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This Yom Kippur, Remember Kol Nidrei

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An Israeli walks down one of Tel Aviv's main streets during Yom Kippur, when the city grinds to a halt. 2015.
An Israeli walks down one of Tel Aviv's main streets during Yom Kippur, when the city grinds to a halt. 2015. Credit: Ofer Vaknin, Haaretz

One of the left’s thorniest problems today is evident in the current Israeli mindset of despair and cynicism that says “nothing will ever change here” and “there will never be peace here.” The concern is that, given the state of Israeli politics, too many people have stopped believing that any real change will happen.

Of course, the chance of success for any complex political task must be measured by a whole ensemble of rational and other considerations. But the emotional aspect and the mindset for political action depend on us alone. The decision whether to believe that we can make a better world or simply let sorrow overtake us could decide the battle ahead of time.

To judge by the cultural debate in Israel and abroad in recent years, too many people have taken to heart the idea that the banality of evil makes evil almost inevitable. From their point of view, sober acknowledgement of reality means recognizing that we live in a kingdom of evil and therefore it’s naive to think good can win. This is how they turn doubt and cynicism into the wisest emotional strategy.

It’s therefore vital to recognize that there’s an opposing option. Two good examples, one in the Jewish tradition and one in contemporary political thought, show that without faith in the possibility of change for the better we cannot reestablish ourselves or the world. The first can be seen in the ancient and strange prayer Kol Nidrei that opens Yom Kippur.

Many people wonder what this quasi-legal declaration means; the leader of the prayer service tells the congregation's members that all the pledges they made to themselves, all the obligations they took upon themselves – themselves only, of course – are from that point null and void. To stress the importance, the prayer leader repeats this short declaration two or three times and only then begins the service.

The Kol Nidrei prayer invites us to clear from our hearts the burden of all the decisions, all the pledges to ourselves that we believe define our personality. We are invited to see ourselves as a blank slate so that new and different things can penetrate; so that new good can generate change in our lives.

This call is not so different from the proposal by the great contemporary philosopher John Rawls, who said that if people can clear from their hearts everything they know about themselves, they’ll discover that what they choose instead is the moral good shared by everyone. According to Rawls, if we can make room in our hearts and be liberated from prejudices about ourselves – men or women, white or black, Palestinians or Jews, short or tall – human logic will guide us to choose anew what is best for ourselves, which is also best for others.

Kol Nidrei and Rawls’ idea are examples of a similar process of opening the heart. They exemplify the intention of leaving behind what has failed and what fails us, and giving new and better things a chance. When this understanding is translated into politics, we receive renewed faith in the possibility that we can change reality.

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