Friday, July 25, 2014

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Exodus 23:13

Your assignment was to read Exodus 23:13. 
This verse is the fundamental reason why there are 613 commandments in Jewish law and why Mishnah and Gemara had to exist.
All that I said to you you shall keep and you shall not commemorate the names of other gods, it shall not be heard in your mouth.
If you have ever been in court in any way shape or form, or if you even watch TV or movies with court cases in them, you’ve probably seen witnesses take an oath to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Up until about 1850 CE, witnesses had to swear by the scripture of the established faith of the country where the trial was taking place.  In the U.S. there was no established faith, and people had to be allowed to swear without using scripture, but Quakers objected to that and had to be allowed not to swear at all.
Now pretend you live three or four thousand years ago and you have been treated unfairly – remember, fairness is a trait of all primate societies – and you know that if you retaliate with physical violence, you’ll probably get flogged or even executed.  How can you swear in a court by a god you don’t believe in?  If the judge knows you don’t believe in his god that he’s going to make you swear by, he might not believe your testimony anyway.
Society cannot operate peacefully when unfairness is left without consequences.  Society requires some way of testing whether people will tell the truth in court, and the oath has been that way for time out of mind.  But people can only swear an oath by something they accept as worthy of reverence. 
Jews could not revere any gods but Gd and they could not take oaths in pagan courts.  They had to have to have their own courts.  Those courts operated according to Jewish law with its requirements for eligibility of witnesses, gradations of punishment for multiple offenses, warning, and so on.  Things that are crimes (with capital punishment) in Judaism were not crimes in pagan cultures; things that constitute fraud in Jewish law may not have constituted fraud in other cultures.
Neither can Jews administer oaths in a Jewish court to non-Jews.  Knowing that they don’t believe in Gd, the Jewish court cannot accept testimony from such people.
This is the basis for rules in Mishnah and Gemara against doing business with non-Jews.  It’s a rule of history that some business deals go sour.  When that happened, the Jew could not get redress if he was the one on the losing end of the deal.  A Jewish court could not trust the non-Jew on the other end of the deal because the non-Jew couldn’t swear by the Jewish Gd, not honestly, and the Jew could not swear in the non-Jewish court by the god it invoked. 
It is an urban legend based on ignorance of Jewish law – and the Bible – that refusing to have business dealings with non-Jews is an issue of hatred by Jews.  It has nothing to do with emotions in either direction.  Instead, it’s the only way to make sure that an unfair business deal gets fixed.
For next time, remember Exodus 22:10, and read Deuteronomy 23:22-24 and Numbers 30:2-17.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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