Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What is Excommunication?

My suggestion that Jewish leaders explore ways to modify the concept of excommunication to fit the current context has spurred interest in that fascinating topic. In a recent interview (http://jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/12/on_excommunicating_bernard_mad.php)
with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, my colleague David Wolpe preferred some form of shunning to outright excommunication, but I think we are dealing with semantics here. What needs to happen is something that hasn't been totally invented yet.

Some resources:

The Wikipedia entry ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherem) lists 24 offenses mentioned in the Talmud that, in theory, were punishable by a form of niddui or temporary excommunication. Maimonides (as well as later authorities) enumerates them.

The classic Jewish Encyclopedia, over a century old and now entirely online, details especially the biblical background. And then, at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1477&letter=A and http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=544&letter=E it surveys the medieval use of cherem.

Here is an excerpt:

It may be concluded, therefore, that the rabbinical Anathema, in its developments, was designed to conserve the morality of the community. In the hands of the teachers of the Law it was applied, with scrupulous care, to protect the community against offenders. It was not hastily pronounced. The transgressor was repeatedly warned to mend his ways, to repent, or to make restitution. It was only after every mode of remonstrance had been exhausted, and the offender's pertinacity had become evident, that the corrective powers of the ḥerem were invoked. Three successive times—on Monday, on Thursday, and on the following Monday—the culprit was publicly exhorted. Only when his obduracy continued was the ban pronounced, in the offender's presence, with the formula: "N. N. is excommunicated," or, in his absence, in the words: "Let N. N. be excommunicated" (Maimonides, "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah; Hilkot Talmud Torah," vii.), without any statement of the reasons for which the Anathema was pronounced. In extreme cases, however, the reasons were publicly given; and then the ban was preceded by blowing the shofar. The ban could be removed by a rabbi or a college of three laymen (Maimonides, ib.).

See http://www.fact-archive.com/encyclopedia/Mitnagdim for a fascinating exploration of how the early Hasidim were banned by the contemporary rabbinic authorities (called the Mitnagdim). When you think about it, the who's who of the excommunicated (Mordechai Kaplan, Maimonides, Spinoza, the Baal Shem Tov) would comprise an all-time lineup in the Jewish Hall of Fame. I'm far from being in their league, but I'm sure there are rabbis out there who have banned me a few times over, along with the rest of my Conservative colleagues.

So it is clear that this tool has been abused, or at the very least used short sightedly. But there is a difference between those shunned for thier supposedly dangerous or heretical ideas and those who are shunned because of their colossal crimes.

For a religion that preaches tolerance, and it does, Judaism has long been preoccupied with how to deal with outcasts. It needs to be done with great care - and the ultimate step taken only in a situation where it is really warrented. I believe that such is the case with Bernard Madoff.

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