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Kol Nidre [Sep. 26th, 2012|12:31 am]

"You've been pretty unproductive lately."

"Yeah, I know. I usually use precommitments to handle my productivity, but I've been stymied by the proximity of Kol Nidre, the Jewish/game theorist holiday that voids all precommitments."

"The ... it ... what?"

Kol Nidre is pretty neat, even though the old-timey Christians used it as an excuse for anti-Semitism a lot. Its Hebrew name literally means "all vows", and it is the night on which Jews recite a chant forsaking all the vows they have made in the past year the coming year it's complicated:
"All [personal] vows we are likely to make, all [personal] oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our [personal] vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths."

The medieval Christians found this amazingly sketchy for perfectly understandable reasons. It sounds like any religious group that has a holiday in which they specifically release themselves from all their promises is a religious group that cannot be fully trusted.

But things are not as bad as all that. Rabbinic tradition says that the declaration covers only a certain class of vows: exactly which class is a complicated question, but my interpretation of it is that it is those whose breaking would be a "victimless crime", one which does not affect any second party. So if you loan money to a Jew and she promises to pay it back, you're safe.

What is the point of this? There are two good historical explanations, one of which is interesting and one of which is true. The interesting one is that sometimes anti-Semites would haul the Jews before the Inquisition and make them swear to become good Christians and stop practicing Judaism. The Jews naturally didn't want to be held to an oath they made at gunpoint, but they felt really bad about breaking it. So they invented the Kol Nidre as an official release from those kinds of oaths.

It's not quite true, because the Kol Nidre is at least fifteen hundred years old, antedating the Inquisition by a good bit. And it's not even entirely clear to me whether breaking oaths to the Inquisition is covered by it; as linguistically uncomfortable as it is to call the Inquisition "a victim", forswearing them doesn't seem to be an entirely victimless crime.

The true historical explanation is that the Jews tended to go overboard with religious vows a lot. It was the Iron Age equivalent of "God, if I pass this final exam I will totally go to synagogue every day from now on" or even of a New Years' Resolution: "I swear to God that this year I will learn the whole Torah, seriously, no excuses." They were made in the heat of the moment, they weren't very smart, and people ended out feeling guilty about it, because vows are really important in Judaism and Jews are very good at feeling guilty.

And since people feeling guilty all the time was a bad thing, they implemented Kol Nidre. It used to absolve people of their broken vows in the past year. Then it was decided it would be a little more credible if it absolved them in the coming year, since it would prevent people from having to spend a year feeling guilty and it would kind of be adding a disclaimer to your upcoming vows that made breaking them less of a sin. At the same time, it acknowledges our sinfulness and asks God's forgiveness.

I like Kol Nidre from a game theoretic perspective. I frequently make precommitments, like "I will study flashcards at least ten minutes a day from now on." These are useful; they prevent me from becoming super lazy all the time. And I am pretty good at keeping them, if I do say so myself, because I basically think if I ever break them I will never be able to trust myself again.

On the other hand, sometimes those precommitments get old. Maybe after studying flashcards at least ten minutes a day for eight months, I've learned everything flashcardable I want to know, and I have better things to do with my ten minutes. Maybe I realize that flashcards aren't really that good a study method after all and want to switch to one I think is better. Maybe I didn't realize exactly how annoying those flashcards would be.

For exactly that reason, I usually set a time limit to all my precommitments. But time limits are hard to keep track of, and sometimes my time limits are too long. So I celebrate Kol Nidre as a sort of built-in precommitment expiration date that prevents me from ever making a precommitment of more than a year. When it comes around, I auto-cancel all my precommitments and start over.

And of course sometimes that means making exactly the same precommitment for another year, because I'm not totally dumb and a lot of the time whatever got me into the original precommitment is still totally valid. But sometimes it doesn't, and I'm super thankful for the ability to get out of the stupid deal I talked myself into on one day of the year, without setting a general policy of absolving myself from anything at any time.

Aside from the two historical explanations above, there's a kabbalistic explanation for Kol Nidre as well. As soon as you hear "kabbalistic" you think "this is going to be super weird and super awesome", and the kabbalists do not disappoint. They say that all year, God is watching all the horrible things we do and thinking "Oh man, I am totally going to do some righteous smiting on that squid314 person." And as God finalizes destinies for the New Year (which for Judaism and therefore for God begins in late September/early October) He is remembering all those resolutions He made. Kol Nidre is when we release ourselves from our vows in the hope that God will reciprocate by releasing Himself from His and so let us live and stay happy and healthy for another year.

Hope it works.

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[User Picture]From: michiexile
2012-09-26 08:56 am (UTC)
And since this was before the invention of liberalism it was considered a bad thing for everyone to go around feeling guilty all of the time.

I suppose this sentiment captures a lot of why your musings often confuse me. I consider myself a liberal, a feminist, and at least trying to be an ally to quite a number of causes; but even though I am in a position of high privilege (white, male, well-educated almost to a fault, middle-class, currently (almost) fully able-bodied, …) I don't consider my awareness of privilege to be a source of guilt.

Something fundamentally important to be aware of, sure. Something that will mean that I have far less authority to speak to certain experiences than the people who actually, y'know, experience them, sure.
But guilt? Not really.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-26 09:02 am (UTC)
Intended as a meaningless joke. Since apparently it was distracting I took it out.
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-26 09:27 am (UTC)
That's really interesting. I guess it's also the origin of the idea of not making oaths.

And yes, if people are imperfect in making precommitments, it makes sense to have a moratorium where people can reset even if they overcommitted, while not completely undermining the idea, so adopting Kol Nidre makes sense.

forswearing them doesn't seem to be an entirely victimless crime

I imagine the Talmud goes into considerable detail on what counts, but my reaction is:

1. The oath doesn't count as "to the inquisition" because they don't personally benefit from the state of your soul, even though they were there when you said it.

2. It's potentially useful to be able to make coerced oaths, like the story where Loki was captured and then released in exchange for bringing them Thor, because it means that if you're captured, you can promise to do something in exchange for freedom, but if they've no reason to trust you, they'll probably just kill you. In fact, only being able to make a time-limited oath is probably better, because that's still useful to them, but less damaging to you. But it's a toss up how much this helps, compared to the benefit of knowing that it's pointless trying to blackmail you because you won't ever commit to helping them.
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From: http://xlogon.net/firedrake
2012-09-26 10:23 am (UTC)
cartesiandaemon, I believe that Christian non-oath-taking mostly comes from Matthew 5:34-37 (which also enshrines binary as the highest form of communication) and James 5:12, though of course one can reasonably assume that there would have been a certain amount of back-and-forth in the early AD years.

This actually seems to me like a better-thought-out version of New Year's resolutions (which the ancient Babylonians and Romans certainly did: read the right way, it's an admission that one has failed and a commitment to try to do better.

Of course, as with any religion, when its proponents say "I know that's what the book says, but that's not what it really means, you have to read this other stuff and interpret it in a completely different way from the actual obvious meaning of the text" I get edgy and move away.

-- random Firedrake
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-26 11:48 am (UTC)
I was actually thinking of the Jewish tradition: I knew some Christian denominations have a similar tradition, but I'd forgotten it until you reminded me. From what I remember, it sounds almost the same to the verse in Matthew and the way some denominations have interpreted it, but I assume they came from an earlier common source (but I don't actually know).
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From: danarmak
2012-09-26 11:21 am (UTC)
> I am pretty good at keeping them, if I do say so myself, because I basically think if I ever break them I will never be able to trust myself again.

That makes sense. I on the other hand have never honored commitments to myself (that didn't involve others). I start out in the mode where I can't trust myself. Do you have any advice on this?
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[User Picture]From: dudley_doright
2012-09-26 03:04 pm (UTC)
Make a sufficiently drastic change in your life that you can call everything you did before, and everything you do after separate reference classes.
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[User Picture]From: f45one
2012-09-26 11:28 am (UTC)
are you jewish or raised jewish? very interesting peice of research either way. thanks
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-26 09:19 pm (UTC)
Raised Jewish, yes.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-26 12:32 pm (UTC)
One notes that the medieval Christians lived in a feudal society in which oaths were the central mechanism of society. Substitute "contracts" for "vows" and you probably get a modern equivalent of the reaction.

The Albigensians maintained that Albigensians were free of all vows too. That went badly for them.

(One also notes that the Kol Nidre itself does not make mention of the limitations the rabbis put on it, and creates a certain degree of skepticism about whether all those who recite it really are including a mental reservation that this does not include all the oaths they really ought to fulfill.)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-27 06:43 pm (UTC)
I like Beeminder's approach: you can change the terms of your precommitment whenever you want, but the changes will be effective one week later.
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