Kol Nidrei Greatest Hits

I confess: I have nothing new to say

I had intended to write something for Yom Kippur, which starts tonight, but as with my end-of-Elul-wrap and my combined-Rosh-Hashanah-and-9/11-wrap (by the way, apologies for the cut-and-paste error on the latter; a paragraph that was quoted partway through the piece also got reproduced at the top of the piece, rendering the beginning unintelligible), I find I don’t have anything particularly new to say. So I’m just going to quote myself and hope that some readers will not have seen at least something from the below before.

Cleaning the Filter

I think my favorite thing I’ve written about Yom Kippur is something I wrote nine years ago, and it’s actually mostly taken from a rabbi friend of mine. It’s about what exactly is happening in the scapegoat ritual, the ancient ceremony that formed the heart of the holiday in ancient times, and therefore what’s happening in the holiday overall:

If you look closely at the text, what you’ll see is that the scapegoat ritual isn’t about atoning for the people, and taking away their sin from them, but about atoning for the altar. That’s what it says: the priest “shall go out unto the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it” – for it, not for himself or for the people. “And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the children of Israel” – again, the “it” is the altar; that’s what is being cleansed and hallowed from Israel’s sins. “And when he hath made an end of atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting, and the altar, he shall present the live goat” – that’s where the goat comes in, not after the priest has finished atoning for the people, but after he has finished atoning for the altar.

What on earth does that mean?

It is helpful, in this regard, to think of sin as something that leaves a physical residue – to think of this “cleansing” in as literal terms as possible. When someone transgresses, and performs a sin offering to atone, the offering is not a penance, something the person gives up to make up for the sin, nor is it a bribe to the judge, something God finds pleasing and that will encourage His mercy. Rather, the blood of the offering is a kind of spiritual cleanser, which takes the residue of sin off the sinner.

So where does it go?

It goes, with the blood, onto the altar.

Which is why, once a year, the priest needs to make atonement for the altar, to cleanse it of the sins of the people that have accumulated over the year. It’s like cleaning the filter. The scapegoat ritual transfers these accumulated sins to the goat, so that the altar can continue to do its job of receiving the residue of sin for another year.

We moderns don’t tend to think of sin as leaving a physical residue. But we might think of it in similar terms metaphorically – talking about guilt as a psychic residue, or what-have-you. And we don’t think we can cleanse ourselves by pouring blood on an altar. But we do recognize that the need to make restitution and the need for spiritual “cleansing” are not identical processes. The one is social; the other is psychological. And we do make use of intermediaries of various sorts for that process of cleansing, whether clergy or therapists or friends and family or even objects that we imbue with the kind of spiritual power once attributed to the altar.

And those intermediaries, who have taken on the residues of our sins, also need a cleansing.

I still find that an incredibly useful concept. Before Yom Kippur, you’re supposed to apologize and ask forgiveness of anyone you’ve wronged, and make restitution in any way that you can. You’re also supposed to forgive anyone who sincerely asks for it and makes restitution—this is also a commandment. That’s the social side of the holiday. But you also go through this whole process of fasting and praying that is not, I think, about those things at all. It’s about cleansing. They’re complementary practices, doing different things and supporting each other thereby. But it’s important not to confuse one for the other.

I see a lot of woke behaviors that are articulated as ways of expiating guilt, but that are really ways of eliminating ritual defilement. And those behaviors get rightly criticized for not actually doing anything to improve the world, to make up in any material way for the injustices of the past or to end those of the present. But eliminating ritual defilement is actually something people need! It’s just not the same thing as social justice. Maybe if we could say that, without rancor, we could get some complementary processes of our own going.

For those who want even more scapegoat stuff, I wrote a follow-up piece five years later about Réne Girard’s understanding of sacrifice, and why I don’t think it is correct. Not having read Girard in many years, I probably am misremembering him, or never understood him properly in the first place; but I have certainly heard his argument described as what I am arguing against in the piece, and I stand by my views therein even if I can’t be sure they are really a response to him.

Sitting With Shylock

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about Shylock that tied Shakespeare’s Jewish villain to the Prophet Jonah, and tied both of them to the Day of Atonement (on the afternoon of which Jonah is traditionally read). I think it holds up:

My wife and I are sitting in our Conservative shul in Brooklyn on Yom Kippur, reading along as the hazzan sings his way through the repetition of theMusaf Amida.

“There it is again.”

“There’s what again?”

“‘Circumcise your heart.’ Over and over.”

She points to the phrase. “That’s not what it actually says in the Hebrew, is it?”

“‘U-mol et levavkha’—yes, that’s a literal translation. It’s from one of Moses’s speeches in Deuteronomy. Don’t think you can sin and then buy off God with sacrifices. God doesn’t want a payoff; he wants you to keep his commandments. Even better: Don’t just keep them; embody them. Bind them for a sign upon your hand; circumcise your heart with them.”

“‘Bind them for a sign upon your hand’—that’s where tefillin comes from. But we don’t literally circumcise our hearts.”

“No, that wouldn’t be wise.”

My wife laughs. “It sounds like something Shylock would do.”

This was a few years ago. Ever since then, whenever I hear that phrase, I cannot help but think of Shylock. I’ll be sitting in shul, and he’ll be sitting beside me. Of course, this is absurd, not only because Shylock is a fictional character, but because he isn’t a Jewish fiction.

But the most famous Jewish character in postbiblical literature is not leaving the stage. The mere fact that his name came to my wife’s mind when she heard a biblical phrase is proof enough that there’s life in him yet. So I turn and ask him, in spite of myself, “What were you thinking when you sealed your bond? When you went to trial? When you were broken, and when you were baptized? And what kind of teshuvah are you making now?”

Is it possible to read The Merchant of Venice midrashically, as a text in dialogue with the Hebrew Bible? It has to be if we are to read it Jewishly at all.

As they say: read the whole thing. Tomorrow afternoon, if you like.

The Merchant of Venice is a text I really can’t get enough of; I’m constantly going back to it. But as I wrote in this space before, I’ve seen a lot of productions, and written about some of them, none of which I’ve found fully satisfying, and yet my thinking doesn’t seem to change materially. Sometimes it deepens, or clarifies, but the play remains the same play to me. And yet I can’t help from going back, again and again.

On the one hand, that’s depressing; I’d like to think that I’m learning something, and therefore changing, with all of these repeat visits. On the other hand, it’s comforting, in the way that a liturgy is comforting. We change, and yet we don’t; we do the same thing, over and over, and yet it’s different, as we are; and yet it isn’t, and therefore reassures us that we aren’t. So that’s another thought I might take with me into the 25-hour fast.

Meanwhile, right before the pandemic I attended a workshop reading pursuant to a potential production of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, and boy is that a different play! The kind of play that Joshua Cohen might make something of, honestly. I definitely intend to revisit, but not, I think, with Yom Kippur in mind.

Bound With Isaac

The other Yom Kippur-related Shakespeare piece I wrote was about the story of the binding of Isaac and the love test that begins Shakespeare’s King Lear. I say it is Yom Kippur-related but really it’s more of a Rosh Hashanah story, since that’s when the binding of Isaac is read in synagogue (on the morning of the second day of the holiday). But the two holidays are closely bound together, and honestly, I think the right way to think about the fact that we read it on Rosh Hashanah is that we’re looking forward to what’s going to happen on Yom Kippur, when either a sacrifice will be demanded or an angel will stay the killing hand at the last moment.

Anyway: here’s a taste of the piece:

Why does Lear need to prove his daughters’ love? He knows his youngest daughter’s devotion. I have never seen a production in which Lear is in any way fooled by his two older daughters’ false comforts. He already knows that Cordelia loves him truly and that Goneril and Regan exaggerate their affection. What, then, is the purpose of the trial?

Well, what is the purpose of Abraham’s trial? God, even more than Lear, surely knows the depth of Abraham’s devotion. From God’s perspective, the command cannot be posed in order to see whether Abraham will be willing to perform the terrible deed. Rather, the purpose can only be to teach Abraham something by going through the experience of preparing for sacrifice, right up to the point the knife is raised, and to teach succeeding generations through the story of his deed.

So, too, I would suggest, with Lear. The love test is almost always staged as a bit of theater: Lear knows what he is going to do, and he thinks he knows what Cordelia is going to do. He has orchestrated this as a teachable moment for his daughters and for his court, a lesson in what love looks and sounds like—love for a father and love for a king, which are, in Lear’s case, one and the same. He would give her all, and he expects that she will demonstrate a love commensurate with that gift: a love that matches all with all. But Cordelia refuses to follow the script. “Love, and be silent,” she tells herself—what is the salience of this silence? I cannot help but hear an echo of Abraham’s own silence in the face of the divine command, a terrible silence that envelops the crisis within which Abraham is caught.

Midrash fills up Abraham’s silences—for example, by way of explaining the prolixity of God’s original command. “Take your son,” God commands, and Abraham, in the famous midrash quoted by Rashi, replies, “I have two sons.” “Your only son” is elicited in reply, “each is the only son of his mother [Sarah and Hagar].” “The one you love”—“but I love both of them.” Only with the name “Isaac” does Abraham run out of ways to escape. But all of this midrashic elaboration only underlines what is missing from the original biblical text: any sign of what Abraham is feeling.

Although Cordelia begins her speech with a literal “nothing,” she does not stand upon that silence, but interprets it for her father and his court:

                                                Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

For this, Cordelia is banished and disowned—and we, like the loyal Kent, are appalled. But in this reaction, we are reading Lear as something less than what he knows himself to be, that is, as less than a king. We should take the moment, and Lear’s intentions, more seriously. And reading Lear by the light of the akedah is a way in.

What has God asked Abraham to sacrifice when He calls for Isaac to be set forth as a burnt offering? Remember the three ways God describes him: your son, your only one, whom you love. Isaac is Abraham’s son, the continuance of his own name. Isaac is unique, the vessel through which the entire world is promised blessing and redemption. And Isaac is Abraham’s beloved. Isaac is the child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Abraham since He took him out of Ur of the Chaldees. And this—all that God has given him—is what God demands Abraham surrender, to prove his obedience—his love—for God, his ultimate father.

The principle here is terribly simple, and one that Satan’s cynical argument about Job makes explicit. If we obey God in expectation of reward, then our love of God is not pure. So to prove that our love is pure, and not transactional, we must be willing to sacrifice everything—indeed, everything that God Himself promised us—on the altar of our devotion. If we do less than this—if we reserve anything for ourselves, for our own futures, for our destinies on earth—then we have proved ourselves unworthy of those very blessings that were promised.

Cordelia’s response to her father turns this equation on its head. She is to be wedded to a great prince and will inherit the choicest portion of her father’s kingdom—if she demonstrates total and complete love. This is the transactional love that the akedah rejects, a prize for a price. Her response is that if she demonstrates that total love—and implicitly values that inheritance and that marriage at nothing—then the entire ceremony of king and court and of her courtship is pointless. It is not her love that must be total, but his, her father’s—total enough to give her a kingdom knowing she will not return it.

The essay as a whole is pretty dense, and gets pretty dark, as you would expect of an essay about two such troubling texts. I hope you’ll read it. More than any of the others, I’d love to talk about it. I feel there’s more to say.

Embracing the Darkness

I’ve already posted two Leonard Cohen songs appropriate to the season. I might as well post the third, the haunting song from his final album where Cohen identifies with Abraham (as he identified with Isaac as a young man), and fully embraces the darkness that, he surely knew, would shortly thereafter embrace him.

May you all be inscribed and sealed for another year in the book of life.