Tradition Today: Rules and regulations

For all the beauty and intensity of emotion that Kol Nidre arouses in us, it is not the most important prayer of Yom Kippur.

For all the beauty and intensity of emotion that Kol Nidre arouses in us, it is not the most important prayer of Yom Kippur. It does not even come close. It is a Johnny-come- lately that was forced upon the rabbis by popular demand and eventually put into a framework that made it acceptable to rabbinical authorities. It allows us to enter this day with a feeling of being free of the burden of unfulfilled obligations.
The most important prayer of Yom Kippur is the vidui – the confession of sins. We have it in two forms – the brief ashamnu and the long al het. Originally the practice was to simply say hatati – I have sinned – once, but then it was realized that we needed more than that to impress the idea on us, so we have these longer and oft repeated versions. The purpose is the same – to get us to stand up in public and say, “I have sinned...” Sin is not a popular word in our world, so perhaps we should translate it as “I have done wrong...” What it tells us is that there are rules and regulations and that violating them is wrong.
Unfortunately our culture seems bent on teaching us the very opposite. The popular phrase today is “Go for it!” which all to often means “Do whatever you want.” The result is what Dr. Peter Whybrow, who studies human nature at UCLA, has called “a culture of excess.” When we are constantly told to buy more, to get more, we create people who eat too much, spend too much and who do not know how to exercise self-control. Politically we create an atmosphere in which regulating anything – be it banks, oil drilling or anything else – is seen as inherently wrong, as curbing the right of any enterprise to do what it wants regardless of the public good.
In a larger sense, the idea that there are no rules, no laws of morality, has brought about catastrophe in our world. In 1943, when Nazism was at its height, Thomas Mann, the great German writer then in exile in California, was asked to write a piece about the Ten Commandments for a book that was intended to dramatize the Nazi desecration of the Decalogue, the very foundation of civilization and morality. His novella has recently been reissued in a new translation under the title “The Tables of the Law.” The German title was simply “Das Gesetz” – “The Law.”
At the conclusion Mann comes to the most important point. Concerning the Ten Commandments, he has Moses say that he knows very well that there will always be transgressions against these laws but “if any man breaks one of them, his heart shall turn ice-cold because they are written into his flesh and blood, and he knows well that the words are binding.”
The real issue for each one of us is self-regulation. Learning to live according to rules. Learning to accept limitations. Learning to say no as well as yes and to know when to say which. Obviously the Jewish tradition – beginning with the tables of the law, the Ten Commandments – asks us to adopt a code of living which has prohibitions in it to curb our appetites, what tradition has called the yetzer, the inclinations that can lead to evil. The goal of these prohibitions is morality, the implementation of “love your neighbor” into everyday life – seeing every human being as important, as created in the divine image.
Rituals, such as laws of eating, laws of Shabbat, are intended to teach us how to curb our appetites. They are the methods of self-discipline that purify us and turn us into decent people. As the rabbis said, “The commandments were given to purify human beings.” Accepting such a code can sometimes be difficult.
We hate to say no to ourselves, but unless we learn to do that we will never be truly human.
Judaism is not an ascetic religion. We do not go in for nunneries and monasteries, for self-denial for its own sake. We do not emphasize the negative or try to suppress that which is normal within human nature; rather we take what Maimonides called the golden path of moderation. We want to channel and moderate our passions, not deny them. Unfortunately today there are those who seek to multiply prohibitions – looking for what has come to be called the humra (stringency) of the week – but that is not Judaism but a parody of it.
But on the other hand, those who say “just do what you want” are also extremists who are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Anything goes is as bad as nothing goes. Yom Kippur is our opportunity to consider what we have done, to review the regulations that can bring us to a disciplined life where our actions are weighed and judged not only by God, but by ourselves as well.