Kol Nidre 5777
© S.H.Parker 2016

So, where were we?

Ah, yes, the sanctity of the spoken word....

All of Israelite religion, all of Jewish tradition stands, on the foundation of the power of the spoken word.... The spoken word is a living entity in its own right. The spoken word has a reality, a power, a living force independent of the human who spoke them.

The Rabbis even tell us that someone who speaks ill of his neighbor (committing lashon hara) is worse than a murderer.

This statement, that the spoken word is sacred, should not come as a surprise.

God creates terrestrial order ... through speech.

God covenants with the patriarchs ... through speech.

The theophany at Sinai is through ... speech. ו"ג

Why the focus on words? What is it about language that is so important?

There is certainly a pragmatic sociological reason. Israel conceived itself as a covenanting community (explaining the affinity of early American immigrants to the idea of Israel). The Levitical/Mosaic immigrants were certainly literate. Equally certainly, the vast majority of Israelites, from the 14th-13th century migration, were not (widespread literacy is attested only from the 11th century). Covenants were made orally; speech, in the absence of a written record, is how agreements were made. So honoring your word was essential to social function (think of Lavan and Jacob).

But there is more than this.

Words represent ideas. Words are how we express ideas. There is a famous remark by Ludwig Wittgenstein, "That of which we cannot speak, we must remain silent" (if you think about it, this is actually tautological). Philosophers have long understood this to imply that if you can't express something verbally, if you can't speak it or write it, you can't have thought it. So, what I'm really saying is that ideas have a life of their own.

"Ideas" were not very important in the very ancient Mesopotamian world. If someone expressed contrarian or offensive ideas to Babylonian, Assyrian or Persian authorities, not much was done about it. In fact, the Persian emperor Cyrus seems to have encouraged divergent ideas. It is Cyrus who ordered the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, a temple for a god he "had not known." Mesopotamian rulers only seemed to care about receiving their tribute and that conquered populations stayed conquered (i.e., didn't rise in rebellion).

Egypt reacted very differently to inharmonious ideas. Egyptians reacted strongly to ideas of which they did not approve. Egypt expunged anything it found in any way objectionable. Pharaohs were known to remove the names of their predecessors from monuments, substituting their own. They were known to have completely expunged their civil records of persons and events they didn't approve of, like the Hyksos and Ahkenaten.

Progress being what it is, the "civilized" Greeks and Romans realized that destroying records did not destroy ideas. They developed a new way of handling ideas that they didn't like (and there were many). Greeks and Romans killed ideas they didn't like by killing the head in which the idea resided. And, it remained so until "the rule of law" won out. With the advent of "the rule of law," mob intimidation, often government sponsored, became an instrument of social policy to silence divergent ideas. Often suppression of ideas became "the law of the land." Laws, like Spain's Limpieza del Sangre laws, France's statelessness laws, the Nuremberg laws, legally sanctioned intimidation and "black listing" by the likes of Joe McCarthy, replaced direct governmental terror. Did you realize that the House Unamerican Activities Committee, for example, was not officially disbanded until 1975, when its functions were taken over by the House Judiciary Committee; Tail gunner Joe is, so far as I can tell, forgotten but he is hardly gone....

Ideas have a life of their own ... especially good ideas.

The idea that became Israel formed three and a half millennia ago, give or take a couple of centuries. It formed in the head of a person who was known as the "leader (or father) of many," אב-רמ, Avram.

That idea lead Avram away from the death spiral of Canaanite feudalism and into the central hill country. It has persisted through conquests and exiles by Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians. (Exiling attempts philosophical change, not by killing the intellectual leaders of a people, but by moving them elsewhere, where there were no willing ears.)

It persisted through Alexander's Hellenizing campaign, which was both non-forceful and subtle, "assimilation by example." But, make no mistake the spread of Hellenic culture, Hellenization, to conquered peoples was Alexander's agenda. It persisted through his successors' much less subtle and much more coercive assimilationary activities.

It persisted through the Romans, where contrary ideas were treason. It persisted through Christianity's early "anti-Judaizing" campaigns which quickly devolved into Christianity's anti-Semitic phase (which, near as I can tell, hasn't actually ended), where contrary ideas where heresy. It persisted through the massacres of the Crusades and, later, governmentally sanctioned pogroms. It persisted through "the enlightenment" and its psycho-social onslaught, where anti-Semitism added an intellectual dimension to the existing visceral, church-based, one. Jew hating not only felt good, now it was "morally" satisfying too.

It survived the Shoah....

Avram's idea persists through modern European anti-Semitism in its numerous guises. This new, sometimes less physical, anti-Semitism does not unite Jews. The fact is that nothing in the world is easier than to stop being a Jew and assimilate into the Borg of European society and, since Assyria conquered the northern kingdom 2600 years ago, many have. This has always been true, just as it has always been true that many Israelites make the obvious inference: the strong need Europeans have to "convert the Jew" shows that there must be something about Israel - its foundational idea - that is very important and very worthwhile. Even if most never figure out what it is, they sense "the idea" is there.

The idea persists.

And, just what is that idea?

It is, to quote Curly, in the movie City Slickers, "one thing ... just one thing."

G'mar tov.