Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yom Kippur

Can We Pray About Iran on Yom Kippur?

At sundown tonight, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day of fasting and prayer as the ten Days of Awe, during which Jews account for their actions in the previous year and atone for their sins, come to a close. The point is to think seriously about our own behavior toward others and to our relationship with our Creator. Though it is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur’s significance is not just theological. As it is the religious service that more Jews attend than any other, it has also come to be a day of communal gathering. As such it is the day when synagogues appeal for funds to maintain themselves and the community. But it is also fitting that amid the traditional liturgy and prayers, attention should be paid to the dire threats that hang over Israel and the Jewish people.

It is in that spirit that the Orthodox Union and that movement’s Rabbinical Council of America issued a call for prayer on Yom Kippur for an end to threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. This seems to me to be an utterly unexceptionable request. Why wouldn’t Jews, be they members of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or even those who style themselves Secular Humanists and don’t even believe in God, not wish to devote a moment to calling for removing the threat of extermination from the State of Israel? Jews may disagree on every conceivable political question but surely there is nothing wrong with asking the Almighty to either soften the hearts of the tyrannical Islamist regime in Tehran or to strengthen the resolve of the rest of the world to stop them? But, believe it or not, some people don’t think such a prayer is a good idea. Peter Beinart, the author and blogger who fancies himself the conscience of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, thinks the rabbis are “disturbing his Yom Kippur” by injecting what he considers a political appeal onto a day that the OU says should be apolitical. Is he right?

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At sundown tonight, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day of fasting and prayer as the ten Days of Awe, during which Jews account for their actions in the previous year and atone for their sins, come to a close. The point is to think seriously about our own behavior toward others and to our relationship with our Creator. Though it is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur’s significance is not just theological. As it is the religious service that more Jews attend than any other, it has also come to be a day of communal gathering. As such it is the day when synagogues appeal for funds to maintain themselves and the community. But it is also fitting that amid the traditional liturgy and prayers, attention should be paid to the dire threats that hang over Israel and the Jewish people.

It is in that spirit that the Orthodox Union and that movement’s Rabbinical Council of America issued a call for prayer on Yom Kippur for an end to threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. This seems to me to be an utterly unexceptionable request. Why wouldn’t Jews, be they members of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or even those who style themselves Secular Humanists and don’t even believe in God, not wish to devote a moment to calling for removing the threat of extermination from the State of Israel? Jews may disagree on every conceivable political question but surely there is nothing wrong with asking the Almighty to either soften the hearts of the tyrannical Islamist regime in Tehran or to strengthen the resolve of the rest of the world to stop them? But, believe it or not, some people don’t think such a prayer is a good idea. Peter Beinart, the author and blogger who fancies himself the conscience of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, thinks the rabbis are “disturbing his Yom Kippur” by injecting what he considers a political appeal onto a day that the OU says should be apolitical. Is he right?

Beinart has a point when he notes that liberal denominations have undermined their credibility by attempting to portray their secular political agenda as Jewish causes, to their detriment of purely religious pursuits. Rabbis, like clerics in other faiths, have often used their sermons to foist their personal political agendas on their captive congregations. But is removing the Iranian threat really a partisan issue?

Beinart thinks it is because of the dispute between the government of Israel and the Obama administration over the latter’s refusal to enunciate red lines that would trigger action against Iran rather than more empty rhetorical promises that only serve to help kick the can down the road until the point where it may be too late to do anything about the problem.

Reasonable persons may disagree about what should be done about Iran. But does that quarrel mean that any concern about Iran should be off limits in the synagogue. Beinart thinks so. While he doesn’t want us to think he doesn’t care about Iran, he does seem to mock the special concern about it by asking why this year rather than previous years and why the OU is not calling for prayer to solve other serious problems or potential calamities.

What he fears is that if Jews spend too much time worrying or praying about the possibility that a vicious, anti-Semitic regime will get a nuclear weapon they might not think poorly about Netanyahu’s insistence on action. They may also not regard the president’s stance with complacence. Thus, by definition it seems, prayer about the Iranian threat ought to be off limits.

In stating such a position, he seems to be telling us that he does not take President Obama at his word about his promise about refusing to “contain” Iran rather than preventing it from obtaining nuclear capability. But Jews and other people of good faith need not interpret the call for prayer about Iran as a partisan appeal. Indeed, Democrats may take it as an impetus to press the president to make good on his promises.

But parsing the words of the prayer isn’t the point. Contrary to Beinart’s point of view, there are some issues that transcend partisanship, politics and even religious issues. Preventing a nuclear attack on Israel from a regime that has vowed to eliminate it is one such topic. That Beinart wishes to treat it as being morally equivalent to a liberal appeal for more social welfare spending or conservative calls for support for their issues tells us more about him and his very public angst about Israel and Jewish peoplehood than it does about what is or is not an appropriate prayer on Yom Kippur.

We at COMMENTARY wish all of our readers who will observe Yom Kippur an easy fast. But we also ask them and other readers to read the OU prayer and to add their own amens to its appeal to our own. We’ll be back after the holiday.

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Jews worldwide spend the day in fasting, prayer and repentance. Yom Kippur is not a day for politics.

But Yom Kippur 5773 is different.

On this Yom Kippur – the world faces an evil regime whose leaders have publicly committed themselves to destroying the State of Israel and to harming Jews worldwide; in addition, the Iranians are a threat to the global community.

On this Yom Kippur – the leader of that evil regime will address the United Nations General Assembly and again preach his hatred;

On this Yom Kippur – the words found in the High Holiday prayer book, “God determines which nations shall face war and which shall enjoy peace,” prompt us to contemplate with anxiety the fate of the State of Israel and her people, of Jews throughout the world and, indeed, of civilization as a whole.

The threat is dire and demands our attention on our holiest day. Therefore, we call upon all congregations to dedicate a specific moment during their services on the upcoming holy day of Yom Kippur to pray for an end to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

On Yom Kippur, may Israel and its people be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of life and peace.

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High Holy Days, and a Fifth Anniversary

Kol Nidre, the solemn service that leads into Yom Kippur, will be held in synagogues around the world this evening. Not actually a prayer but rather a “legal formula for the annulment of certain types of vows,” as Herman Kieval wrote in a brilliant 1968 article in COMMENTARY, Kol Nidre is a bit of religious theater by which the Jewish believer is transported across space and time into a primordial face-to-face encounter between good and evil, repentance (called teshuvah, or “turning,” by the Jews) and redemption.

The climax of the Yom Kippur service will come tomorrow afternoon, when the cantor’s repetition of the musaf “standing prayer” will undertake a mimetic reenactment of the Temple’s sacrificial service. Although the literal meaning of Kol Nidre is the cancellation of vows (“Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; our oaths shall not be valid oaths”), its dramatic function, then, is the discarding of ordinary habits and expectations at the entrance way to the absolute, the sub-zero of religious faith. By the time the believer falls to his knees during musaf tomorrow, hungry, stinking, and exhausted, he will have nothing left to give but his soul.

I already have my Yom Kippur reading picked out: Jon Levenson’s new Princeton book Inheriting Abraham, the first title in the new series “Jewish Ideas” sponsored by the Tikvah Fund and selected by former COMMENTARY editor Neal Kozodoy.

But these High Holy Days are meaningful to me in another sense too, a deeply personal sense. Five years ago, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, I was diagnosed with Stage Four metastatic prostate cancer. “The thing about Stage Four,” the late Christopher Hitchens said, “is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.” Average survival time for men with M+ prostate cancer (as it is abbreviated) is one to three years. I was given a one-in-three chance of living another five years. Yet here I am, prepared for the fifth time since then to abandon all my oaths in order to start again. Every year at this season I must repent for vowing not to die (if I have anything to do with it). Late tomorrow night, around midnight, I will take the same vow again. In between, though, I must hover semi-deliriously in the disquieting faith that the Creator of the Universe will decide, as the liturgy has it, who will live and who will die in the coming year. Yom Kippur is the most difficult theatrical production I’ve ever had to sit through.

Please forgive this resort to confessionalism. And for my Jewish friends: may the seal be for good! Talk to you Thursday.

Kol Nidre, the solemn service that leads into Yom Kippur, will be held in synagogues around the world this evening. Not actually a prayer but rather a “legal formula for the annulment of certain types of vows,” as Herman Kieval wrote in a brilliant 1968 article in COMMENTARY, Kol Nidre is a bit of religious theater by which the Jewish believer is transported across space and time into a primordial face-to-face encounter between good and evil, repentance (called teshuvah, or “turning,” by the Jews) and redemption.

The climax of the Yom Kippur service will come tomorrow afternoon, when the cantor’s repetition of the musaf “standing prayer” will undertake a mimetic reenactment of the Temple’s sacrificial service. Although the literal meaning of Kol Nidre is the cancellation of vows (“Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; our oaths shall not be valid oaths”), its dramatic function, then, is the discarding of ordinary habits and expectations at the entrance way to the absolute, the sub-zero of religious faith. By the time the believer falls to his knees during musaf tomorrow, hungry, stinking, and exhausted, he will have nothing left to give but his soul.

I already have my Yom Kippur reading picked out: Jon Levenson’s new Princeton book Inheriting Abraham, the first title in the new series “Jewish Ideas” sponsored by the Tikvah Fund and selected by former COMMENTARY editor Neal Kozodoy.

But these High Holy Days are meaningful to me in another sense too, a deeply personal sense. Five years ago, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, I was diagnosed with Stage Four metastatic prostate cancer. “The thing about Stage Four,” the late Christopher Hitchens said, “is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.” Average survival time for men with M+ prostate cancer (as it is abbreviated) is one to three years. I was given a one-in-three chance of living another five years. Yet here I am, prepared for the fifth time since then to abandon all my oaths in order to start again. Every year at this season I must repent for vowing not to die (if I have anything to do with it). Late tomorrow night, around midnight, I will take the same vow again. In between, though, I must hover semi-deliriously in the disquieting faith that the Creator of the Universe will decide, as the liturgy has it, who will live and who will die in the coming year. Yom Kippur is the most difficult theatrical production I’ve ever had to sit through.

Please forgive this resort to confessionalism. And for my Jewish friends: may the seal be for good! Talk to you Thursday.

Read Less

Democrats Freak Over ObamaCare Opposition

The Obami spinners can’t quite decide whether to exaggerate or ignore the backlash to ObamaCare. On one hand, they seize upon random lunatics (well, not so much with regard to the Democratic donor who went after Eric Cantor, spouting anti-Semitic venom: “Remember Eric … our judgment time, the final Yom Kippur has been given. You are a liar, you’re a Lucifer, you’re a pig, a greedy f—— pig, you’re an abomination, you receive my bullets”) in order to paint an atmosphere of violence perpetrated by unhinged extremists who dare demean the wonders of ObamaCare. But then again, they don’t want to make such a big deal of the opposition because, well, the legislation is historic! As to the latter reaction, Daniel Henninger comments:

In his “Today Show” interview this week, Mr. Obama with his characteristic empathy acknowledged there are “folks who have legitimate concerns … that the federal government may be taking on too much.”

My reading of the American public is that they have moved past “concerns.” Somewhere inside the programmatic details of ObamaCare and the methods that the president, Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Reid used to pass it, something went terribly wrong. Just as something has gone terribly wrong inside the governments of states like California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Massachusetts.

The 10th Amendment tumult does not mean anyone is going to secede. It doesn’t mean “nullification” is coming back. We are not going to refight the Civil War or the Voting Rights Act. Richard Russell isn’t rising from his Georgia grave.

But we are witnessing a populist movement and a potential wave election, both of which are legitimate and heartfelt expressions of disgust and horror directed at the liberal elites. So the Democrats are in a bind — excoriate the opposition or win them over? Prepare the troops for a drubbing or pretend as if everything is going according to plan? If they seem a bit schizophrenic these days — alternately alarmist and oblivious — it is the outward manifestation of the contradiction at the heart of their agenda. They defied the will of the public, reveling in their political “courage.” But, alas, they have not quite come to terms with the consequences of that decision, namely that they face a thumping at the polls and a repudiation of their handiwork. There is, after all, a price to be paid for brazen contempt for the will of the voters.

The Obami spinners can’t quite decide whether to exaggerate or ignore the backlash to ObamaCare. On one hand, they seize upon random lunatics (well, not so much with regard to the Democratic donor who went after Eric Cantor, spouting anti-Semitic venom: “Remember Eric … our judgment time, the final Yom Kippur has been given. You are a liar, you’re a Lucifer, you’re a pig, a greedy f—— pig, you’re an abomination, you receive my bullets”) in order to paint an atmosphere of violence perpetrated by unhinged extremists who dare demean the wonders of ObamaCare. But then again, they don’t want to make such a big deal of the opposition because, well, the legislation is historic! As to the latter reaction, Daniel Henninger comments:

In his “Today Show” interview this week, Mr. Obama with his characteristic empathy acknowledged there are “folks who have legitimate concerns … that the federal government may be taking on too much.”

My reading of the American public is that they have moved past “concerns.” Somewhere inside the programmatic details of ObamaCare and the methods that the president, Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Reid used to pass it, something went terribly wrong. Just as something has gone terribly wrong inside the governments of states like California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Massachusetts.

The 10th Amendment tumult does not mean anyone is going to secede. It doesn’t mean “nullification” is coming back. We are not going to refight the Civil War or the Voting Rights Act. Richard Russell isn’t rising from his Georgia grave.

But we are witnessing a populist movement and a potential wave election, both of which are legitimate and heartfelt expressions of disgust and horror directed at the liberal elites. So the Democrats are in a bind — excoriate the opposition or win them over? Prepare the troops for a drubbing or pretend as if everything is going according to plan? If they seem a bit schizophrenic these days — alternately alarmist and oblivious — it is the outward manifestation of the contradiction at the heart of their agenda. They defied the will of the public, reveling in their political “courage.” But, alas, they have not quite come to terms with the consequences of that decision, namely that they face a thumping at the polls and a repudiation of their handiwork. There is, after all, a price to be paid for brazen contempt for the will of the voters.

Read Less




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