Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur and Escape from Language

My relationship with Jewishness is untainted by any feelings of ideological obligation. That is to say, I belong to this people and community (sort of, more or less), I participate in their rituals (very occasionally), I share some deep values (not necessarily the obvious and articulated ones), but I will be damned if it will determine how I think. Like any other body of learning, I treat it as a resource that I will make use of as I see fit, not a framework that I have to fit myself into. 

This sounds both a bit naive and a bit like bragging, but I’m just trying to be accurate about how things are with me. I’ve never been able to comfortably wear an ideological or identity. In a way it’s annoying that I am a radical non-joiner. Some people manage to make themselves nice lives out of being Jewish, or being an anarchist, or scholar, or activist, or whatever. I resist being anything. I suppose even that becomes an identity eventually.
“I decided I’d rather starve and live on the edges of nowhere than do anything at all, than become anything labeled.” – Bukowski (a saint of illegibility)
Given that I’m not a counterculture hero or anything close, but rather a middle-class guy with a family to support, I do in fact have a quite labeled work identity (and resume and LinkedIn profile and all the rest). It’s a real enough aspect of me; I don’t mind (much) inhabiting the role and selling it on the marketplace. But a holy day is a point where I can step back from it and place it in its proper perspective. Taking off from work is just a superficial aspect; it is taking a day off from the everyday structural illusions of the world, the better to put them in their proper place.

There’s a lot of talk about the soul this time of year – how to purify it, is it going to be inscribed in the Book of Life, etc. Like a good materialist with cognitive science training, I am deeply dubious about the very concept. Yet someone or thing is being dubious, no? If nothing else, language and grammar force an identity to come into being.

Yom Kippur begins with the Kol Nidrei, an odd bit of legalistic performative Aramaic that has the emotional force of prayer, and an interesting and controversial history that I was unaware of until recently. It is a release from vows, and has been interpreted by anti-semites to mean that Jews can’t be trusted.
It refers to vows assumed by an individual for himself alone, where no other persons or interests are involved. Though the context makes it perfectly obvious that no vows or obligations towards others are implied, there have been many who were misled into believing that by means of this formula all their vows and oaths are annulled. – Philip Birbaum via Wikipedia
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the reconstructionist movement, tried to get rid of it but failed. The emotional force of it and its connection to the ritual proved too strong; and for many Jews it is the most moving and holy ceremony of the calendar.

My own interpretation, which is no doubt overly influenced by my own particular obsessions, is that the Kol Nidrei is a fundamental and irreplaceable counterweight to the usual Jewish obsessions with language and law. It is not so much a release from vows as a release from language, a temporary ritual acknowledgement that for all our word-worship, words are an imperfect and inadequate tool to face reality and life, and most of all the sacred. Like many other religious and meditative practices, the Kol Nidre is a form of language whose function is to move beyond language.

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