In 2019, Oaths Are Meaningless
Anyone who has attended a Kol Nidrei service will know that there are seven terms in Hebrew and Aramaic for vows and oaths. They must have been incredibly significant once — but nowadays, not so much.
The Bible is full of these vows. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all swore to God. God swears back to keep his commitments to His followers. And the Talmud has one large volume devoted to oaths and vows, categories, and formulae. And yet we still argue about the differences.
What is an oath? Is it just a commitment, or is it more? Some oaths were and are just curses. But others are supposed to be serious commitments to God. I have never liked oaths. They sound so awesome, and yet they are so easily abused.
The one thing I think we can agree on, is that nowadays we do not take oaths or vows nearly as seriously as we once did. People swear using God’s name all the time, and in most ungodly ways. Oaths are constantly taken in vain and used as common currency. Criminals swear their innocence on the Bible when we know they are lying. Politicians swear their probity on their words of honor. I can recall any number of outwardly very religious and pious people who were happy to swear to other people and to courts with absolutely no intention of abiding by their oaths whatsoever.
In the old days, to take an oath in vain was a crime against God, monarch, and country.
In this day and age, what really is the purpose of an oath other than to annoy others? After all, if under torture a person will say whatever is required of him, why shouldn’t someone who wants to gain citizenship swear loyalty if that’s what it takes? Does the Almighty really care if I swear to be faithful to a civil constitution that humans have cobbled together and gets manipulated by whatever brand of politics its legislators are committed to? Indeed, some American jihadists who have tried to damage their adopted country, swore oaths to become citizens, and on the Koran, too.
There was an effort a while back in the Israeli cabinet to impose a loyalty oath on any non-Jew wanting Israeli citizenship. People requesting citizenship were going to be “required to make a declaration in which they commit to being loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state, to its symbols and values, and to serve the state as much as required through military or alternative service.”
In Ehud Barak’s alternative draft, prospective citizens would have been required to say: “I declare that I will be a citizen loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the declaration of independence, and I am committed to honoring the laws of the state.”
The Knesset threw it out. Long ago, Samuel Johnson said that “patriotism is the refuge of a scoundrel.” In which case, it seems to me that Avigdor Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, who initiated this effort are a bunch of scoundrels. So too were the cabinet for agreeing. The matter is now before the Israeli Supreme Court.
But what if we do not subscribe to the stated aims of our country? What if I do not subscribe to secular Zionism? What if I think the pursuit of happiness is meaningless fluff? North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and it is neither democratic nor a republic. In the US and elsewhere, what definition of democracy are we going to have to swear to uphold? Are not American gerrymandered voting districts undemocratic?
Simply put, oaths today are meaningless.
We Jews cannot even agree on the definition of who a Jew is. Are we really going to ask an Arab Muslim to swear to be a Jew? How are we going to define a Jewish state for a meaningful oath? Will secular Israelis have to swear loyalty to the Torah?
Loyalty should be tested in actions not words.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.