How “Kol Nidrei” Captures the Essence of Yom Kippur

Sept. 28 2017

Although by far the most well-known piece of the holy day’s prayers, Kol Nidrei was a late and controversial addition to the liturgy that, in strict halakhic terms, should be considered of secondary importance. Rather than addressing Yom Kippur’s central themes of repentance and atonement, it is a blanket annulment of vows and oaths. Yet, argues Wendy Amsellem, the importance ascribed to it in the popular imagination is well founded:

In both biblical and rabbinic literature, vows are a very serious matter. Numbers 30:3 cautions, “If a man vows a vow to God or swears an oath to forbid something to himself, he shall not violate his words, all that he says he must do.” . . . Thus if a person took a vow, for example, to refrain from eating chocolate, the Torah commands her to keep her vow, and so the prohibition against her eating chocolate takes on the severity of a biblical injunction. [Put differently], our words have the capacity to take on divine force. . . .

We can understand . . . the desire to speak significantly, to impose a steadfastness on our inherently mutable existence. We want to be more noble in our speech, more reliable in our actions. Yet [talmudic] anecdotes about those who take vows always seem to end with a desire to get out of them. . . . We are unable to meet our commitments; we don’t want the same things tomorrow that we want today.

Yet halakhah allows for vows to be annulled in most circumstances, usually by going to a rabbi or rabbinic court, expressing regret, and then receiving absolution. The Talmud discusses the details of such annulment at length, relating many cases of sages who sought annulments of their vows from their colleagues and teachers. Amsellem continues:

Although [there is a case where a talmudic rabbi] frees himself from a vow, [the great sage] Shmuel teaches that it is preferable to have others annul one’s vows. . . . This [teaching] introduces a communal element. Others can help out when a person realizes his limitations.

Humans want to be like God. They inevitably fail in their aspirations, but they can rely on others in their community to come to their rescue. This is the essential message of the High Holy Days.

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More about: Jewish liturgy, Kol Nidrei, Religion & Holidays, Yom Kippur

At the UN, Nikki Haley Told the Truth about Israel—and the World Didn’t Burn Down

April 22 2019

Although Nikki Haley had never been to Israel when she took the position of American ambassador to the UN, and had no prior foreign-policy experience, she distinguished herself as one of the most capable and vigorous defenders of the Jewish state ever to hold the position. Jon Lerner, who served as Haley’s deputy during her ambassadorship, sees the key to her success—regarding both Israel and many other matters—in her refusal to abide by the polite fictions that the institution holds sacred:

Myths are sometimes assets in international relations. The fiction that Taiwan is not an independent country, for example, allows [the U.S.] to sustain [its] relationship with China. In other cases, however, myths can create serious problems. On Israel–Palestinian issues, the Trump administration was determined to test some mythical propositions that many had come to take for granted, and, in some cases, to refute them. Haley’s prominence at the UN arose in large part from a conscious choice to reject myths that had pervaded diplomacy on Israel–Palestinian issues for decades. . . .

[For instance], U.S. presidents were intimidated by the argument that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would trigger violent explosions throughout the Muslim world. President Trump and key colleagues doubted this, and they turned out to be right. Violent reaction in the Palestinian territories was limited, and there was virtually none elsewhere in Arab and Islamic countries. . . .

It turns out that the United States can support Israel strongly and still work closely with Arab states to promote common interests like opposing Iranian threats. The Arab street is not narrowly Israel-minded and is not as volatile as long believed. The sky won’t fall if the U.S. stops funding UN sacred cows like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). Even if future U.S. administrations revert to the policies of the past, these old assumptions will remain disproved. That is a valuable accomplishment that will last long after Nikki Haley’s UN tenure.

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More about: Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, United Nations, US-Israel relations