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Yom Kippur Thoughts

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Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, is the supreme moment of Jewish time, a day of fasting and prayer, introspection and self-judgment. At no other time are we so sharply conscious of standing before God, of being known by Him. But it begins in the strangest of ways.

Kol Nidre, the prayer that heralds the evening service and the beginning of the sanctity of the day, is the key that unlocks the Jewish heart. Its melody is haunting. As the cantor sings, we hear in that ancient tune the deepest music of the Jewish soul, elegiac yet striving, pained but resolute, the song of those who knew that to believe is to suffer and still to hope, the music of our ancestors that stretches out to us from the past and enfolds us in its cadences, making us and them one. The music is sublime. Tolstoy called it a melody that “echoes the story of the great martyrdom of a grief-stricken nation.” Beethoven came close to it in the most otherworldly and austere of his compositions, the sixth movement of the C Sharp Minor Quartet, opus 131. The music is pure poetry but the words are prosaic prose.

Kol Nidre means “all vows.” The passage itself is not a prayer at all, but a dry legal formula annulling in advance all vows, oaths and promises between us and God in the coming year. Nothing could be more incongruous, less apparently in keeping with the solemnity of the day. Indeed, for more than a thousand years there have been attempts to remove it from the liturgy. Why annul vows? Better, as the Hebrew Bible and the rabbis argued, not to make them in the first place if they could not be kept. Besides, though Jewish law admits the possibility of annulment, it does so only after patient examination of individual cases. To do so globally for the whole community was difficult to justify.

From the eighth century onwards we read of gaonim, rabbinic leaders, who condemned the prayer and sought to have it abolished. Five centuries later a new note of concern was added. In the Christian-Jewish disputation in Paris in 1240, the Christian protagonist Nicholas Donin attacked Kol Nidre as evidence that Jews did not feel themselves bound by their word, a claim later repeated by anti-Semitic writers. In vain, Jews explained that the prayer had nothing to do with promises between man and man. It referred only to private commitments between man and God. All in all, it was and is a strange way to begin the holiest of days.

Yet the prayer survived all attempts to have it dislodged. One theory, advanced by Joseph Bloch in I917 and adopted by Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz, is that it had its origins in the forced conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity under the Visigoths in the seventh century. These Jews, the first Marranos, publicly abandoned their faith rather than face torture and death, but they remained Jews in secret. On the Day of Atonement they made their way back to the synagogue and prayed to have their vow of conversion annulled. Certainly some such reason lies behind the declaration immediately prior to Kol Nidre in which the leaders of prayer solemnly grant permission “by the authority of the heavenly and earthly court” for “transgressors” to join the congregation in prayer. This was a lifting of the ban of excommunication against Jews who, during the year, had been declared to have placed themselves outside the community. That, surely, is the significance of Kol Nidre in the Jewish imagination. It is the moment when the doors of belonging are opened, and when those who have been estranged return.

The Hebrew word teshuvah, usually translated as “penitence,” in fact means something else: returning, retracing our steps, coming home. It belongs to the biblical vision in which sin means dislocation, and punishment is exile: Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden, Israel’s exile from its land. A sin is an act that does not belong, one that transgresses the moral boundaries of the world. One who acts in ways that do not belong eventually finds that he does not belong. Increasingly he places himself outside the relationships – of family, community and of being at one with history – that make him who he is. The most characteristic sense of sin is less one of guilt than of being lost. Teshuvah means finding your way back home again.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”

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