Letters to the editor: Nov. 6

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Originalism is not new to Judaism

I’d like to offer a Jewish framing for the Oct. 23 editorials.


For President, Joe Biden”: It should have been pointed out that Sen. Kamala Harris’ husband is Jewish, and that all of Vice President Biden’s adult children have married Jews. Biden-Harris is a mishpacha ticket!

Barrett is qualified”: Judge Amy Coney Barrett, as you note, “favors an originalist, textualist approach to statutory and constitutional interpretation.”

Jewish history has had its own encounter with such an approach, in the form of the anti-rabbinic movement known as Karaism.

According to originalism, the proper understanding of the wording in the Constitution hinges on examining what its phrases meant when they were written/ratified.

Karaites, meanwhile, believe in the most obvious meaning of the words of the Tanach.

What Jewish history has borne out in experience is that originalism cannot be maintained because finding intent in another time horizon is humanly impossible. As the saying goes: “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”

More consequentially, among the rabbis, what existed was a structure of authority characterized by robust, multisourced give-and-take. Rabbinic Judaism viewed Torah as a living document, its written aspect (Tanach) requiring elucidation by an oral complement (Talmud).

For rabbinic exegesis, the watchword was critique.

In Karaism, the watchword was deference.

What took hold sociologically in Karaism was a privileged plutocracy presenting itself as uniquely gifted to “read/intuit God’s mind” in the text. Here, law was presented as fixed, but manipulated by a self-serving elite.

Issachar Friedmann

Baltimore

 

More to the story

There is much more to the story about Judah Benjamin and President Ulysses S. Grant, which appeared in the Oct. 23 letter from Mr. Roy Amadeus (“Is the Talmud next?”). It is true that Judah Benjamin was a “very high-ranking official in Jefferson Davis’ cabinet.” What was not mentioned was that he was a slaveholder, and after the war, he fled to England, never returned to the United States and was buried in France.

As for Grant, Order No. 11 was rescinded by President Abraham Lincoln. After the war, Grant tried to make amends for this egregious order. For example, he appointed several Jews to some important positions in government while president. Furthermore, he was the first president to attend a synagogue service when the Adas Israel synagogue was dedicated in June of 1876 in Washington, D.C. He did his best to atone for his mistake.

Finally, according to the Talmud, slavery is for only seven years, not a lifetime, and anti-Semitism was present in both North and South.

I suggest comparing the quotations of President Lincoln to those of Jefferson Davis, as well as comparing the Constitution of the United States to the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. There is quite a difference with each.

Allan Kroopnick

Pikesville

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