fast · high holy days · sermon

Creating cultures of repentance

We are, apparently, in the grips of a culture war. 

It must be an especially intense one, because the newspapers seem to report on it more than the wars in Syria, the Central African Republic, or Yemen, combined. 

According to the Telegraph, this war is our generation’s great fight. It was even the foremost topic in the leadership battle for who would be our next Prime Minister, far above the economy, climate change, or Coronavirus recovery.

Just this last month, its belligerents have included Disney, Buckingham Palace, the British Medical Journal, cyclists in Surrey, alien library mascots, and rural museums.

But which side should I choose? One side is called “the woke mob.” That seems like it should be my team. After all, they are the successor organisation to the Political Correctness Brigade, of which I was a card-carrying member when that was all the rage.

The so-called “woke mob” are drawing attention to many historic and present injustices. From acknowledging that much of Britain was built on the back of the slave trade to criticising comedians who say that Hitler did a good thing by murdering Gypsies, they are shining a light on wrongs in society.

The trouble is, I hate to be on the losing side. For all the noise and bluster, this campaign hasn’t managed to get anyone who deserves it. The most virulent racists, misogynists, abusers, and profiteers remain largely unabated. 

Even if they were successful, I find the underlying ideas troubling. It seems to assume that people’s wrong actions put them outside of rehabilitation into decent society. Some people are just too bad

This strikes as puritanical. While the claims that so-called “cancel culture” is ruining civilisation are wildly overstated, it is right to be concerned by a philosophy that excludes and punishes.

So, will I throw my lot in with the conservatives? Perhaps it’s time I joined this fightback against the woke mob. 

On this side, proponents say that they are combatting cancel culture. How are they doing this? By deliberately upsetting people. They actively endeavour to elicit a reaction by saying the most hurtful thing they can.

When, inevitably, these public figures receive the condemnation they deserve, they go on tour to lament how sensitive and censorious their opponents are. As a result, they get book deals, newspaper columns, and increased ticket sales. 

Ultimately, this reaction to “cancel culture” is a mirror of what it opposes. It agrees that people cannot heal or do wrong. It celebrates the idea that people are bad, and provides a foil that allows people to prop up their worst selves.

If this is the culture war, I want no part in it. Neither side is interested in the hard work of repentance, apologies, and forgiveness. It offers only two possible cultures: one in which nobody can do right and one in which nobody can do wrong.

This is the antithesis of the Jewish approach to harm. 

Our religion has never tried to divide up the world into good and bad people. We have no interest in flaunting our cruelty, nor in banishing people.

Instead, the Jewish approach is to accept that we are all broken people in a broken world. We are all doing wrong. We all hurt others, and have been hurt ourselves. The Jewish approach is to listen to the yetzer hatov within us: that force of conscience, willing us to do better.

The culture we want to create is one of teshuvah: one in which people acknowledge they have done wrong, seek to make amends, apologise, and earn forgiveness. 

A few weeks ago, just in time for Yom Kippur, Rabbi Danya Rutenberg released a new book, called Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World.

Rabbi Rutenberg argues that Jewish approaches to repentance and repair can help resolve the troubled society we live in.

She locates some of the issues in America’s lack of repentance culture in its history. After the Civil War, preachers and pundits encouraged the people of the now United States of America to forgive, forget and move on. It doesn’t matter now, they said, who owned slaves or campaigned for racism, now they were all Americans. 

The Civil War veterans established a social basis in which there was no need for repentance or reparations, but that forgiveness had to be offered unconditionally. Without investing the work in true teshuvah, they created an unapologetic society that refused to acknowledge harm.

We, in Britain, also have an unapologetic and unforgiving culture, but our history is different. 

True, we also failed to properly address our history of slavery. When the slave trade was abolished at the start of the 19th Century, former slave traders and slave owners were given substantial compensation. The former slaves themselves were not offered so much as an apology.

But we have not been through a conscious process of nation-building the way the United States has. 

In fact, Britain has not really gone through any process of cultural rebuild since the collapse of its Empire. In 1960, the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave his famous speech, in which he acknowledged “the wind of change” driving decolonisation. Whether Brits liked it or not, he said, the national liberation of former colonies was a political fact. 

At that time, he warned “what is now on trial is much more than our military strength or our diplomatic and administrative skill. It is our way of life.” Britain would need to work out who it was and what its values were before it could move forward and expect the family of nations to work with it.

More than 60 years later, it seems we still have not done that. As a nation, we are simply not clear on who we are. We do not know what makes us good, where we have gone wrong, or what we could do to be better.

So, we are caught in shame and denial. Shame that, if we admitted to having caused harm, we would have to accept being irredeemably evil. Denial that we could be bad, and so could ever have done wrong.

The two sides of the so-called “cancel culture” debate represent those two responses to our uncertainty. Those who are so ashamed of Britain’s history of racism and sexism that they have no idea how to move forward. And those who are so in denial of history that they refuse to accept it ever happened, or that it really represented the great moral injury that its victims perceived.

This creates a toxic national culture, stultified by its past and incapable of looking toward its future. 

So, Rabbi Rutenberg suggests, we need to build an alternative culture, one built on teshuvah. We need a culture where people feel guilty about what they have done wrong and try to repair it. For those who have been hurt, that means centering their needs as victims. For those who have done wrong, that means offering them the love and support to become better people. 

Rutenberg draws on the teachings of the Rambam to suggest how that might happen.  The Rambam outlined five steps people could take towards atonement, in his major law code, Mishneh Torah. 

First, you must admit to having done wrong. Ideally, you should stand up publicly, with witnesses, and declare your errors. 

Next, you must try to become a better person. 

Then, you must make amends, however possible. 

Then, and only then, can you make an apology. 

Finally, you will be faced with a similar opportunity to do wrong again. If you have taken the preceding steps seriously, you will not repeat your past mistakes.

For me, the crucial thing about Ruttenberg’s reframing of Rambam, is that it puts apologies nearly last. It centres the more difficult part: becoming the kind of person that does not repeat offences. It asks us to cultivate virtue, looking for what is best in us and trying to improve it.

You must investigate why you did what you did, and understand better the harm you caused. You must read and reflect and listen so that you can empathise with the wronged party. And, through this process, you must cultivate the personality of one who does not hurt again.

That is what Yom Kippur is really about. It is not about beating ourselves up for things we cannot change, nor about stubbornly holding onto our worst habits. It is not about shrugging off past injustices, nor is it about asking others to forget our faults.

It’s about the real effort needed to look at who we are, examine ourselves, and become a better version of that.

If there is a culture war going on, that is the culture I want to see. 

I want us to live in a society where people think about their actions and seek to do good. I want us to see a world where nobody is excluded – not because they are wrong or because they have been wronged. One where we are all included, together, in improving ourselves and our cultural life.

To build such a system, we need to start small. We cannot change Britain overnight. 

We have to begin with the smallest pieces first. Tonight, we begin doing that work on ourselves.

Gmar chatimah tovah – may you be sealed for good.

high holy days · sermon

God has decided to let you off this year

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial. The Heavenly Court convenes and charges the Jewish people with its sins. 

The Accuser lays out the prosecution. They have sinned. They have betrayed. They have been two-faced. The people have been angry, cruel, violent, hypocritical, dishonest and corrupt. All the evidence is laid out before the Holy One, who presides over the case as its Judge. 

The evidence is pretty compelling. We have been everything that the Accuser says we have, and more. We cannot pretend to have been perfect. In fact, we have fallen pretty far short of decent. 

The Angel of Mercy steps forward to plead in our defence. True, the Jews have been callous and unkind, but they have also been charitable, supportive, participated in mutual aid groups, called up vulnerable people, tried to make peace with their friends and neighbours. They have done their best.

The Accuser laughs out scornfully. “I challenge you,” says the avenging angel, “to weigh up this people’s good deeds against its pad. Set their mitzvot on the scales of justice and see how they manage against all their malice. Let’s see whether their good even comes close to counter-balancing their bad.”

The Angel of Mercy is nervous. Of course, they won’t win. The good deeds aren’t nearly numerous enough. Every one has been kept and held tight over the year. This is a sure way for the Jews to lose.

Perhaps the compassionate Angel can plead extenuating circumstances. After all, we’ve been through a pandemic. There has been so much uncertainty. The Jews have had to work from home with screaming children. They have been cut off from all their usual support systems. They have dealt with unimaginable stress. 

Surely, God understands that they can’t be expected to have been on their best behaviour. Not this year. This has been the hardest year yet. And, yes, to be fair, the Angel of Mercy did make the same excuse last year, but this year really was even worse. It really was.

God interjects; raises a single finger. “Enough evidence,” God says. “This year, I have decided just to let it slide.”

Now, both prosecution and defence look confused. They glance at each other, the assembled Heavenly Court room, and we defendants here gathered in our witness box. Perhaps the Holy One has made a mistake?

“It is true,” says God “that this people Israel has done much evil, and it is true that they have done some good. Their good does not amount to much and their evil is pretty damning. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances, but they are not very convincing. I did, after all, give this Torah to all times and places, including to Covid-stricken Britain. So there is no good reason to forgive the Jews. But, having weighed up all the evidence, I’ve decided I’m just going to forgive anyway. I’m just going to pardon them. Court adjourned.”

And that’s it. That’s the end of Yom Kippur on high for another year. 

It was over quickly. But it went exactly as it did last year. And the year before that. And every year going back to when humanity was first created. 

This is the story told by Pesikta Rabbati, a great collection of stories and sermons from Jews in the 9th Century CE. According to this midrash, when Yom Kippur comes around, the Accusing Angel charges the Jews with all its sins before God.

This Angel heaps all of our sins on top of the scales of justice. They weigh down heavily, and it’s clear that the sins outnumber the good deeds.

God then gives greater value to the good deeds so that they can override the evil, but the Accuser has many more sins to submit in evidence.

So, says our midrash, God hides our sins. God wears a long purple cloak and shoves all the sins under it. God sneaks the sins off the scales, and determines to find us innocent anyway.

Our sins are removed and hidden away.

“Yom Kippur” is often translated as “The Day of Atonement,” but the literal meaning of “kippur” is “cover,” “curtail,” “tuck away.” This is the day when our sins are submerged under the great cover of God’s forgiveness. 

They don’t disappear, but God is able to hide them away and forget them. For the sake of love of humanity, God just lets us off.

Lo ‘al tzidkateinu – not because of our righteousness do we pray for God’s forgiveness, but because of God’s unending love. Only on account of God’s infinite compassion do we get to carry on. God’s forgiveness is infinite and instant. 

But if we already knew God would forgive us, why do we bother? Why turn up here for Kol Nidrei, and afflict ourselves, and spend 25 hours in prayer? What’s all this for? 

Well, it might take God only a short while to forgive, but for us it takes a bit more work. We have to go through some effort to get to a fraction of that clemency. So, we take our time to look within, examine our imperfections, and release the guilt we have been feeling. Now is the time for us to forgive.

This year may seem like it requires more forgiveness than usual. This is an unprecedented time for conflict between friends and family, personal struggles, grief, job losses and frustration. It is hardly surprising that people feel so much resentment. 

I speak to people angry about how much they have lost. Time. Money. Strength. Health. Joy. Socialising. All these things that we have been robbed of. We have struggled in ways never experienced before.

Understandably, people want to place the blame elsewhere. They project their anger onto others who they imagine haven’t followed the rules enough, or who have taken it all too seriously, or who don’t think the same way as they do. 

All that anger does is sit inside of the people who hold onto it. It won’t help get back what has been lost. The weight of holding onto slights without forgiving just pulls us down. It just holds us back from growth. The only way to move forward is to let go.

That is why we have forgiveness. We acknowledge our hurt. We take stock of the injuries. And then, although it may be painful, we let go. We accept the way things are and make peace with what can’t be undone.

So, I urge you to forgive.

You might not get closure. You might not get apologies. You might not get reconciliation. Try to forgive anyway. 

The people who have hurt you probably did much wrong. And they probably didn’t do enough to make up for it. And all the dire circumstances will not feel like enough to excuse their behaviour. If you can, excuse it anyway.

The people who you forgive might not be big enough to forgive you back. Still, consider forgiveness.

In the build up to Yom Kippur, we were supposed to apologise to everyone we wronged. You did apologise, didn’t you? Me neither. Not enough. Not completely. Not to everyone. Not for everything. 

And I know my own reasons. I have been so tired and preoccupied and overworked and anxious. I have been too busy getting by to be trusting or vulnerable. The right time to apologise just never came up. 

But I still want to be forgiven. And I know God has already found a way to be merciful towards me. So I will have to reciprocate. 

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial, and God finds us not guilty. Not because we deserve it, but because God has decided to put trust in us. Our task over Yom Kippur is to validate that trust. 

So, we will try to forgive. It is not easy. It may well feel incomplete, and some things may be beyond pardon. Nevertheless, let us try to leave some of the pain of the previous year behind. 

Let us endeavour to accept people, including ourselves, flawed as we are, and move on.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

This is my Kol Nidrei sermon for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

high holy days · sermon

Who is responsible?

This High Holy Days, I am only giving short divrei torah. These are the words I offer for Erev Yom Kippur 5781.

  1. All our vows

Remember this time last year? All the promises we made? How good did we think we would be, and how much did we think we would accomplish? It’s probably for the best that we get the chance to annually annul those commitments. 

Let’s begin by being honest. We ask too much of ourselves. The criticisms you make of yourself would make you shudder if you heard them said aloud, even to your worst enemy. Do you really believe God sees you in such a light? God, the Eternal One, full of compassion and slow to anger, lifts you up in kindness and forgets your transgressions.

Tonight is a chance to see yourself through Heaven’s eyes. The frustrations you feel at your projects can wait. Your aspirations can be laid aside. Right now, you are only human, held in the loving embrace of God’s peaceful tent. Forget everything you promised yourself you would become, and allow yourself to just be, as we join together for kol nidrei.

  1. Like clay in the potter’s hands

Who by fire, who by water, who by plague? Who at the right time, and who after a short life? 

We pray these words and they take on a heavier meaning this year. We are living through a pandemic that puts pressure on life, and seeing people taken before their time. 

I need you to know something of great importance. You are not being punished. God is not exacting revenge on you personally. Your loved ones are not suffering because of anything they’ve done wrong.

When the world flooded, the water did not discriminate between the righteous and the wicked. When the Angel of Death was released in Egypt, it did not look at the first borns’ deeds. And when the great martyrs of the rabbinic tradition were killed by Rome, it was not because of any failings on their part.

You did not create this, and any theology that casts personal blame for this situation does not represent a loving God. We must accept the things we cannot change. We are like clay in the hands of a potter.

  1. Responsibility in a pandemic

Sometimes being in a community means coming together in the same place. Sometimes being in community means doing things apart in our own homes. 

In either case, we are doing what we do out of love and moral responsibility to each other. In normal times, that means showing up for each other, bringing food and giving each other hugs. 

These are not normal times. Right now, the morally responsible thing to do is to stop the spread of the virus. The loving thing to do is to protect each other, especially our most vulnerable members. Doing things this way, by holding our services over Zoom, is our way of affirming that we truly care for each other as part of a community.

I know that this synagogue has been doing amazing work to support its members. It is so important at this time that we look out for each other, through our mutual aid societies, neighbourhood groups and social support networks. Please continue to call each other, drop round packages and be on the lookout for your community’s needs. And please donate what you can to the charity appeal. 

high holy days · poem

Kol Nidrei

Every year since starting as a rabbinic student, I have read this poem, by the Yiddish writer Wlasyslaw Szlengel. He wrote it in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, not long before the entire community was liquidated.

I’ve never understood the content and the words,
Only the melody of the prayer.
While my eyes I close, I see again
Reminisces from my childhood
The yellow grayish glow of candle light,
Sad movements of arms and beards,
I hear a cry, wailing
An immense plea for mercy, a miracle…
Whipping of the chest, clasping hands –
The glory of old books,
Fear of verdicts unknown and dark.
That night I’ll never tear off my heart,
A menacing mysterious night,
And the grieved prayer Kol Nidrei —
I know by now, when I feel bad
Or tomorrow, when fate will be more courteous to me,
In my thoughts I’ll come back to that night,
And always
In my heart I shall be in it.
Come with me – – –
Jews – frightened, beaten, persecuted,
Cast out of everything – – –
Depressed,
Humiliated.
You – that that your benches were broken,
Your faith as well and your skulls.
You – whose mouths are been shut,
As are the roads, the shops.
You – mud is thrown on your faces.
You – who know already what
Is fear from human being.
And you –
Who want to forget that only yesterday,
Or a hundred years ago,
Were Jews
Running away—
To the tangle of the big affairs,
To the excess of the big people
To the lie of the big words,
Hiding yourselves behind the backs
Of foreign ideas, not yours…
You – free of
Tallith,
Shabbathot,
Kapoth,
Come!
On the same long big night
to the foggy memories sunk in sentiments
In the heart and in the tear
Go back to the darkened prayer rooms
From long lost childhood,
Where grayish light gleam and candles cry,
Where Mothers wring their hands,
And through trembling hands,
Pages of yellow books murmur,
While injustice lie like a stone on our soul.
At least we shall be united in our hearts
In the sad prayer of Kol Nidrei.

high holy days · judaism · sermon · theology

Forgive yourself

Forgive yourself.

I’ve always struggled through Yom Kippur. It’s not just the fasting or the sitting in shul all day. That stuff’s tough, but there’s something more existentially difficult about Yom Kippur. I find the prospect of judgement quite scary.

What makes Yom Kippur harder than any other day of the year is I feel myself somewhat stranded without excuses. Any other day, if I get angry or petty or unkind, I have good excuses. I’m busy. I’ve got too much on. I’m tired. On Yom Kippur I have to reflect over all those occasions and my excuses seem pretty inadequate. On Yom Kippur we are stripped bare in front of our Maker, and as I recount the extenuating circumstances to exonerate me for going wrong, I can hear God saying: “Really though?” My reasons don’t cut it when I have to face up to Infinity.

As Kol Nidre comes in, I always feel deeply unprepared for the questions my conscience has prepared for me. By the time we’ve been through 24 hours of praying, studying, silent meditation, chest-beating and singing, the shofar blasts loudly for the last time and I’ve as good as promised myself that the next year I’ll be a saint. Next year, I’ll never get angry. Next year, I’ll never be impatient. Next year, I’ll go to synagogue every week. (Actually that one I probably will do, but you get the idea.) The process of Yom Kippur makes me set the standards for myself so high that by the following Kol Nidre I can only look at myself and realise that I’ve failed to meet them.

This year I’m going to try a new discipline. I’m going to try to forgive myself.

The process I described really is important. Faced with a perfect Being, as we are with God on Yom Kippur, every one of us is lacking. All of us have something to feel genuinely guilty about. All of us need to set our standards for ourselves just that little bit higher. But we also all need to learn to forgive ourselves.

There is a wonderful Chassidic story. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, a great Polish tzaddik of the 18th Century, approached the gates of Heaven. He stood before the Almighty and was asked: “Did you pray enough?”

“No,” answered the rebbe. “I’m afraid I did not.”

“And did you study enough Torah?”

“No,” said Elimelech. “I didn’t.”

“Did you give enough to support the needy?”

“I did not.”

“Were you kind enough?”

“No.”

“Elimelech,” said the Holy One, “you have told the truth and for that you will pass through to Heaven.”

The truth is none of us can ever do enough. Nobody can ever pray hard enough, read enough Torah, give enough to support the needy or exercise enough kindness. All we can do is be honest with ourselves, and keep trying.

On Kol Nidre, we are faced with the same questions as Elimelech was. We have to inspect the content of our souls in just the same way as he did. Have we prayed enough? Studied enough? Done enough to support others? Been kind and charitable and loving? No, we have not.

And we should not kid ourselves that the stakes are any less high than they were for a man standing at the gates of Heaven. If anything, they are higher, because while Elimelech was dead and could not do anything further to improve, we are still alive and have the chance to be better than we have been.

The rituals around Kol Nidre help to convey the gravity of that situation. First of all, we are supposed to feel a little bit closer to death. Ashkenazi Jews wear kittels, the garments in which we will be buried, to convey that sense of mortality. In reciting Viddui, we say the same words that repentant souls recite on their deathbeds. In fasting, in huddling together, there is some deeper feeling of an intimate proximity to death.

Tonight, everyone wears tallits. This is the only time of the year when the whole community drapes tzitzit from the long white garments over their shoulders. Why do we do this? Because these are the vestments of dayyanim – judges. Tonight, we are a court room. We take the scrolls from out of the ark and swear on them as holy texts. We are a mirror of that divine court that has sat in Heaven to weigh up the balance of our lives and pass judgement.

Now, feel yourself in that position. Realise that you are not just judged but you are also the judge. You are in a room full of other people in the same position. Is there anyone in this room so guilty, so impossibly unrepentant, that you cannot forgive them? Entrusted with the full power of a heavenly court that can choose between life and death, is there anybody you would not forgive?

Now turn that same judgement on yourself. Forgive yourself. Over the next day, we will all carry out moral audits on our lives. We will be encouraged to think through everything we have done wrong and to recount our misdeeds. But let’s focus, too, on forgiving ourselves. Let’s treat our own souls with the love and kindness we wish upon others. Nobody can be a harsher critic of you than yourself, and you know that there are times when you talk about yourself in ways you wouldn’t talk about your worst enemy. So give yourself a break.

I think part of the reason why we recite Kol Nidre, annulling all our vows, right at the start of Yom Kippur, is so that we can do just that. This prayer asks God to realise that all the promises we made from the last year to this one could never be met. This asks God’s forgiveness for the fact that we made promises at all. Because all the vows we made last Yom Kippur were impossible. We said we’d be better Jews this year than we were last year. We said we’d be kinder, more conscientious, and more humble. We said we’d pray more and study more. And we didn’t. Not enough anyway. And that’s OK.

Perhaps among all the promises that we make to ourselves this Yom Kippur, we can add an additional promise that this year we will forgive ourselves. We will be gentler with ourselves. We will love ourselves more. And, even if we don’t succeed, we can be merciful. We can forgive ourselves.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

 

kittel

I gave this sermon for Kol Nidre at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community of Cornwall. It was a wonderful place, and I will write more about it at a later date. One piece of critical feedback I received stuck with me: a woman said that, by saying that we all wear tallits, she felt I had excluded her. She had grown up Orthodox and always felt that the Jewish community was excluding her. My comments, which seemed to only address men, had projected her back to her childhood. At the time, I defended myself, saying that I’d grown up in the progressive world and so had never known a place where women didn’t wear tallits. On reflection, I am not happy with the answer I gave. I was trying out more ‘frum’ practices this year, by wearing slippers and kittel. I know from my own experience that seeing people seemingly adopt Orthodox forms can bring up memories of exclusion and discrimination. In light of that, if I want to experiment with it, I need to be much more explicit about what my values are: how I reconcile socialism and feminism with an interest in halachah. Moreover, Yom Kippur already can feel quite daunting for everyone. It’s supposed to be a time for huddling together and bringing everyone ‘inside the tent’. I need to constantly remind myself that the shared belief of progressive Jews in feminism, queer liberation and anti-racism is not additional to what we do but is at the core of who we are. In future sermons, I hope to be more explicit about that.

high holy days · liturgy · sermon · Uncategorized

Is the Kol Nidrei prayer angry enough?

There are two versions of the Kol Nidre prayer. One in Hebrew; one in Aramaic. One ancient; one more modern. One looking forward; one looking backwards.

The original, older prayer in Aramaic, has these words:

All vows, oaths and promises which we make to God from this Yom Kippur to the next and are not able to fulfil – may all such vows between ourselves and God be annulled. May they be void and of no effect. May we be absolved of them and released from them. May these vows no longer be considered vows, these oaths no longer be considered oaths, and these promises no longer be considered promises.

The reformers decided to substitute it for a Hebrew alternative, and you can probably see why. Before we have made any promises, we announce our intention to annul them. We cancel every vow in advance. This was deeply worrying to many rabbis throughout history. The prayer was used as fodder by antisemites to accuse Jews of being duplicitous and untrustworthy.

Many Jews worried that it gave off the wrong impression. More than that, they were worried for their own integrity. One of the most important principles for the earliest reformers was that they would not say with their mouths what they did not believe in their hearts. So they scrapped prayers that talked about their expectations for the Messiah or their desire to build a Temple. They got rid of prayers cursing their enemies or extolling the greatness of one nation over another.

It was inevitable, then, that they would have to remove the Aramaic Kol Nidre prayer. Not only did they not believe in it, the prayer was actually about not believing the words they were saying. So they substituted it for a new version in Hebrew: “Source of Our Being, accept the vows of the children that they will turn away from evil, and walk in the ways of your Law of righteousness and justice.” Our siddur includes a reading from the American Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner to drive home the point about keeping promises:

All vows, promises, and commitments made in Your presence –

May we be given the strength to keep them

[…]

We meant them when we made them,

But distractions were many, and our wills were weak.

This time may we be strong enough;

May our better selves prevail

I want to ask: what do we gain and what do we lose by changing the prayer in this way? I think it is evident what we do gain. These words are so much more comfortable to say. It is so much more credible that we want to keep our promises than that we want to annul them.

But perhaps this very gain is also our loss. I recently ran a retreat for Jewish activists, including some members of this congregation and many from elsewhere. One participant had grown up Orthodox but found she no longer had a home there. She had turned away from Judaism and was now, tentatively making her way back. At the end of a morning prayer service, she said to me: “The trouble is, you’re making Judaism too easy! Liberal Judaism cuts out all the anger and the edge.”

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. Prayer should be comforting and uplifting, but if it is only those things it is incomplete. If our prayers are going to speak to real life, they need to speak to every emotion we experience. They should encapsulate our sadness, our anger and our frustrations, as well as our happiness and joy. This year, I realised how inadequate my prayers were when I looked up at the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower and realised that I did not have the words to mourn such callous loss of life. We need prayers that reflect our anger.

The original Aramaic prayer has something edgy about it. Tonight, we are told, God’s face comes closest to the earth. God’s presence is with us more than any other night. And what do we do, faced with our maker? We set out a list of demands: that every promise we make should be annulled and every vow irrelevant. Not the mistakes we’ve made with other people, but specifically we annul our promises to God. Worse than that, we say we want them all forgiven in advance. We haven’t made a single promise and already we want to annul it. That is a pretty audacious prayer.

The Hebrew alternative, though more honest to the best of what we mean, might be less honest to how we feel. Coming to synagogue on Kol Nidre can feel like a big deal. For many of the people who attend synagogues across the country this evening, this will be only the time they come all year. That’s great, because this prayer was written expressly so that people who had fallen out of participation could join in again. In Eastern Europe, it helped Jews who had fallen out with their friends and family to reconnect with the community. In medieval Spain, it helped Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to keep up a sense of commitment, even if they were too afraid the rest of the year. For those people coming, isn’t there something more honest, more empowering, about annulling vows and expressing that anger than about resolving to be a more faithful person? Don’t we all, no matter our piety, come to prayer with a little bit of frustration and anxiety, especially as we enter Yom Kippur?

As well as a difference in tone, I think there’s a difference in timing. I find the idea of time in the two prayers really interesting. In the Aramaic prayer, we annul the promises that we’re going to make in the future. In the Hebrew one, we repent for our sins and we resolve to be better in the present. But the language was changed to Hebrew by the reformers because they thought that the more ancient language was the more authentic. They reached deeper into the past in order to be better in the present. Between these two prayers, I feel like there is a conflict not just over what we want to say, but over where we are and in what direction we are going. On this most holy night, with God closest to us, where do we really stand in time? Who really are we?

These prayers seem to stand in conflict, but they don’t have to. There are good reasons for the Hebrew prayer and good reasons for the Aramaic one. Perhaps the answer is we need both. We need to be humble and we need to be angry. We need to be faithful and we need to be honest. We need to repent of the sins of the past and annul the vows of the future because, when we do so, we can stand in that Infinite Space where all sins are forgiven and all promises are forgotten. We can greet God with our whole selves, complete with all our emotions, ready to say: I’m sorry. I’ll do better again next year.

Gmar chatima tovah.

kol nidrei

This sermon was originally given for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Friday 29th September (Erev Yom Kippur 5778) and originally published by Leo Baeck College