Monday, October 6, 2014

Erev Yom Kippur 5775 - A Year of Living Kol Nidre

This Erev Yom Kippur we stood as the haunting music of Kol Nidre was recited.  Kol Nidre, though arguably the most well-known melody of the High Holy Days, is perhaps the least well understood.  To start, it is not a prayer.  Instead it is part of a legal formula.  It is recited in front of the Beit Din, the rabbinic court, which is symbolized by the Torah scrolls we remove from the ark. 
Kol Nidre most likely came to us from the Gaonic Period, which stretched from 589-1038 in the Common Era.  Kol Nidre has a fascinating liturgical history.  At various times, it has been both accepted and rejected as part of the Erev Yom Kippur Service.  The text itself has been somewhat fluid as it has changed over time as well.
One of the most significant changes was made by Rashi’s son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel, who lived in the early 12th century.  The RaM, as he is affectionately known, changed the original phrase “from the last Day of Atonement until this one” to “from this Day of Atonement until the next.”  By making this change the RaM made Kol Nidre, in legal terms, a priori having reference to vows one might not be able to fulfill or might forget to observe during the ensuing year.
What this means for us is that, having now heard Kol Nidre, we get the opportunity to start off this coming year with a clean slate.  But there is a caveat.  Kol Nidre only applies to the vows we individually make to God.  Any vows we make to anyone else, those we are still on the hook for.
This notion of annulling ‘all our vows’ has led to much confusion and even at times accusations against the Jewish people.  There have even been rabbis over the generations who have tried to remove Kol Nidre from the worship experience.  Perhaps it is the melody even more than the language itself as to why Kol Nidre persists and haunts us so much.  And yet, when one really thinks about the words of Kol Nidre, one might be tempted to spend a year without making vows.  A year of living Kol Nidre, if you will.
I can see it now.  An author writes a blog post, which becomes a book, which in turn is made into a movie.  The movie stars Mila Kunis in a romantic comedy along with Seth Rogan and all the misadventures and miscommunications that result from Mila’s character deciding not to make any vows, promises, oaths, pledges, guarantees, or declarations for an entire year.  Lots of statements would begin with, “I will do my best” instead of “I promise to…”  Of course they could not get married during that year.  And forget the Associated’s annual campaign or NPR’s almost daily campaigns, as both require pledges.  I can see it now, instead of being like Jim Carrey’s movie “Liar, Liar,” our imaginary film would be called, “Equivocate, Equivocate.” 
All of this silliness points out an essential truth: we do have to make promises, oaths, and the like in order to be able to function in our relationships with each other and with God.  It is simply part of the human condition.  This is not to say though, that the idea of spending a year dedicated to doing something or avoiding doing something cannot have practical and spiritual applications in our own lives.
I mention this because the year of living (blank) is a very popular narrative choice out there in blogs, books and movies.    For example, there is the book: Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at it for a Year.  As the publisher explains, “When Kjerstin Gruys became engaged to the love of her life, she was thrilled—until it came time to shop for a wedding dress. Having overcome an eating disorder years before, Gruys found herself struggling to maintain a positive self-image as her pending nuptials imposed a new set of impossible beauty standards. She decided to embark on a bold plan for boosting her self-esteem while refocusing her attention on the beautiful world around her…. (In the book) Gruys vows to give up mirrors and other reflective surfaces, relying instead on her friends and her fianc√© to help her gauge both her appearance and her outlook on life. The result? A renewed focus on what truly matters, regardless of smeared makeup, crooked eyebrows, or messy hair.”[1] 
But this is not the only one.  A few years ago there was the blogger Julia Powell who spent a year cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, in a period of 365 days. Her blog then became a book: Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, which of course was then made into a movie: Julie and Julia starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Julia Childs. 
Following a more religious perspective, there is A.J. Jacobs: A Year of Living Biblically where the author attempted to follow the Bible as literally as possible.  All I have to say about it, is the man is blessed with an incredibly understanding wife.
And for those of you Georgia fans (the state not the football team) out there, there is the book My Jesus Year by Benyamin Cohen. Cohen, who is the son of an Orthodox Rabbi, over the course of 52 weeks, attended any number of various Christian worship experiences in order to find his way back home.  One of my favorite chapters was the one entitled, “Wrestling with God.”  It was all about Cohen’s experience with a congregation called, “Ultimate Christian Wrestling.” 
As Cohen explains, the UCW creator Rob Adonis told him that he “started to piece together a show that would serve the purpose of entertaining, educating, and most important, ministering to the world…
Yes to the world.  Just about everything connected with UCW is referred to on a grand scale.  Titles like ‘World Heavyweight Champion’ are bestowed upon its athletes, and the matches are ambitiously called ‘crusades.’  Giving such bold names to these seemingly mundane matches is just one of the many reasons Adonis is so successful.  If there were just wrestling, it wouldn’t be so vital.  But those in attendance at … (the) event really feel they are watching soldiers of God on a mission.  A battle between good and evil, a veritable Passion play for the hillbilly set.”[2]
What all of these bloggers and authors and movies have in common is not that they tried something for a year, for 365 days for 52 weeks, but that they really committed themselves to their explorations: be it of cuisine, love, self-esteem, themselves, or in Cohen and Jacob’s case: God.
The other thing these authors also all have in common is that their journeys led them to conclusions they were not expecting.  As Benyamin Cohen wrote, “He drank from the trial-sized cups of Christianity.  He is, by no stretch of the imagination, an expert in each denomination – but he can tell you what each tastes like.  And this caffeine-induced rush of religion awakened him to the many paths we all follow toward faith.
Cohen learned that God can be found in the unlikeliest of places.  He learned not to judge others.  He learned that people of faith have more similarities than differences.  He learned that the first step is always the hardest.  The many lessons he’s learned … have already started to help him become a more serious Jew, someone who looks to religion not as a burden, but as a source of hope.  And when his faith occasionally wanes, as it does for all of us, he can draw on these experiences to bolster himself.”
As Cohen goes on to say, “At the end of the day, he just wanted to be the Jew he always knew he could be, one who’s jazzed about his Judaism.  But he had to choose it.  He had to make it his own.  He had to find his way back to the synagogue of his youth.  He had to find his way back home.”[3]
            As we know, there are many religious pathways to God.  Whenever I discuss world religions with my confirmands, I begin with a simple question: name a religion.  Inevitably they end up naming a whole multitude.  Some are monotheistic, some are polytheistic.  Some are new and some are very very old.  But each is an attempt by its founders, leaders, and followers, to build a connection to God.  As a very small minority, yes even here in Baltimore, we Jews are acutely aware of how many different religious traditions are out there. But what you might not be aware of is that even within our own religious tradition, there are many pathways to God.
But as Jews, we are very reluctant to even try to walk down one of these paths.  Or as a Jewish Times article stated: Why Don’t Jews like to Pray?  As the article goes on to state, “Perhaps it is because we struggle with a belief in God; a 2006 Harris Poll Survey of Religion found that 12 percent of Jewish respondents claim they don’t believe in God.  Another 24 percent weren’t sure (the highest statistic of all identified religious groups … (and) maybe we think our prayers don’t do any good.”[4]
Or perhaps we are reluctant to walk one of the myriad of pathways because of the lure of modernity.  Science and personal autonomy seem to have more answers for us than our religion.  Our religion is outdated and irrelevant for what is going on in our lives.
However, as a religious leader, we are all too quick to blame our followers for this, when it is quite possible that it represents more a failure of our movement as a whole.  As Professor Eugene Borowitz explains, “Liberal religion, which preached accommodation to the culture as its new messianism, must share in this indictment of our culture.  It once seemed so obvious that autonomous moderns would make a place for religion in their lives if we modernized our old rites and made self-commending what God’s will once imposed upon us.  As long as liberalism emancipated us from the tyranny of old orthodoxies, its innovativeness elicited enthusiasm.  But as a once repressive culture advanced to permissivism, freedom became more our problem than our redemption.  ‘Why not?’ became a terrifying opening self-destruction and social rot.  The apostles of change and adaptation found themselves with nothing independent to say about the limits that would keep us from joining society’s onward rush into amorality.  Rationalism and science, the two great mentors that we thought would be the basis of ennoblement, lost their mythic authority.  We discovered that they reinforced relativism more than they specified enduring values.  And by substituting personal growth or self-fulfillment for God’s revelation, liberal religion now looked to be only another social agency eating away at our faith in high standards for human responsibility.”[5]
By trying to integrate religion so completely with modernism, the end result was that we have instead of validating modernism, we’ve somehow managed to undermine our religion.  And by undermining our religion, we have also undermined our sense of community, our common sense of purpose.  This common goal is towards the betterment of ourselves as individuals, the betterment of our social circles, the betterment of our communities, and ultimately the tikun, the repair of the world entire.  We cannot do it alone, it is a collaborative effort.  This is in part why we, as Jews, pray together, as individuals.
But talk of modernity aside, when it comes to faith, I think the key mistake we make in all of this is the notion that we human beings act rationally.  It is only others who are irrational.  And therefore, if we are rational, our religion must be rational as well.
And yet study after study demonstrate that we are not the rational creatures we would believe ourselves to be.  Studies now show that 77% of our daily decision-making is driven by emotion.[6]  What that means is that a little over 7 out of every 10 decisions we make are not rational.  Instead, we act in ways that defy logic and common sense all the time.  As is often the case, we justify our decisions only after we’ve made them.  There are an increasing number of fields dedicated to this decision making process both in psychology and in economics. 
One example of this is in the advertising world.  “Ask anyone whether they pay attention to advertising, and they will say no. They will tell you that they ignore the claims that brands make in advertising. That is true up until they make a decision to buy the brand, then, provided the brand lives up to their expectations, suddenly the claim becomes a belief. So let’s not forget the power of advertising claims to justify a purchase decision after the event, even if they are discounted beforehand.”[7]
And if that is true of our decision making process, just imagine how much more of our daily existence is not as entirely rational as we would like to believe.
Yet, if we expect our religious traditions to be rational, when we ourselves are not, we are doing a disservice to our tradition.  Therefore any truly meaningful conversation about pathways to God starts with a simple statement:  Faith is not a rational act.
Therefore, the first step, one might argue is to accept that faith and belief come from a place that is both above and beyond.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel articulates in his accumulated work Between God and Man, “There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other; in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known opening a vision of what is eternal in time.  Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God.  Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him.  There may come a moment like a thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings.”[8]
If there are many pathways to God in our tradition, and faith is not necessarily a rational act, where does that leave us?  As we started our conversation, it leaves us with the opportunity to either continue or begin our own spiritual quest, be it over the course of today, or the month of Tishrei, or over an entire year, or perhaps even longer to explore and search.
Admittedly the term spirituality is thrown around a lot.  One phrase I hear quite often is, “Rabbi, I am not a religious person, I’m a spiritual person.”  I have struggled for years with what exactly this means.  As I have come to understand, it means that they, who say this, are not sure if they believe in God, and if they do, it is certainly not the vision of a man with a long white beard watching everything that we do, and knowing everything that we do, while selectively choosing to intervene in history, and sometimes in sports.
And it means that the traditions, rites, acts, of religious communities have become to them, irrelevant and insignificant.  But it also means, quite often, that they have not found anything in their lives to replace it with on a comparable level.
For them and for us we need to acknowledge there is something greater than us.  How we want to define that, I will leave up to each of you.  For the human experience, the Jewish experience has almost always been framed in the narrative of the individual within the community.  There is a collective endeavor we are all a part of.  What drives this endeavor is the the idea of: we are all part of something greater.
If we can acknowledge that, then we can certainly feel comfortable with the concept that we don’t know everything.   And in today’s world, do we not know everything, but we are all reaching levels of incompetency at faster and faster rates.  And this is not to be derogatory or insulting.
I used to know a tremendous amount about computers.  Back in college I had a 386 machine that I could take apart, and even program to some degree.  Nowadays, aside from upgrading the RAM in my laptop, I couldn’t even dream of explaining most of what our modern technologies can do today, let alone how they do it.
If this is true of technology, so it must also be true of the world as well.  Yes science uncovers new facts all the time, but new truths are and will remain elusive.
Which leads us to our third point, to have a genuine spiritual connection means both becoming fully engaged and letting go.  By becoming fully engaged means to find an entryway of meaning.  For some this is Torah Study.  For others this is worship.  For others it can mean Jewish mysticism or a thousand other ways to uncover the sparks of the Divine in our world.
Seeking takes a lot more energy and work than rejecting.  In many ways this is what Kol Nidre is all about.  It is about re-engaging in the journey towards discovery.  Discovery of self, discovery of others, and discovery of meaning. 
And we have to be willing to let go.  Kjerstin Gruys had to be willing to let go of looking at herself in a mirror in order to find her own inner beauty.  Julie Powell had to let go of her fear of cooking in order to find her inner chef.  Benyamin Cohen had to let go of his Judaism, not something I am advocating by the way, in order to find his way back home.
We need to be able to let go of our preconceived notions of religion, tradition, and the like.  The quest for the spiritual.  The quest for meaning.  The quest for God.  None of these are new.  One can say that our ancient ancestors began to carve the road on which we continue to tread to this very day.  And we don’t even need to write a blog, a book, or a movie to do so.  We can even take more than a year if we would like. In this way, we may not be Living a year of Kol Nidre, but we can certainly incorporate its lessons into our own spiritual lives.  And if we do so, we may find ourselves uncovering aspects of our tradition that can bring meaning, purpose, and joy in ways we may never have imagined.  We just have to be willing to let ourselves get caught up in the journey. 
L’shana Tova

[2] Cohen, Benyamin, My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, Harper One, 2008, pg. 119.
[3] Ibid., 246-247
[4] Jewish Times, August 23, 2013 pg. 47.
[5][5] Borowtiz, Eugene, Renewing the Covenant, A Theology for the Postmodern Jew, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1991, pgs. 21-22.
[8] Ed., Rothschild, Fritz, Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel, New York, Free Press Paperbacks, 1997, 70.

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