Category Archives: Halacha / Jewish Law

God’s Name in the Presidential Oath: “The Heart of a King is in the Hand of Hashem”

President Obama took the oath of office for his second term this week, and like many chief executives before him, he ended his oath with the words “So help me God.” Behind those words lies a longstanding tradition, but also a contemporary controversy. More importantly, though, they serve as a reminder to all Who is really in control.

Invoking God’s Name in the Presidential Oath of Office

The U.S. Constitution, Art. II § 1, states that before the President takes office he must take the following oath:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Nowhere does the Constitution require the mention of God’s name in an oath.(1) However, legend has it that George Washington used the phrase after his inaugural oath, and it was contemporaneously documented as used in the oaths of many presidents since Abraham Lincoln.

The last time Barack Obama was sworn in as President, a group of atheists sued to prevent the Chief Justice John Roberts from prompting the President with the words “So help me God.” The plaintiffs conceded that the President himself has a First Amendment right to use the phrase, but they argued that it is unconstitutional for the Chief Justice to prompt the President with those words. See Newdow v. Roberts, 603 F.3d 1002 (dismissed for mootness and lack of standing). 

A Reminder to Us All

To those who learn and follow God’s will, manifested in the Torah, it is encouraging to see the leader of one of the most powerful nations invoke His name when he takes the oath of office. But it also must remind us that as much as it appears that the President alone is making important executive decisions, it is really the Almighty who is in control. Continue reading

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The Causes of Gun Violence: It’s Up for Debate

New York became the first state to take legislative action in response to last month’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School when it enacted reforms to its gun laws this week. Among the provisions of the new law are tighter restrictions on “assault weapons” and “high capacity magazines.”

However, the law addresses not only firearms themselves, but also the people that use them. For instance, it will require background checks for buyers of ammunition. Additionally, in one of its more controversial parts, the new law requires mental health providers to report patients to criminal justice authorities when the mental health professionals believe that the patients are likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to themselves or others. The authorities can then determine whether or not to revoke the patient’s gun license.

New York’s new law is designed to prevent the horrible results of gun violence, but it also highlights the difficulty in identifying and defining its underlying causes. Recognizing that America is currently struggling to find an answer to an increase in gun violence, President Obama revealed this week his strategies for reducing gun violence and announced that he would immediately sign twenty-three executive orders concerning firearms, including a directive to the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.

There are numerous opinions as to the causes of gun violence. Continue reading

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Court Denies Preliminary Injunction in Circumcision Case

Last week a federal judge ruled that the New York City Department of Health can require mohelim to obtain parental consent before they perform circumcision involving the ritual of metzitzah b’peh (MBP). (Click here for the text of the decision in Central Rabbinical Congress v. NYC Dept. of Health)

MBP, as defined by the Court in this case, is a “practice among some observant Jews in which a ritual circumciser, or mohel,” places his mouth on the place of circumcision in order to draw blood away from the wound. (The halachic background behind MBP will be discussed briefly below, and at greater length in an upcoming post.)

The regulation at issue is § 181.21 of the New York City Health Code, which: defines “direct oral suction” as it relates to circumcision; requires that written parental consent be obtained before “direct oral suction” is performed during circumcision; and requires the person performing the circumcision to keep the consent form for at least one year.

Before the regulation took effect, several Jewish advocacy groups, along with some mohelim, sued the NYC Dept. of Health to prevent its enforcement. However, they were dealt a big setback last week when U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald denied their request for a preliminary injunction. Continue reading

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Rabbi Sues Pennsylvania over Funeral Laws

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

An Orthodox rabbi from Pittsburgh has filed a federal lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Board of Funeral Directors and two other state officials, saying that the board is violating Jews’ religious freedom by insisting that licensed funeral directors oversee all burials.

The suit from Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Synagogue in Squirrel Hill accuses the state Board of Funeral Directors of intimidating rabbis, synagogues, grieving Jewish families and funeral homes that cooperate with rabbis, in a quest for profit. It was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, based in Scranton.

Beyond what he does for his own synagogue, Rabbi Wasserman leads the group that organizes ritual mourning and burial for the wider Orthodox Jewish community in Pittsburgh.

The lawsuit is “to preserve and restore the historical right of clergy to conduct religious burial and funeral rites free from interference and harassment by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and professional, secular funeral directors who serve no health or safety interest,” according to the lawsuit, which cites state and federal constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion.

“Plaintiff — unlike some clergy from other religions — is now being threatened with civil action and criminal prosecution, including stiff fines and even imprisonment, for conducting religious funerals in place of licensed funeral directors who, under color of state law, interfere in purely religious observances for no other justification than personal profit,” according to the lawsuit.

The rabbis comply with all state health rules for treatment of dead bodies, and the State Department of Health, not the State Board of Funeral Directors, is responsible for seeing that those rules are followed, according to the lawsuit.

Continue Reading –>

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Medical Marijuana and Jewish Law

By Dr. Wallace Greene

On April 16, Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair was issued a permit by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services to begin growing medicinal marijuana. A permit to dispense medicinal marijuana will be issued to Greenleaf when its dispensary is operational. That is expected to occur in about six months.

A physician’s task is to heal and to do no harm. Jewish medical oaths as well as the Hippocratic oath constantly emphasize the palliative aspect of medical care. Jewish law has codified the role of the physician, and prescribes strict standards regarding the treatment of patients.

It has been documented that marijuana is an analgesic for sufferers of nausea related to chemotherapy, appetite, and weight loss related to AIDS, migraine headaches, Alzheimer’s, muscle spasms, fibromyalgia, arthritic pain, glaucoma, and other conditions. If marijuana is superior to other drugs, and concerns raised about its continued usage, we need to analyze a number of pertinent halachic issues. We need to determine whether it is permissible to prescribe marijuana according to Jewish law.

We are not dealing with legal issues from the perspective of secular law. Other states have legalized medical marijuana and New Jersey is only months away from doing so. Our discussion is framed by strictly halachic considerations.

Even where marijuana has been legalized, do its dangerous side effects militate against its use? Does compassion for the patient override concerns of possible long-term harm? Under which circumstances may a patient put himself into a potentially harmful situation? If the non-medicinal properties of marijuana promote a feeling of well-being so that a patient feels relief, does that constitute a valid reason to prescribe it?  Continue reading

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Beth Din of America Publishes New Journal

The Beth Din of America has published the first issue of its new journal, in collaboration with the Rabbi Norman Lamm Yadin Yadin Kollel at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University. The new Journal of the Beth Din of America contains articles on Jewish jurisprudence and beit din practice, with a particular emphasis on the policies and practices of the Beth Din of America. Each issue of the Journal includes anonymized versions of actual din torah (arbitration) decisions issued by the Beth Din of America.

The first issue of the Journal includes the following articles:

  • The Prenuptial Agreement: Recent Developments, by Rabbi Mordechai Willig
  • Jewish Law, Civil Procedure: A Comparative Study, by Rabbi Yona Reiss
  • The Prohibition Against Going to Secular Courts, by Rabbi Yaacov Feit
  • Understanding Rights in Context: Freedom of Contract or Freedom From Contract?, by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde and Steven S. Weiner
  • Recovering the Costs of Litigation in Beit Dinby Rabbi Shlomo Weissman

The issue also contains Beth Din decisions regarding defective merchandise and hasagas gevul (unfair business competition).

To read the Journal online, click here. For more information on the Journal click here.

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Connecticut Mezuzah Dispute Resolved

The previous post described the dispute between Barbara Cadranel and the California Condominium Association of Stratford, Connecticut, regarding Ms. Cadranel’s mezuzah. Thankfully, the parties resolved the matter, and Ms. Cadranel will be allowed to keep her mezuzah on the doorpost outside of her apartment.

Today, the attorney for the California Condo Association sent the following letter to the Stratford Star:

To the Editor:

As attorney for the California Condominium Association of Stratford, I am pleased to advise that we have resolved the issue of the mezuzah on the door post of the unit owned by Barbara Cadranel.  Continue reading

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