Wednesday, May 1, 2019


When I speak in churches, I often say that Christianity has it mostly wrong about the Pharisees. In the Jewish orbit, it’s something that we rarely think about—but we should. The early rabbis who re-created Judaism in the form that we know were the direct successors of the Pharisees. In other words, we are the heirs of the Pharisees. 

Yet in common speech, “pharisaic” denotes hypocrisy, self-righteousness, or obsession with rules. The term Pharisee derives from the Hebrew root l’faresh, to interpret. Originally, it described Jews of approximately the first century CE who believed that the Torah should be studied for its underlying principles rather than solely as a rule book for ritual practices. Although they were highly concerned with ritual purity, they emphasized ethical teachings over ritual for its own sake. 

Their opponents, the Sadducees, focused on careful adherence to the rules, mostly in Leviticus, for con-ducting sacrifices in the Temple. When Rome destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, those sacrifices became impossible and the point of view of the Sadducees became irrelevant to Jewish life. It was the Pharisees and the early rabbis who refashioned Judaism as a religion that did not depend on specific sacrificial practices in a specific place—a Judaism built around prayer, study, and mitzvot. 

Paradoxically, Christianity also has its roots in the rabbinic tradition, not in the rituals of the Sadducees. Over the centuries, however, the term “Pharisee” became a club used by Christians to beat Jews—often figuratively and sometimes literally. 

Rabbi Jeff Salkin wrote about this recently in a column for the Religion News Service. He raised this issue after Mayor Pete Buttigieg used the term “Pharisee” to criticize Vice-President Mike Pence. Rabbi Salkin does not think that Buttigieg is anti-Jewish.
He writes that the term embodies “subtle and unexamined religious perceptions—Judaism as a religion of law vs. Christianity as a religion of love; Judaism as a “separatist” faith” and that it is “so ingrained in the way that so many people think, that it has become unconscious.” 

I don’t think that we can eliminate this from almost two thousand years of Christian thought, but I think that we should speak up when the occasion demands it.
Sadly, however, the kind of hypocritical obsession with rules that it denotes still exists in Jewish life. There are so-called religious Jews who may keep strict kashrut and pray together three times a day, but who have no qualms about sheltering child molesters and domestic abusers, mis-educating their children, or cheating the government. 

Or those who vituperatively criticize other Jews. As (Orthodox) Rabbi Bob Carroll says, we should all be at least as careful about what comes out of our mouths as about what goes in. We may choose to ignore it when other Jews merely call us bad Jews, and usually that is best. But should we keep quiet about immoral or criminal behavior carried out in the name of Judaism? Sometimes we fear that speaking out would give fodder to anti-Semites. Yet if we are silent, are we complicit?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Jew's Oath

A visitor at our Yom Kippur services last year asked why we take all the Torah scrolls out of the Ark and have members hold them during the chanting of Kol Nidre. Some of the scrolls are large and heavy - to the point that we avoid using them for the weekly reading - and Kol Nidre is chanted three times.

One reason, and I think that this is probably what occurs to the most people, may be to emphasize the seriousness of the occasion. Our congregation also has a Torah scroll (just one or two, depending on the Torah readings) held - usually - by a member during the prayers for the country, the State of Israel, and so forth.

But I think that the custom originated centuries ago as a result of an iniquitous practice in Europe called the Jew's Oath.

In the Middle Ages, church and state were one throughout Europe, and oaths taken in court typically required swearing on a (Christian) Bible--something that persisted almost to the present day and may still occur in some jurisdictions. A Jew would not swear on a New Testament, or repeat an oath invoking the Trinity. 

So an alternate oath was demanded. This was established in the Byzantine empire by the tenth century, although it did not immediately become universal in western Europe. There are numerous formulations for it from the Middle Ages and later, commonly involving holding a sefer Torah, wearing a crown or girdle of thorns, standing on the skin of a pig, and other indignities, some verging on torture. This version from Frankfurt in the fourteenth century is an example: "The Jew shall stand on a sow's skin and the five books of Master Moses shall lie before him, and his right hand up to the wrist shall lie on the book and he shall repeat after him who administers the oath of the Jews."

The Jew would then call down on himself some or all of the curses in the Torah. In some places, such as Arles in France, a thorn branch would be pulled "between his loins" while he did so.

Another reason for the more Judaico was that authorities distrusted the word of Jews because of the Kol Nidre recitation, which (read literally) annuls all vows that might be made during the coming year. From a Jewish point of view, the reason for this was to prepare for vows that might be made under duress, probably including false conversions; we also understand it as applying to vows that a person should never make, such as when an exasperated parent says to a child, "If you do that again, I swear I'll kill you." We might also interpret as covering vows that we made in good faith but just could not keep.

The correct reading of the Kol Nidre text should have been a reason for taking the word of Jews seriously: it shows that our ancestors considered every oath valid, even if made under duress or extreme mental strain, unless it was relieved by Kol Nidre. 

The Jew's oath started to fade in the nineteenth century. In France, a rabbi was prosecuted when he refused to open the synagogue for it--and he was acquitted. Some German states (before Germany was unified) dropped it in the 1820s and 1830s; Zecharias Frankel published a commentary when Saxony discontinued it in 1839. Prussia did not completely abolish it until 1869, and it persisted longer in eastern Europe, having been demanded in Romania as late as 1902.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The other side of the blanket

At this time of year--Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur--you're likely to see some blanket apologies on social media. In the olden days people sent them through email, often to the entire roster of a listserv.

They're usually formalistic blanket apologies: to everyone and no one, for everything and nothing. I won't be posting one, because I read them as "to no one in particular" and "for nothing in particular."

As I see it, a valid apology is specific: to the person wronged, stating the nature of the offense and agreeing that it was wrong, pledging to try not to do it again. How can you genuinely apologize if you don't know what you did or whom you did it to? The vague "If I offended you in any way" is on a par with the non-apologies that politicians and celebrities offer: "I'm sorry if you were offended." That is no apology at all, because it places the guilt on the victim.

So why are we doing this? In truth, we have all committed offenses that we forgot or didn't even notice at the time. Probably even some that we are still incapable of recognizing. 

That's a big part of what Yom Kippur is about: accepting responsibility for everything we did, even what we did without knowing. A major role--to my way of thinking, the major role of the Yom Kippur liturgy is to bring our souls back into alignment even after sins that are still unknown to us. 

And that's why the liturgy does so much to induce feelings of guilt, not that we don't enter Yom Kippur already feeling guilty. But another role of the Yom Kippur liturgy is to relieve free-floating guilt (the guilt that we take on for no specific reason at all) in order that we can focus on making amends for what we know we did.

I've written about some of this before. I believe that an apology, in addition to being specific, needs to be made in the right form and in the right place. For example, a private offense does not demand a public apology, but a private apology does not atone for a public offense. In other words, don't apologize in email or on social media for an offense committed in another venue, and don't make a private, secret apology for an offense that you committed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever.

So I'm not posting a blanket apology. If I owe an apology, and if I haven't offered it by, say, Shabbat Shuvah, please tell me about it and keeping telling me until I get the point.