Monday, October 17, 2005


Yom Kippur and the Ring Cycle

Given some (hopefully now resolved) turmoil in my personal life, I have been thinking a bit about the nature of vows -- which I guess is an appropriate thing to think about around Yom Kippur.

If you vow to be a friend: when are you free of the obligation you have incurred? When your friend stops being a friend? What if your friend thinks what he or she is doing is out of friendship when in reality it is not? In terms of the news: when is a journalist free to reneg on a vow of secrecy? When the anonymous source burns the journalist? In general, when are you free of vows?

On Yom Kippur we say the Kol Nidre releasing us to vows made to God. But when and how to we release ourselves from vows made to our fellow humans? Can we ever do so? Should we ever do so?

On the surface of things, nothing could be so much further removed than the morality of the Ring Cycle, written by the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner (who, btw, seemed to mainly associate with Jews rather than non-Jews), in which freedom and progress finally come from the release from too many obligations as the obligation based lifestyle of Judaism. But on a deeper level, isn't Judaism's iconoclasm equivalent to Wagner's? Don't the Kol Nidre and Akedah together comprise the same narrative as the Ring Cycle?

The key to resolving this paradox is the realization that Torah is self-limitting. While interpretation can and must add fences and fences around the Torah, the laws themselves are finite in number and do not proliferate. And we shouldn't proliferate them for ourselves by taking unnecessary vows or invoking God in vain. While some may consider it to be a sign of religious devotion to constantly invoke God, others remember the lesson from the Torah portion read the morning of Yom Kippur (from Leviticus, chapter 16): when Aaron's sons brought up the spectre of God and religion at the wrong time, they died in a strange fire.

Without true T'shuvah ... with taking unnecessary vows and obligations ... by invoking God inappropriately and bluring the lines "hamavdil ben kodesh l'chol" -- as too many people in this society are wont to do and the rest of us do in spite of ourselves -- we risk bringing strange fire on ourselves and becoming spiritually dead.

Fences... not my favorite part of Judaism. When I have an issue with some law or another. I generally resolve it by considering the intent, and considering whether the law is a fence or not. Seems to me we should be able to get to the core and intent of something, rather than avoid stuff "just in case".

But there are exceptions; the kashrut laws are in place to do 2 things: Stop us from eating "unclean" foods, and stop us from "seething a calf in its mother's milk". In an age where we have no idea where the milk or the meat came from, the whole separate dishes/pots/pans thing makes sense. But when people take this to the level of separate dishwachers and separate kitchens (I'm not making this up), it gets silly.

(I have very good friends who do these things, and I've told them my opinions. My only issue is if someone tries to legislate this to me.)

Fences within fences...
In general, I do take the same approach you do, but even more liberally.

OTOH, sometimes the fences actually manage to capture the meaning of the law where the law itself does not. Similarly, often the fences represent a specific interpretation of what the law is trying to help us avoid, so if the interpretation is wrong, then the fences will be wrong -- so perhaps a new set of fences are in order.
That's a great story. Waiting for more. film editing schools
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