Probably the moment of highest drama in Jewish synagogue services is Kol Nidrei on the evening of Yom Kippur. The liturgy is amongst the oldest in the Jewish prayer book, and marks the beginning of the 25-hour fast period, which is meant to facilitate a period of deep introspection. When I was a child, I would sneak up to the women’s section of the shul so I could look out at a sea of white. Kol Nidrei night is the only time of the year when men (in the Orthodox tradition) wear the bleached cotton prayer shawl known as a talit at night. In the community where I grew up this was also the only night in the year where every seat was occupied, and it was wall to wall, shoulder to shoulder white on white. As I got a little older, the excitement of the spectacle and the sense I was part of a ‘holy congregation’ was worn down. Since getting a seat was expensive and they were in demand, showing your face on Yom Kippur was a way of demonstrating your good fortune (or the product of conniving commercial dealings in some cases) over the past year. The other more tangible way, was securing a parking spot as close as possible to the shul so everyone could see your expensive car (at a time when the import duties were 100% on foreign cars, unless you knew whose pockets to line).
I won’t go into all the details, but the prayer is basically a way of creating a tabula rasa or removing sanction from unfulfilled personal vows, so that we can concentrate on moving forward, and not become submerged in self-castigation. It’s a way of creating a psychic space for the process of what is translated as repentance, but is better understood as personal change. This was at least my personal understanding of the prayer until I read the commentary on the prayer by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, by far the most penetrating mind of the last century in Orthodox Judaism. The fourth type of vow in the prayer is ‘haremei’ or ‘excommunications’. Soloveitchik interprets this literally: all the acts of excommunication are annulled, or the need for repentance by the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur is rendered impossible. It is a communal responsibility to rectify the mistakes of the past year, not just an individual one. This interpretation is related to Soloveitchik’s understanding of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity as expressed within Judaism, one aspect of which is a set of societal obligations. In other words, it’s enough simply to be an upright person, one has to strive to correct society around you. This obligation starts with the Jewish community first. When I read this interpretation, my mind went immediately to Baruch Spinoza, the son of Portuguese Jews who had kept their religion in secret for for close to 150 years before arriving at the the shores of the tolerant Dutch republic.
Spinoza, whose approach in many ways set the stage for modern philosophy, was excommunicated from his community. He was probably cast out not for his views on God and nature, or even his idea that Revelation was unnecessary to humanity’s understanding of the universe but because he questioned that the Torah (and in particular the Talmud) was the result of divine communication, denied the eternity of the soul and probably smoked on Shabbat. There is something both daring and heartbreaking that after his family had managed to maintain Judaism in secret for generations under the noses of the Inquisition, they had to confront their heretical son after having found refuge in Protestant Amsterdam.
But I can also imagine, Spinoza sneaking in at the back of the magnificent Synagogue of the Portuguese and Spanish Jews in Amsterdam (pictured above) on Kol Nidrei night to taunt the leaders of the community, using knowledge of Jewish law to test their own convictions on the requirement for all Jews to participate in repentance. This requirement says something of the ethos expressed on Yom Kippur. In essence, the community has to welcome back into the fold those that it cast out over the year, because human nature is infinitely malleable (like clay in the hands of the potter, as one poem expresses it) and the God’s relationship with humanity is inherently dynamic. These ideas rely on classical Jewish thought but profoundly refined by medieval thinkers, most notably the kabbalists. Yom Kippur is not a day of judgment – it is a day when we can invoke the potential of mercy, in order to balance stern judgment. Mercy is not invoked by pointing out how successful we are, but how weak we are, how prone to lapses in judgment and lacking in impulse control. This human process has an interesting effect – in the kabbalistic realm of the sefirot, the process of repentance and chance brings judgment and mercy into alignment to generate beauty. After all, if given too much of a free hand, humans get into too much mischief. But it also has a psychological effect — you start to realize that maybe you’ve been too hard on yourself in some cases, and in others let yourself down because of some hurdle you’ve been avoiding confronting. The idea of mercy and judgment are transformed into personal, internal processes – we have to forgive ourselves for our weaknesses but not rationalize or accept them.
About six weeks before Yom Kippur, I had a premonition that my ailing 96-year-old grandmother would pass away on that day. Which is exactly what came to pass. To conclude that passing away on Yom Kippur is in some way a manifestation of divine justice is largely unacceptable within Jewish thought since it’s based on the assumption we can actually impute some directionality to God’s actions. In terms of mainstream Judaism, it’s impossible to make specific observations on the will of God. But the timing does strike me as suspicious, in large part because I had a terrible relationship with my grandmother.
Although some believe that saying Kaddish for a year makes sure that the soul of the deceased makes it to the world to come (which is not coincidentally related to the medieval idea of limbo), the mourning practices of the Jewish religion are designed for the mourner to reconcile with their loss. They are for the living not the dead. So while, I can’t jump to any conclusions about the timing of my grandmother’s death for her, there may be a lesson in it for me. I’ve never really forgiven my grandmother for her behavior, just tried to store away all the hurt in a deep, dark recess of my memory. The lesson of Yom Kippur is that it’s probably time to honestly confront it for my own sake.