by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman
On January 20th, George W. Bush is to be inaugurated as President of the United States. Aside from the "Black Tie and Boots" festivities, there is a solemn moment in which the new President takes the oath of office. Hand on Bible, he swears to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help him G-d.
Mr. Bush's status as a believing Christian will add a certain resonance to the swearing-in ceremony. The Christian right-wing see the Bush victory as a victory of the forces of Good over Evil. The advocates of absolute separation between Church and State, on the other hand, might want to put their fingers in their ears at the magic moment. They would wish to do away with that traditional invocation of Divine assistance, as well as any other mention of religion in politics. It is all part of the deep cultural divide in America which marks the 2001 Inaugural.
To be sure, the tradition of the President's oath of office is as old as the republic itself. The Founding Fathers were all steeped in the heritage of the Bible, and it was natural for them to incorporate the great book into the political process, even as they stipulated in the Constitution that the government "shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion." That clause was designed to avert the creation of a state religion, not to renounce religious belief altogether.
The idea of taking an oath to strengthen one's commitment to fulfill a responsibility is itself of Biblical origin. When Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac, he was sworn not to take a wife for him from the daughters of the corrupt Canaanite nation. When Jacob was dying, he summoned his son Joseph to his side and had him swear that he would not bury him in Egypt, but in the Land of Israel. Indeed, his burial site is in Hebron, along with Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his own wife, Leah. (This multiple burial cave, today a locus of dispute between Jews and Palestinians, is also known to us as ma'arat ha'machpelah, which means "the double cave." Double, for it contains the remains of those four couples.)
Normative Jewish law, however, discourages the taking of oaths. Declarations or affirmations may have their place, but the taking of an oath is something that the Sages cautioned us to avoid wherever possible. This attitude has its basis in the Talmudic statement that when the commandment not to take G-d's name in vain was given at Mount Sinai (it is one of the Ten Commandments), "the whole world shook."
None of the other Ten Commandments are said to have had such earth-shaking impact. Even Thou Shall Not Have Any Other Gods Before Me, and Thou Shalt Not Kill, did not seem to register in this way on the Talmudic Richter Scale. What is it about this particular commandment which makes it different?
In order to answer our question, we must first understand what an oath---in Hebrew, a shavuah---is. It is more than an affirmation to uphold this or that commitment. The invocation of the name of G-d (while holding a Torah scroll or other sacred object) is to say that just as G-d's existence is firm and unchanging, so also is one's commitment to the task at hand. Even though, as mortals in a material world, we and our jobs do change, the intention is that our commitment is as strong and unwavering as we can make it.
If the individual is not able to carry out his oath faithfully, it is not only a violation of that solemn pact, it is a violation of the sanctity of our acknowledgment of G-d's existence. If one's commitment is supposed to be as firm as G-d's existence, and in the end, the commitment was not upheld, it is as if to say that G-d's existence is likewise weak and insubstantial. Death or illness would, of course, mitigate the wrong impression created by the failure to carry out the oath. A case of deliberate violation, for whatever reason, amounts to a desecration of the Divine Name.
Perhaps now we can begin to understand the gravity of oaths in the Talmudic view. Still, why do they say "that the earth shook?" Our Sages were not given to over-dramatization and hyperbole. What did they mean?
The Maharsha in his commentary on the Talmud gives us an insight into their statement, and, along the way, an appreciation for the precise use of language by our Sages. He explains that the entire universe consists of the names of G-d. That is to say, that underlying the material existence of heavens and earth is a spiritual reality which reflects the essence (the names) of the Creator. The misuse of G-d's name in any way by one of his creatures here on earth has a damaging effect on the vast, intricate fabric of that hidden reality. We cannot see or understand how it happens, but the Sages, who possessed revelatory insights into the secrets of the universe, were letting us in on its inner workings when they said that "the world shook" when G-d said "Thou Shall Not Take My Name in Vain."
Now we can understand why the Sages chose to express it in that way. For when a person makes a vain or false oath, the spiritual foundations of the physical world are indeed shaken.
The ancient Torah ritual for assuming positions of leadership employs a rather different device. Instead of uttering an oath, the King, for example, is anointed with oil. Oil does not mix with water; when added to it, it floats on the water's surface, separate and above. This symbolizes the position of the King, a spiritual leader of the Jewish people, separate from and above the influences of the material world below.
If Jewish tradition discourages oath-taking, why is it, then, that the Patriarchs felt it was proper to do so? And how are we to view the Presidential swearing-in?
The answer is, that it depends on the nature of the shavuah, and the intentions behind it. Swearing falsely, unnecessarily or without full commitment is all prohibited. Thus, swearing that one will eat a whole pizza with everything on it, or that today is the first day of the rest of your life, or that you will faithfully uphold the laws of the land when you have no intention of doing so, are all out of the question. But if you are Abraham setting out to build a nation of G-d, or (on a much lower level, to be sure), you are the incoming President of the United States, and fully intend to carry on with the moral responsibilities that come with the office, then the oath may very well be in order.
On the contrary, at a time in history when the core beliefs of the Judeo-Christian traditions are under relentless assault, it should be an edifying experience for everyone to hear the leader of the most powerful nation on earth acknowledging the need for Divine assistance. In a different, and more positive sense, then, the Presidential swearing-in should be an event of world-shaking dimensions.
Please note that the laws of oaths and vows are complex, and no one should undertake them without first consulting a competent rabbi.
*E-geress is a Hebrew word meaning letter or correspondence.
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