I realize that this topic is not especially relevant to the theme of this blog, but....
I must confess that ever since Chief Justice John Roberts and President Obama erred in their respective recitations of the Presidential Oath of Office on Tuesday, I have been ruminating about the possible legal implications of their mistake. Granted, I am far from a scholar of Constitutional Law, but the occurrence seemed like a case right out of the annals of halakhic literature and, in that spirit, I thought about it in quasi-halakhic terms.
The oath of office is a specific formula established by the Constitution. So one might argue that it is only through absolute fidelity to the language expressed in the Constitution that one fulfills the requirement of the oath. On the other hand, the oath has an underlying semantic meaning which, even if the words are slightly jumbled, might still be preserved, as I believe it was on Tuesday.
So the debate would revolve around whether the Constitution demands the recitation of the specific wording of the vow as a distinct "ritual" action on the part of the President, or whether the Constitution simply requires that a statement be made that is the conceptual equivalent in meaning to the one it records - i.e., the oath itself is to be the manifestation of a certain set of ideas or intentions which might find equally clear expression in other words.
As it turns out, Constitutional lawyers were sufficiently concerned about this "safeq" ("doubt") that they recommended Obama be sworn in a second time. Last night, Chief Justice John Roberts re-administered the Oath of Office to the President in order to dispel any lingering legal doubts about the acceptability of the botched version he administered previously.
This is reminiscent of the dispute in Masekhet Berakhot (40B) regarding blessings on food. Rabbi Yose maintains that any deviation from the text established by the Hakhamim is invalid. Rabbi Meir argues that as long as what is said reflects the meaning embodied by the Rabbinic formula, the blessing remains valid.
The argument would hinge on whether blessings are actions or expressions of thought. One possibility is that the Rabbis established their formulae as technical procedures designed to stimulate reflection. This view is endorsed by Rabbi Yose who holds that the official wording of the blessings is inviolate.
The alternative is that the Rabbis formalized the blessings in order to best capture some intended meaning which could, theoretically, be expressed in other words as well. This is the view of Rabbi Meir who holds that if a person's blessing is identical in substance to the official text it is valid even though his wording deviates from the established form. While he too agrees that the formulations of the Hakhamim are to be preferred, an alternative version of a blessing that manages to express the same idea as the original would nonetheless satisfy one's halakhic obligation to bless.