01 March 2018

What does the Torah mean when it says, “You shall not take God’s name in vain”?

Written by Rabbi Brian Stoller

We usually think of this meaning that you’re not supposed to use God’s name in curse words, or throw it around willy-nilly.  But Jewish law understands this mitzvah much more specifically to mean: “do not swear falsely in God’s name.”  It’s about taking an oath: swearing to God that such-and-such is true when you know it’s not.

It’s interesting that, right after telling us that there is only one God and we shall have no other gods, the very next mitzvah is this one – not to swear falsely in God’s name – a mitzvah not about action, but about speech.  Why is that?

Rabbi Eliyahu Touger says it has to do with the fact that we are created in God’s image.  Just as God’s created the world through speech, we have the power to create and impact the world with our speech. 

The bottom line: Our words matter.

When we lie, our words can cause serious harm to other people.  And when we swear to the lie in God’s name, we make God an accomplice to our lie – and we do real damage to God’s reputation, too.

Of course, as much as we know we’re not supposed to lie, people do lie all the time.  Sometimes they’re really bad lies.  But sometimes, we tell what we like to call “white lies” – lies we rationalize to ourselves are OK, because they don’t really hurt anyone.

Knowing this, our sages required litigants in certain court cases to swear an oath in God’s name.  They reasoned that someone who might otherwise tell a white lie thinking it won’t harm anyone, would be deterred if it meant implicating God in the lie – and they knew God was watching.

But what happens when people think God isn’t watching?

There was a recent psychological experiment about this.  Participants were asked to flip a coin.  If it landed on heads, their assignment would be to watch a funny video.  If it landed on tails, they would have to solve a hard logic problem or puzzle.  They were told that whichever task they ended up having to do, the next person would be asked to do the other task.  Then, they were left alone in the room to flip the coin and do the assigned task.

What happened?  Ninety percent of the participants cheated, and gave themselves the easier task without even flipping the coin.  They even did this knowing that it would mean the next person would have to do the much harder task.

When confronted about their cheating, they admitted it – but they all came up with some rationale to justify it: “I had somewhere to be right afterward.”  Or: “The next person is probably better at logic problems than I am.”

The authors of the study said when they asked participants if it would be immoral not to flip the coin, 100% of them said yes.  Yet 90% ended up doing it anyway.

(You can read the article about this study by clicking here.  The experiment I described is discussed toward the end of the article.) 

I wonder: if they had been asked to swear an oath to God that they would flip the coin honestly, would that have helped?

I guess the question is: how serious are we today about not taking God’s name in vain?

About the Author

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Stoller - Senior Rabbi

Rabbi A. Brian Stoller joined Temple Israel as Senior Rabbi in 2017. He is a friendly, patient, and welcoming presence known for greeting people warmly, remembering our names, and just being himself. He is also an energetic, knowledgable, and passionate teacher who challenges us intellectually and guides us in mining Judaism’s sacred texts for insights that will help us navigate the unique circumstances of our own lives. As a prayer leader, he strives to pray not on behalf ofhis congregants, but with us, so that together we can rise toward the heavens. Most importantly, he is a caring and devoted relationship-builder who genuinely enjoys people and wants to be our friend. As Rabbi Stoller has said, “I just go out there and try to be myself because I believe that, in the end, all of us are seeking the same thing: to feel loved, to find meaning and purpose in life, and to be embraced by people who genuinely care. In my view, a synagogue’s mission is to create this kind of community for its members. All the rest, as they say, is commentary.”

Following the dictum that “the teacher of Torah must be a student of Torah throughout his life,” Rabbi Stoller is currently pursuing a doctorate in halakhah (Jewish law) and has published a number of essays on Jewish law, practice, and theology. He is an active member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), serving on the Responsa Committee, the annual convention planning team, and the editorial board of the CCAR Journal. Rabbi Stoller received his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus in 2008, and served as Associate Rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL from 2008-2017. He grew up in Houston, TX (Congregation Emanu El), and earned a degree in Honors Business and Finance from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

Before entering rabbinic school, Rabbi Stoller spent seven years in professional politics, working on campaigns in Texas, Colorado, and Illinois, and serving as Press Secretary to then-U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (IL) in Washington, DC from 1999-2003. After seeing the Pentagon burn from his office window on September 11, 2001 and learning of a childhood friend’s death from brain cancer a year later, Brian knew the time had come to follow his deeply-held desire to become a rabbi. “It was then that I finally understood: life is fragile; we do not know how long we are going to be here,” he has said. “For several years, I had been too fearful, too anxious about change to pursue what I knew in my heart I wanted to do with my life, but now I was ready to go for it. Aside from marrying Karen and starting a family, it was the best decision I have ever made.”

Rabbi Stoller is proud to be part of Temple Israel, which he describes as “a warm, friendly, welcoming, close-knit congregation, with the vision and the courage to change our community and our world for the better.” He lives in Omaha with his wife Karen and his two children, Lindsay and Zachary. In his free time, Rabbi Stoller enjoys reading classical Jewish texts (yes, really!), cycling, and re-watching episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

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