When I was a child in Cape Town, negotiating with my friends, my brother and sisters, in complicated scenarios of sharing, I would say to them and they would say to me sometimes:
“Ten fingers on the Jewish Torah” and we would put our hands out with fingers spread wide as we said it. We’d say it to support our truth claims, to show we weren’t lying, to show we would definitely do what we promised to do. “It wasn’t me that broke your doll, I didn’t touch it, I’m telling the truth, ten fingers on the Jewish Torah, or “lend me ten cents, I promise I will give it back, ten fingers on the Jewish Torah” In the shared community of meaning in the playground, the torah was the external vehicle by which we held ourselves accountable. The statement “ten fingers on the Jewish torah” was what you said to guaranteed trust between two children and it cemented what you said with what you did. It was probably created by a Jewish child who needed their own version of the Christian: “cross my heart and hope to die” and then it caught on. Children and adults need something outside of themselves, something shared socially, a higher authority, to hold themselves accountable, something like the Torah or God.
And according to what we read in the Torah today, we are allowed to make vows to God, as long as we keep them. We read at the beginning of Mattot, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge. He must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” So that’s ok then, right?
But not so fast my friend. What we didn’t know in the playground in South Africa, and what I do know now, is that there is a world of difference between what it says in the Torah and the Halachic system created by the Rabbis. It is the vast difference between D’oreita and d’rabbanan, and contrary to what we believed in South Africa, we don’t live in D’oreita times anymore. Far from it. From the Mishna to the Talmud to the Mishnah Torah to the Shulchan Aruch, some of the laws in the Torah have been reduced, limited, ignored completely, changed and extended by a vast and living halachic system. Some laws are literally made up out of thin air. In the Rabbinic project that is my community of shared meaning now, the torah is the source of a muscular, living, dynamic, evolving tradition for all who cling to it.
For example, while it says in the torah, we are allowed to make vows as long as we keep them, the rabbis, or sages were strongly against making them. They did not want people going off piste, and making vows in God’s name about not eating meat, or chocolate cake or telling the truth or even giving to charity. So the sages created a rabbinic innovation that reduced the power of vows significantly, not just for women but for men too. The institution of hatarat nedarim (literally, “the unbinding of vows”) allows a sage to annul vows of another person by saying “Mutar lakh” (You are unbound).
The rabbis were well aware that this innovation about releasing other people from their vows was not rooted in Torah law at all. In the Mishnah (Hagigah 1:8), it says heter nedarim porchin ba-avir", The laws of Heter Nedarim "float in the air" which means they are not connected at all to torah justification. Those long and complex laws of unbinding of vows in the Mishnah and later in the Gemara have no explicit Torah verses to rely upon. But they are an essential instrument in the rabbinic system, so that people don’t suffer by promises, vows and oaths they have made, and find impossible to live by. In fact, we start Kol Nidrei by this communal unbinding of vows and oaths.
The Shulchan Aruch, the great Jewish law code published in Venice in 1565, that even made its way to South Africa when I was growing up, opens with the following admonition taken from the Talmud, “do not be habituated to make vows, he that makes a vow is called wicked, even vows for charitable purposes are not desirable. It is well that a person not make many vows of self-denial. Much quoted by commentators is the line from the Yerushalmi- "aren't the laws of the Torah sufficient; must you also impose upon yourself additional obligations?” The rabbinic project opposes individual acts of extreme piety.
And what about children in the playground swearing ten fingers on the Jewish Torah, is that allowed? Does it count? In the Talmud, Rav Nachman says it only counts if you actually holding a torah scroll when you say it, then you are referring to the letters, the laws and the name of God written there. If you aren’t holding a torah scroll and you swear by the torah, it could just mean you are swearing by the parchment. Although I never held a Torah scroll in the playground or anywhere ever until I was in my forties, as a child, my statement about ten fingers on the Jewish torah meant something to me and to the people I said it to. It counted to us. What matters is what we agree matters. It’s about shared trust in a system we agree works. It still works that way.
Strangely, as much as I learn about changes rabbinic law makes to torah law, in my imagination there is still no higher standard or less love and respect for this fantastic endeavour that seeks for us all to live well, to live fairly, to live in community, to seek justice, mercy and to walk humbly with god. My trust in the system remains and I continue to believe that interpreted torah is the anchor for our best selves. Eiz Chayim hi she machazikim bah. Ten fingers on the Jewish Torah, as I used to say.