting a pregnant woman, who then miscarries on account of being hit.  One receives compensation for the injury (that led to the miscarriage), but that injury is differentiated from a fatal injury.  In fact,  the possibility of fatality is outlined in the next verse (21:23) and applies only to the woman.  Thus, the miscarriage is not a fatality.  (Much like in Judaism where fetuses/babies are not considered a life (or alive) until they draw their first breath outside of the womb.)  

Another example is the treatment of maidservants.  Exodus 21:7-9 deems maidservants unreleasable at the sabbatical year.  However, there are conditions that allow them to be released.  Maidservants cannot be sold, but their freedom can be bought if it is clear that they are not a good fit for that household.  However, if a maidservant is given to an Israelite’s son, then the maidservant must be treated like any daughter of Israel.  

Finally, women’s personhood is honored.  Exodus 21:10-11 describes how second wives should be treated and terms for divorce if they are not treated fairly.  Exodus 22:15-16 details the appropriate response to the seduction of young women; either marriage or payment of the dowry price for virgins.  Finally, in Exodus 23:26, Mishpatim declares that Israelite women will be fertile in the Promised Land (Note 2).  

From a feminist perspective, women are not the only victims of patriarchy, animals too suffer.  Mishpatim also demonstrates a concern for their welfare.  On the one hand, Mishpatim’s concern for animals is directly connected to compensation for their Israelite human caretakers.  Thus, there are numerous verses that outline penalties, mostly in the form of monetary compensation, for hitting an animal based on what happens to said animal.  The same can be said for the ordinances that deal with animals who are injured by falling into pits (21:33-34).  

Author’s photo.

However, there are times when the focus is on the animal itself.  This becomes clear when the Israelite is require to care for the animal of an enemy.  Verse 23:4 requires the return of one’s enemy’s stray animal.  The next verse requires easing the burden of one’s enemy’s overburdened pack animal. Verse 22:18 states that one should not have sex with animals.  Finally, verse 23:12 requires Shabbat rest for animals as well as humans.

Another important part of community building in Mishpatim is how to incorporate vulnerable, dependent individuals and those on the periphery of society into the community.  Mishpatim’s answer are ordinances that require care for the widows and orphans (22:21, 23), the poor (22:24, 23:3, 6 and 11), and strangers (22:20, 23:9).  

Care is an important feminist principle.  It has been highlighted since the beginning of feminist herstory and was formulated into its own ethical position by Carol Gilligan, in her book In a Different Voice.  Gilligan says the following about the importance of care, “The ethics of care starts from the premise that as humans we are inherently relational, responsive beings and the human condition is one of connectedness or interdependence.” (for quote, also see Note 3).  The ordinances of Mishpatim stress that vulnerable and peripheral individuals are still part of the community and require help; the Israelites must respond to their needs accordingly (Note 4).   

As we have surveyed here, Mishpatim is a hodge-podge of ordinances.  However, there are feminist aspects to its community building.  The parshah includes women, maidservants, and girls as important individuals, worries about the welfare of animals, and requires care for the widow, orphan, stranger, and the poor.  While it is by no means perfect, Mishpatim attempts to build a better, more caring community; we could learn from that.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  


Note 1: Women are, for the most part, not included when the Torah proscribes the religious/spiritual community.  See my post on Bamidbar.

Note 2: Of course, we must also acknowledge the ways in which Israelite women are important here only in their relationship to Israelite men. That is problematic from a feminist perspective as it once again fails to acknowledge the full dignity of women as people.

Note 3: I cannot, in this short of a piece, describe the ethics of care with the conscientiousness it deserves.  For more about it, read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice or see here

Note 4: I feel like this idea could become its own post. Yet again, I am restrained by word limits.  If I were to write a separate post about it, I would describe the differences between the patriarchy of the Torah and modern society and yet how both societies often caused vulnerability and people to live on the edges of community.  Who are our poor?  Our strangers?  Our vulnerable?  I would also discuss the revaluing of care by feminists as well as the patriarchal devaluing of care. 

Author: Ivy Helman, Ph.D.

Jewish feminist scholar, activist, and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic and currently teaching at Charles University in their Gender Studies Program.

One thought on “On Mishpatim, Feminism and A Caring Community by Ivy Helman.”

  1. Thank you for this detailed analysis. I empathize with your feeling the constraints of word limits! I hope you do write the post you suggest in Note 4.


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