Monday, November 19, 2007

Crack My Cup and Cut Me Up: Jewish Curses

Cross my heart and hope to die! It is a childish phrase, so familiar to us all. But a moment’s reflection reveals it is anything but childlike. Rather, it is quite a potent statement.

Last year the Dallas Morning News gave us a delightful article on the contemporary fate of curse words, but there is another form of religious maledictions they didn’t discuss. It is what scholars call a “conditional self-curse.” It means, in effect, if I break this promise, may I be killed! The above example is a profoundly Christian version of that concept, for the speaker is invoking the cross, which is to say, the God of the cross, to witness the promise and enforce the curse.

But conditional self-curses predate Christianity. Multiple forms of conditional self-curses appear in the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes it is just expressed as a spoken oath, along the lines of “May thus and more happen to me if…”(I Samuel 19:2; 20:10). But if you're Biblical figure who wants to be really serious about your promise, then what you do is break or destroy something, often a living thing, to ritually act out what should happen to you if you fail to live up to your word (Jer. 34:18-20).

That’s exactly the kind of promise God makes to Abraham in the episode known as the "covenant between the pieces," or more viscerally, the “covenant of the chunks” (Gen. 15). God commands Abraham to cut up several animals and then arrange them in a row on the ground with a path between the severed parts. God then appears as a flame (think burning bush) that passes between the chunks. This is meant to be a shocking moment - but not for the reason that seems gruesomely obvious to us. God is, in effect, saying “let Me be cut up if I don’t keep My oath to you, Abraham!” It is hard to imagine exactly how God can curse Himself, but if the theology is problematic, the symbolism is clear and powerful: God’s commitment to fulfilling the promises made to Abraham is absolute, grounded in God’s very being.

Though all this seem very arcane from a modern point of view, this kind of oath-taking has never really gone away. “Cross my heart…” is still part of our language of promise-making, as is crossing one’s self when one does it. And Jews still observe a dramatic form of this Biblical oath-taking today. For the same logic is working in one of the most memorable of all Jewish customs: breaking a glass at a wedding. It is meant to convey to all the witnesses present, “If I break the vows made here today, may I be broken thus!”

All of which comes to remind us that, from a religious perspective, promises matter. We moderns regard promises, be they political commitments, marriage vows, or personal promises, as easy to make and easy to break. The God of Israel, however, takes Her promises more seriously then we take our own. Perhaps we humans should consider reclaiming a more Biblical attitude towards standing by our words. We should only say what we mean, and always mean what we say. And we could show our seriousness by saying something like this: “…crack my cup or cut me up, so help me God!”

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Anonymous Alexander Massey said...

This puts me in mind of what Ruth says to Naomi when she commits to stay with her and her God: "the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me" (Ruth 1:17)

4:16 AM  

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