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.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Biblical law?

You remember the cases:

  • The county clerk who refused to issue licenses for same-sex marriages.
  • The bakers who refused to decorate a cake for a same-sex wedding.
They refused on the grounds that their religions were opposed to same-sex marriage.
Both lost in court. The county clerk in Kentucky defied a decision of the United States Supreme Court, claiming a religious exemption from the fulfillment of her public duty. The Oregon bakers claimed religious exemption from civil-rights law.

In contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses won the right, during World War II, not to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and Quakers are permitted to “affirm” rather than “swear” when testifying in court.

The difference was that the Jehovah’s Witnesses objected only to the Pledge, not to school in general, and the Quakers only to swearing oaths, not to courts in general. The religious exemption is a narrow one.

In contrast, the Kentucky clerk had no religious objection to the issuance of marriage licenses—if she had, problems would have arisen on her first day in office. And the Oregon bakers claimed no religious objection to decorating any and all wedding cakes.

This fall, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently released a report criticizing religious exemptions that infringe on civil  rights. The report concluded that religious exemptions have the potential to “significantly infringe” on a person’s civil rights.

The chair of the commission, Martin Castro, said that  phrases like “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” have become “code words” for discrimination. 

“Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others,” Castro wrote in his statement. “However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality.”

A weapon and a shield. Many of us thought that the Kentucky clerk’s motivation was not to avoid participation in even the paperwork for a same-sex marriage, but the hope of preventing the marriage altogether. 

The report recommended that “federal and state courts, lawmakers, and policy-makers at every level must tailor religious exceptions to civil liberties and civil rights protections as narrowly as applicable law requires.” 

In other words, the report opposed religious exemptions that would protect one person’s religious views by curtailing the rights of another .

Some of those who oppose limits on religious exemptions use the (frivolous, in my opinion) example of a kosher or halal butcher who refuses an order for pork. But the very definition of a kosher or halal butcher includes not selling pork. The parallel example would have to be a kosher or halal butcher who sells kosher meat to the public, except to certain customers with rights protected by court decisions or civil-rights law. 

For those in America who want to impose a specific, usually conservative Christian, religious view on the entire country, the parallel would be this: imagine that Jews came to hold a majority of seats in a state or, more likely, local government (there are places in New York where this is true) and used their majority to prohibit the sale of pork or shellfish, or to ban driving on Saturday.

Thus, when people tell me that they want the United States to follow “Biblical law,” I’m always tempted to ask them, “Have you stopped eating bacon yet?”