Augustine and the “Mark of Cain”

What is the significance of the “mark of Cain” (Gen. 4:15)?

The text does not identify exactly what the sign was. Historically, this passage has often served as a scriptural support for Christian persecution of the Jews. For Cain, this was a mark of God’s special loving care and protection. For Jerome’s contemporary, Augustine, this idea proved to be a fertile concept for his comparison of Cain to the Jews. Curiously, Augustine, said nothing about this mark serving as a protective device; instead, he (and his contemporary, Jerome) subverted what was originally an act of grace and mercy into a fiendish excuse to treat the Jews with cruelty. In his “Reply to Flaustus the Manichean,”Augustine employed one of the most anti-Semitic tirades in his allegorical interpretation of Cain and Abel. Augustine wrote:

—Abel, the younger brother was killed by the elder; so too Jesus, head of the younger people, is killed by the elder people—the Jews.

—Just as Abel’s blood cursed Cain, so too does  the blood of Jesus accuses the Jews.

—As Cain was cursed from by the earth, so too unbelieving Jews are cursed from the Holy Church.

—As Cain was punished to be a mourner and an abject on the earth, so too are the Jews.
In one lurid passage Augustine wrote:

Then God says to Cain: “Thou art cursed from the earth, which hath opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s blood at thy hand. For thou shalt till the earth, and it shall no longer yield unto thee its strength. A mourner and an abject wanderer shalt thou be on the earth.” It is not, “Cursed is the earth,” but, “Cursed art thou from the earth, which hath opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s blood at thy hand. So the unbelieving people of the Jews is cursed from the earth, that is, from the Church, which in the confession of sins has opened its mouth to receive the blood shed for the remission of sins by the hand of the people that would not be under grace, but under the law. And this murderer is cursed by the Church; that is, the Church admits and avows the curse pronounced by the apostle: ‘Whoever are of the works of the law are under the curse of the law.’ Then, after saying, Cursed art thou from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s  blood at thy hand, what follows is not, For thou shalt till it, but, Thou shalt till the earth, and it shall not yield to thee its strength. . .”

Continue reading “Augustine and the “Mark of Cain””

The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges

As mentioned earlier the levirate marriage takes place between a widow who’s husband died childless and his brother (known as the levir); halitzah (“removal”) is a ceremony that releases the woman from the obligation of Levirate marriage, allowing her to marry someone else.

Although Levirate marriage itself no longer is practiced, traditional Jews still require halitzah, formally releasing the widow from the biblically required union with her brother-in-law. The widow appears before a tribunal of five people–three of whom happen to be rabbis. After some initial questioning as to what the widow and levir intend to do, the court gives instructions that each must carry out.

Each participant must pronounce in certain phrases in Hebrew; the woman also is instructed to fast until the ceremony. The next day, a special shoe is removed from the levir’s foot. The woman approaches him and proclaims in Hebrew, “My husband’s brother refuses to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto me,” to which he replies, “I do not want to take her.” The widow then removes the shoe from his foot, tosses it away, and spits on the floor in front of him, saying, “So shall it be done unto the man that does not build up his brother’s house, and his name shall be called in Israel, the house of him that had his shoe loosened.” All present respond three times in unison, “he that had his shoe loosened.” Concluding prayers are read by the judges, and often a certificate that the widow is free to remarry is drawn up.

Even as late as the medieval era, rabbinic leaders like Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, ruled that nowadays, no woman would ever consent to marrying her brother-in-law, and the practice of halitzah was no longer necessary. However, in the State of Israel today, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis (known as Haredim [= “Tremblers”], a.k.a.  “Jewish Quakers”) refuse scores of women from remarrying without undergoing the traditional biblical ceremony—despite the humiliation this causes both the woman and her family.

In Israel, a most perplexing problem occurred that revealed the awkwardness of the halitzah ceremony as a viable religious practice. An elderly lady—about 60—wanted to register her marriage with the rabbinate after being widowed for four years and divorced from her second marriage. A clerk in the office observed that she never obtained halitzah from the brother of her first husband. Nevertheless, the rabbis ruled that she had to obtain permission from her former brother-in-law.

But here’s the catch. Continue reading “The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges”

Understanding the Purpose of the Levirate Marriage and Its Symbolism

One of the ancient institutions that have persisted since archaic times is the levirate marriage. Here is a brief synopsis of the institution and its underlying rational.

Life of a widow in the ancient world was precarious at best. Having no inheritance rights, she was easily exploited and was frequently reduced to abject poverty and/or prostitution. Many ancient civilizations from India, Africa, to the Ancient Near East utilized the levirate marriage (from the Latin  levir, a “brother-in-law”) as a means of protecting the brother’s wife from being exposed to poverty. Society expected the surviving brother of a deceased man (who lacked an heir) to marry the widow. It is interesting to note that according to the Kabbala (and Hindu folklore), the soul of the dead brother is re-incarnated in the body of child his wife is carrying.

The offspring from their marriage were considered children and heirs of the deceased. In a society that defined the importance of a woman in terms of her ability to bear and raise children, the levirate marriage enabled a woman to be fulfilled. This law served to guarantee the deceased brother’s wife a place in her husband’s family and protected her from exploitation.  This law was consistent with the biblical ethos calling upon the community of God ‘to remember and care for “the sojourners, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 10:14-19; 24:17-22; 27:19). During the early period of Israelite history, this practice was not considered optional, but a duty to be faithfully carried out .

For the brother-in-law, the levirate marriage was not without its downside. By observing the law, he could actually damage his own estate, for it could be either diminished as a result of siring a son who would co-inherit with him. Likewise, it would be his to take responsibility for the widow as well as managing his dead brother’s land, not to mention, and be financially responsible for his sister-in-law as his wife. However, families took great pride in providing care for all of its members—the duty to take care of the widow was considered to be a morally important duty–not to be casually disregarded. Continue reading “Understanding the Purpose of the Levirate Marriage and Its Symbolism”