Swearing on the Truth?

On Jan. 30, 2020, at the law offices of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought presented “I Swear? Oaths in Halakha and Jewish Law.”

The discussion was moderated by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center, and included Rabbi Daniel Feldman of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and author of False Facts and True Rumors and Joel Cohen, adjunct professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and senior counsel at Stroock and author of I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath. The Hon. Alvin K. Hellerstein, district judge at the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, was in attendance.

(l-r): Rabbi Daniel Feldman, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, Joel Cohen

Following an introduction by Robert Abrams, former Attorney General of the State of New York and current senior counsel at Stroock, Dr. Soloveichik centered the discussion on Cohen’s book and the ethical clashes involving oaths within the legal, medical, journalistic and religious professions.

Cohen, a former prosecutor who now serves as a criminal defense attorney, offered legal analyses of cases ranging from Dr. Samuel Mudd, who, apparently following his Hippocratic oath, treated the leg of an injured John Wilkes Booth after the latter shot Abraham Lincoln, to the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which Cohen suggested ended in an acquittal because of jury nullification, where the jury found reason to acquit the defendant independent of the law.

Rabbi Feldman offered halachic [Jewish legal] perspectives on these topics. In one exchange, he contrasted American law in capital cases with the Talmudic perspectives on unanimous juries, and, in another, he discussed the role of judges in questioning witnesses suspected of heading towards an unjust conclusion.

As Rabbi Feldman emphasized, the prohibition against swearing in God’s name in the Ten Commandments and the prominence of the Kol Nidrei [all vows] prayer on Yom Kippur underline how “oaths have the utmost sanctity” in Jewish law.

The discussion also touched upon the ethical obligations of clergy when it comes to confidentiality, defendants on death row and the Jewish laws of “necessary speech” when an individual is at risk of physical, material or spiritual harm.

The event was part of the Straus Center’s focus this semester on Judaism and American law, which includes two courses: American and Talmudic Law at Stern College for Women, taught by Adina Levine, an associate at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, and Lincoln, the Law and the Bible at Cardozo Law School, taught by Dr. Soloveichik and Harold Holzer.