Monday, October 27, 2008

The Force of a Promise

This posting is based on a presentation given at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Big Flats on October 12, 2008.

Kol Nidre
is chanted at the beginning of the evening service for Yom Kippur. It is high drama: Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and held by three or more worthy people, the entire congregation stands, and in a traditional congregation the hazzan (cantor) chants the full text three times.

For many Jews, Kol Nidre is Yom Kippur, and almost everyone refers to the entire evening service as "Kol Nidre" even though the actual chanting of it, even three times, lasts only a few minutes.

This is partly because of the affecting melody. It is almost certainly not because of the text alone, which is largely in Aramaic and which few of us understand.

The text, in fact, is troublesome. Kol Nidre means "all vows," and while people often refer to it as a prayer, it is actually a legal formulation. In short, it annuls whatever vows a person might make. Its legal function is highlighted by having three righteous people hold Torah scrolls, forming a bet din (religious court), and by requiring that it be chanted before sunset (because legal business could not be carried out once the holiday day began).

Beginning the day that is considered the holiest of the year by prospectively annulling vows has caused problems for many centuries, because it led to the conclusion that the word of a Jew could not be trusted. As a result, at times in various countries, a Jew's word was only relied on in an important matter if accompanied by the infamous, and sometimes painful, Jew's oath.

Modern liturgists have been equally troubled by the Kol Nidre text. The Reform movement attempted, unsuccessfully, to omit it, but in at least one Reform machzor (prayerbook for the High Holy Days) it was printed without translation. Some current machzorim state that it was the prayer of people not free, in other words, that it applies to vows made under duress, or that it applies only to vows that, after sincere effort, a person cannot fulfill.

The reason that Kol Nidre offends our modern sensibilities, however, is that we no longer take vows and oaths as seriously as our ancestors did. By definition, an oath is a promise made in the name of God. Our forebears understood such a promise as one that must be fulfilled, with no exceptions; probably they believed that if they failed to keep such an oath, they would die before the next Yom Kippur.

In contrast, although people frequently conclude modern legal oaths (e.g., in a secular court of law) with the phrase, "so help me God," the frequency with which oaths are broken in our society suggests that the fear of God is not a powerful motivator, even among those who invoke God freely.

The full seriousness with which our ancestors took any oath is apparent in the story of Yiftach (Jeptha) in the book of Judges. Yiftach is a military commander who swears an oath that, if he is successful in battle against the Ammonites, "then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:31).

Yiftach defeatrs the Ammonites and returns home. His daughter -- his only child -- is the first to come out to meet him. She says, "Father, you have uttered a vow to the Lord; do to me as you have vowed" (11:36) -- and he does.

Rabbinic tradition does not approve of Yiftach's fulfillment of his vow. It holds that he should have gone to the High Priest and sought the annulment of his vow. Kol Nidre seems to have assumed its importance because we no longer have a High Priest to annul vows that should never have been made.

And, because we take the making of vows less seriously than did our ancestors, we probably make improper vows far more often. How often have we, as parents or teachers, said in a moment of exasperation to a child, "If you do that one more time, I swear to God I'll kill you"? The child probably will "do that" one more time, and in the logic of Jewish tradition, that would constitute a vow that had to be carried out. So we need to annul all our foolish and mistaken oaths.

I want to suggest that, instead of downplaying Kol Nidre, we take speech -- all speech, not just oaths that invoke God -- more seriously. A sign of how little trust we have in one another's words today is that, during this election campaign season, we often find that, even when we agree with what a candidate says, we do not entirely believe it.

Although our theology may not lead us to expect a bolt of lightning to strike us every time we break an oath, we would all do better to speak more carefully: to say only what we genuinely mean, to promise only what we will will really do, to say what is true rather than what is expedient.

A number of years ago the philosopher Sissela Bok wrote Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. In it, she strongly endorsed the principle of veracity, although she also found instances in which lying might be excused.

Jewish tradition identifies two such instances. One is telling a bride that she is beautiful -- but the rabbis of old did not consider this untrue. They held that every bride is beautiful, because of inner joy, on her wedding day. The other is misleading a rodef -- a pursuer who chases after another person with the intention of murdering him. In that case, lying is not only permitted but, because of the commandment to preserve life, mandatory.