General Antisemitism

Anti-Judaism and the Kol Nidre myth

This is cross posted at the blog, JHate

A recurring theme on this blog will be anti-Judaism, a form of anti-Semitism that focuses on the immorality that is allegedly inherent in the Jewish religion. Proponents of anti-Judaism claim that Judaism is a debased and depraved religion; that its holy books – especially the Talmud – are filled with absurdities and blasphemies; that its laws encourage or even require Jews to scorn and hate non-Jews and to engage in activities to damage and undermine non-Jews and their societies. In this respect, Anti-Judaism should be distinguished from other forms of anti-Semitism, which attribute alleged Jewish malevolence to racial characteristics or to deviant socio-cultural norms in Jewish societies.

One of the staple accusations of anti-Judaism is particularly relevant now, in this season of Judaism’s High Holy Days. I am referring to the Kol Nidre myth, which alleges that Jews conduct a ritual by which they cynically and maliciously absolve themselves from keeping their promises.

Kol Nidre is the name of a prayer uttered in synagogues on Yom Kippur, known in English as the Day of Atonement.  Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and repentance, in which many Jews spend virtually the entire day in synagogues, reciting prayers, reflecting on their shortcomings and sins of the previous year, and making resolutions to become better people and better Jews in the year to come.  The day is physically and emotionally exhausting, but many Jews, myself included, love the melodies of the chanted prayers, the camaraderie of being surrounded in the synagogue by family and friends, and the emotional catharsis we feel when the stars come out at the end of the day and we turn to face the new year, refreshed.

Anti-Semites turn Yom Kippur into a hideous caricature of itself. They cast Yom Kippur not as a day of repentance and renewal, but as a day on which Jews ritually absolve themselves of their past sins so that they can go ahead and commit more sins with a clean slate.  In the words of one poster on the white supremacist Stormfront website:

“Yom Kippur is supposed to be the ‘Day of Atonement’ when all the Jews somberly ask their god to forgive them for all the wrongs they did in the preceding year….Of course we all know how it ends.  ’God forgiffs us and den ve’re off for anudder year of lying and cheating and stealing from de goy…vot a vonderful god ve haf’ …. [T]heir god takes their sins they have spent all day atoning for and forgives them so they can embark on the next year of foul corruption and self aggrandisement.”

This is an example of anti-Judaism, where anti-Semites allege that the Jewish religion encourages Jews to behave in an immoral way.

Anti-Semites particularly obsess over Kol Nidre, the opening ritual/prayer at the start of Yom Kippur.  The words “Kol Nidre” are Aramaic (the language spoken by many ancient Jews, including Jesus, and which many Americans have heard spoken in Mel Gibson’sPassion of the Christ), and mean “All Vows” in English. It is a relatively short ritual chant, in which the congregants address the issue of religious oaths that they may take in good faith, but which they may not live up to.

Judaism takes religious oaths — in which a Jew swears to perform an act of devotion to God — very seriously.  In ancient times, religious oaths usually related to the offering of sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem; a Jew who was considering pledging a sacrifice to the Temple would take an oath once he made up his mind, thereby imposing a solemn obligation on himself to follow through.  Religious oaths could also be made by a Jew who wished to obligate himself to say extra prayers, or to perform some other extra-curricular ritual obligation.  In ancient Judaism, if a Jew took a formal religious oath and then did not follow through on his commitment, he was considered to have committed an offense against God, and he faced possible punishment from a religious court.  So religious oaths were quite serious, and many people avoid taking such oaths altogether.  They could still say the extra prayers, for example, but they avoided taking a solemn vow to say the prayers.

Because of the seriousness with which Judaism approaches the subject of religious oaths, the Kol Nidre prayer is designed to short-circuit the oath-taking process. By saying the prayer, a Jew states that he or she doesn’t intend to imbue any devotional commitment he or she may be moved to make — even a commitment phrased in the form of a promise — with the status of a religious oath.  It’s still a commitment, of course, and the Jewish person is morally obligated to try to live up to it.  But by saying the Kol Nidre prayer, the Jewish person makes clear that he or she intends all such commitments to not be invested with the serious weight of a formal religious oath.  This prayer is particularly relevant on Yom Kippur, the day devoted to self-reflection and resolution-taking for the year to come.

Just to be perfectly clear: Kol Nidre has absolutely nothing to do with promises or oaths that Jews may make to each other, or to non-Jews. When a Jewish person swears an oath or makes a promise in a court, or in the course of business, or in an interaction with someone else, Judaism does not provide any sort of legal fiction to allow that person to wriggle out of it. Many Jewish prayerbooks explain this in their introductions or commentaries to Kol Nidre.

Anti-Semites, however, twist and distort the meaning of the Kol Nidre prayer — just as they do the character of Yom Kippur as a whole.  Anti-Semites allege that Kol Nidre provides moral “cover” for Jews to break their word, not just in promises made to God but in promises and commitments made to other people.  Henry Ford, a famous American anti-Semite [who also happens to have had something to do with cars  ], wrote in The International Jew that Kol Nidre is a prayer that “excuses perjury” and renders worthless the testimony of any Jew who uttered it. Ford goes on to say:

“[T]he Kol Nidre prayer is a holy advance notice, given in the secrecy of the synagogue, that no promise whatsoever shall be binding….The prayer breaks down the common ground of confidence between men….It requires no argument to show that if this prayer be really the rule of faith and conduct for the Jew who utters it, the ordinary social and business relations are impossible to maintain with him.”

Ford wasn’t the first anti-Semite to make this claim about Kol Nidre, and he certainly has not been the last. Ford’s exact text is reproduced on the website of Holocaust denier David Irving, and many others attack Kol Nidre in their own words. Ted Pike, an anti-Semite whose Oregon-based organization is called the “National Prayer Network,” describes Kol Nidre as “Judaism’s license to lie” in an essay by the same name.  He also says:

  • “[A] religious, Kol Nidre-reciting, Jewish businessman can cheat you without guilt for the next year….”
  • “We should also keep in mind Kol Nidre’s permission to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to lie under oath (as in the Nuremberg trials). Can we continue to accept as fact their testimony of seeing countless Jews destroyed in gas chambers and ovens?”
  • “[A]n observant Jew in Congress can renege on any promises he makes his constituents in the past or coming year. Gone also is any duty of federal or Supreme Court justices to be loyal to their oath to the Constitution and the United States of America.”

Mark Downey, who runs an anti-Semitic Christian Identity group called “Kinsman Redeemer Ministries,” has a charming essay entitled “Why We Hate Jews.” Part three of the essay is entitled “Lies (Kol Nidre).” After describing the prayer, Downey asks:

“Can any person or people with this kind of mentality be trusted? It’s this kind of mindset that gives cause for normal decent people to hate jews down through the centuries….A Christian’s word is expected to be as good as his bond; however a jew makes provision to drop below that level of morality. In fact, within the framework of the Zionist influenced U.S. government, there is a foreign and domestic policy to dishonor any agreement when it becomes disadvantageous to jews. This has been typified in broken treaties as the Kol Nidre mentality anticipates a futuristic perspective of deliberate deceptions….”

There are many, many more examples of anti-Semitic attacks on Kol Nidre, both in books and online.

24 replies »

  1. How sad that you have to write that but I’ve seen the filthy lies and know that it should be circulated very widely.

  2. Oh really, so what of confession? All those Our Father & Hail Mary’s? This is what comes of twisting a sentiment beyond recognition.

  3. the kol nidrei really does little….one must stand before a proper beis din to have oaths annulled…and that is what one does before rosh hashana…its called hatares nedarim

  4. Very well written but I have been trying to put my finger on what I feel about it.

    Much of my discomfort lies with this which, although it’s a fair reflection of haters’ beliefs, has also been said about Catholics and confession:

    “..Anti-Semites turn Yom Kippur into a hideous caricature of itself. They cast Yom Kippur not as a day of repentance and renewal, but as a day on which Jews ritually absolve themselves of their past sins so that they can go ahead and commit more sins with a clean slate…”

    Although Wikipedia says that Kol Nidre absolves a Jew from failing to live up to his promises, it also fails to make one important point, which is also absent from the prayer itself – that the reference to all vows essentially includes vows which Jews were forced to make under duress, which includes false conversion, denouncing their G-d, etc etc.

    Islamic al-taqiyya also allows Muslims to recant their promises to kufar but in every particular and when it suits them to do so. Islamic al-taqqiya is a religious imperative (think Faisal Ruaf)

    My memory of what I was taught about Kol Nidre on the other hand was for a Jew in an untenable position who had been forced, often by threat of violence (think autos da fe in the Spanish Inquisition), to promise that which went against his faith or even to convert to Christianity. The Kol Nidre prayer does not permit a Jew to recant promises he made to others, including to strangers as the prayer itself says, just because it is inconvenient to keep them.

  5. Serendipity,
    All christians (Catholic &Protestant alike) also go to church every week with the same goal: to be absolved of sin, mistakes,etc. and start again with a fresh slate. It’s the central tenent of Christianity, it kept the pews full for centuries….(that & if you didn’t go, you’d go to hell) Jews got a prayer, they got an entire religion our of it…..haters can twist anythng.

  6. Corned Beef.

    In my Liberal Synagogue in the UK we ended with Tekia Gdola (the Shofar last note) and a cheers as well as blessing Shana Tova to everyone around you.

    No one says anything about Jerusalem.

    We save this for the Seder.

  7. CornedBeefOnRyeWithMustard

    dickie has created his own religion

    did you note that dickie also said one is not allowed to wear leather belts?

    he also went into some balderdash about yom kippur being a white fast as compared to tisha b’av being a black fast….

    and to the dude in wembley…for some reason, both reform and conservative have seen fit to change the machzorim….lshana habaa beyerushalayim is said because we hope we have all done teshuva to the extent that we are now zocheh for mashiach and a return to eretz yisrael and the rebuilding of the beis hamikdash…..thanks for not helping out with that

  8. walt, one is not supposed to wear leather on Yom Kippur (including leather shoes). Silverstein was not wrong about the leather belts.

  9. Walt,

    “…thanks for not helping out with that.”

    You of course refer to me being either Liberal or secular.
    I am happy you show your true face and colour.

    Perhaps Neturey Karta is where you belong.

    I am Jewish in the way I see fit to be.

    The fact that you try to enforce your views on others is what breaking Israel apart, and have been in biblical times.

  10. “Islamic al-taqiyya also allows Muslims to recant their promises to kufar but in every particular and when it suits them to do so. Islamic al-taqqiya is a religious imperative (think Faisal Ruaf)”

    I don’t think you understand the doctrine of taqiyya.

    The theological approach to taqiyya is not a license to lie. It places very strict limits on the circumstances in which one might do so: which are essentially in circumstances on threat or compulsion. Similarly, the Talmud allows Jews to lie (but not about being Jewish) to save life. This is not a surprising thing to find in a religious tradition, that takes truth seriously.

    Secondly, taqiyya is primarily a doctrine developed by Shia Islam and is generally aimed at escaping Sunni persecution. It is worth mentioning that the accusation that Shiites are routine liars, and cannot be believed on religious matters or generally, is one which is made by the worst of Sunni bigots.

    For example, Qadhi is a preacher who until recently pushed the Holocaust denierism. He also preached similarly vicious stuff about Shiites being liars.

  11. David T,

    “The theological approach to taqiyya is not a license to lie.”

    Yes it is.

    “It places very strict limits on the circumstances in which one might do so: which are essentially in circumstances on threat or compulsion.”

    Not exactly. I found the following definition of taqiyya in Wikipedia (strangely or not, only in the Arabic version), citing a famous book on Sharia:
    التقية هي الحذر من إظهار ما في النفس من معتقد وغيره للغير [5]، كما يمكن القول بأن التقية عند أهل السنة هي إظهار المسلم لبعض الأقوال والفعال الموافقة لأهل الكفر أو الجارية على سبلهم إذا اضطر المسلم إلى ذلك من أجل اجتناب شرهم
    In English:
    “Taqiyya is caution from revealing your views to others. It is possible to say that taqiyya, for the Sunnis, is when a Muslim adopts – only outwardly – sayings and actions of like that of the Kuffar, or when a Muslim acts like them in order to avoid their (the Kuffar’s) evil (bad consequences)”.

    I guess that openly admitting that Islam wants to rule the world could have some nasty consequences for Muslims, so it is completely OK to lie, and cite the peaceful verses in the Koran, although they have been abrogated by the “Verse of the Sword”.

  12. David T:
    The theological basis of Taqiyya may be one thing but the application in fact must be cultural. I say must be because we have as an example that excellent most holy practitioner of Shiite Islam, Hassan Nasrullah who never tells a lie, according to both Shiite and Sunni Lebanese.

    Nasrullah lied his head off about Regev and Goldwasser implying quite definitely that at least one, if not both of them, were alive in order to achieve his aim of freeing a brutal murderer and not caring that his actions plunged all of Lebanon into war. He quite deliberately tortured the families of the two as well as the Israeli public with the hope that they were alive. I heard no disclaimers or disavowal of his attitudes from other Hezbullahi. It seemed that this is considered an acceptable way to behave.

  13. “A Christian’s word is expected to be as good as his bond;”

    Remind me again – which religion requires its adherents to go to confession every week so that they can be absolved of their sins once a week and then start all over again?

  14. AKUS, the concept of “clean slate” forgiveness, etc., is present in all sects of Christianity, its the central tenent, the symbolism behind the resurrection. Why justify/defend a prayer, how about a little “right back at ya” mentality.

  15. “It places very strict limits on the circumstances in which one might do so: which are essentially in circumstances on threat or compulsion. ”

    Threat or compulsion are very subjectively perceived circumstances.

  16. An interesting article and thread (esp. Serendipity and David T).

    @ jane schlitz

    Your concept of “clean slate” forgiveness is not the “central tenent” of Christianity! As you yourself say: haters can twist anythng.

    @ AKUS

    I take it your comment was not serious?

  17. Pretzelberg

    An interesting article and thread (esp. Serendipity and David T).

    The post of David T may be interesting, but its point is not true at all.
    See al-gharquad’s post (September 20, 2010 at 6:48 am)
    The so called takkiya is a license to lie especially to kufaars and a license to violate agreements/treaties made with kufaars. The history of the Turkish-Hungarian wars the Turks did it many times quoting the relevant parts of the Holy Koran.

  18. I don’t agree Pretzelberg, and what is hateful about forgiveness? tolerance? rising up to be a better person, yes that is exactly what I have been told Christianity is all about and frankly, it is unclear to me about what makes that statement a problem? Yes, forgiveness is a major tenent of Christianity.

  19. Oh and clean slate is Confession, Catholics are not supposed to take Communion without it. And the last First Holy Communion I went to was pretty clear on that.

  20. And lastly—-my reborn again friend has assured me that if I accept JC as my personal savoiur I will rise with him when the Rapture? occurs…..sounds like clean slate and forgiveness to me and I don’t see hater in any of this.