Kol Nidrei 5773: Take the Call
Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D.Phil., Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom
One Super Sunday at a Federation in some other town, someone was called for a donation. He
answered the phone in a thick British accent and an imperious tone, and he said "Madam, there
must be a mistake. My name is Oliver Andrew Hamilton the Third and I am not Jewish." With
that, he hung up. The next day, his card got put in the wrong pile and he was called again, and
he said the same thing. "Young lady, there must be some mistake. My name is Oliver Andrew
Hamilton the Third and I am not Jewish." The next day, his card got put in the wrong pile again,
and this time he really blew up. "Madam, there must be some mistake," he said. "My name is
Oliver Andrew Hamilton the Third, and I am not Jewish. And my father Oliver Andrew Hamilton
the Second is also not Jewish, and my grandfather, Oliver Andrew Hamilton the First, alav
hashalom, was not Jewish either."
Ah, religious identity. It’s complicated. I know a Jewish Patrick O’Reilly and a non-Jewish Sarah
Cohen. I know Jews who won’t set foot in a synagogue and non-Jews who spend hours here
every week. I know lox-and-bagel Jews, apples-and-honey Jews, eat-a-fish-head-for-a-good-
new-year Jews. Juives qui parlent français and Jews who speak English. Zionist Jews. Anti-Zionist
Jews. Kosher Jews, who come in many varieties, ranging from Won’t-eat-it-unless-it’s-
hermetically-sealed Jews to Eats-seafood-but-not-pork Jews.
In Montreal, I’ve discovered a variety of Jews that is not unique, but certainly well-represented.
I call them – or, they call themselves – the “I’m not religious” Jews.
The conversation goes something like this:
“Rabbi, I went to a Jewish day school and I want my son to become bar mitzvah, but I’m not
“Rabbi, my grandparents are Holocaust survivors and because of them, I want to have a Jewish
family, but I’m not religious.”
“Rabbi, I’d like to sit down and talk about God sometime, but I’m not religious.”
“Rabbi, my mother loved Temple, and she taught us such good values, but really, she wasn’t
I have been trying to figure this out.
I have no doubt that part of this phenomenon is connected to the distinct secularism of Quebec
society, in the wake of the Quiet Revolution and the rejection of organized religion in any form.
But I suspect there’s more to it than that.
I suspect that we have in our minds an image of a religious Jew – and that person doesn’t look
like me, and doesn’t look like you.
It’s hard to change the images that we have in our heads.
Mary Ann Garrett suffered for her whole life from extreme anxiety attacks, and an acute fear of
flying. In a story she tells for the National Story Project of NPR, she recounts how, because of a
family emergency, she needed to take a flight from California to Chicago. Here is how she tells
I got on the plane. My seat was by the window in the first row of the first-class
compartment. As I fought off the urge to get up and run off the plane, I decided to say a
prayer. It went something like this: “Please, God, help me, and do it now. Right now!”
As I sat there with my eyes shut and my hands gripping the armrests, I heard commotion
on the other side of the first-class compartment… I watched as a little old man was
escorted to the seat opposite mine. A young man and woman were assisting him, and
he was standing with his back to me… The young woman took the window seat, and as
the old man turned around to face me, he gave me the most beautiful smile. It was
George Burns. I had just seen him play the role of God in the movie Oh God.
“I have prayed for help many times in my life,” Mary Ann concludes, “but God has never
answered in such a dramatic way. I guess God figured I needed it under the
circumstances. I have never been afraid to fly alone since.”1
Now, for all I know, God is the spitting image of George Burns. It’s a cute story, and I do believe
that God, whoever God is, has a great sense of humour. But how many of us, I wonder, see God
like a character from a movie or a book we read as a child, some equivalent of an old man with
(or without) a beard on a cloud?
So what do we imagine when we imagine a religious Jew? The AP recently reported on ultra-
Orthodox men in Israel who are buying glasses that blur their sight, so they can avoid seeing
women. In the words of the reporter, the glasses are, “an effort to maintain their strictly devout
lifestyle.”2 Dr. Joel Hoffman critiques this account. Why is this seen as devout, he asks? Why is a
man with a black hat and blurry glasses seen to be religious, in a way that he, as a religious
school director, or his father, as a Reform rabbi, are not? How is it that the ultra-Orthodox men
in Beit Shemesh in Israel who spat on a nine-year old girl going to school this past year because
they didn’t think her skirt was quite long enough, how is it that they are seen as religious, and
you and I are not?
Mary Ann Garrett, “Rescued by God,” in Paul Auster, ed., I Thought My Father was God: And Other True Tales
from NPR’s National Story Project (New York, 2001), pp.177-78.
Cited in Joel M. Hoffman, “Devout or Deranged?” August 9, 2012
Last Friday in our Shabbat services, our president referred to an article about the Sephardic
Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who said that if a Jew is alone on Rosh Hashanah “it is better for him
to pray in his hotel and not go near [Reform Jews]. Moreover, it is better that he not pray at all
than pray with them.”3
Rabbi Amar is entitled to his opinion. But when I hear it, I think of the rabbinic story of two
rabbis who were passing through the town of Caesarea. The first rabbi started talking about
what terrible Jews lived there, upon which the second rabbi scooped a handful of sand and
stuffed it in the first rabbi’s mouth. “God does not like those who speak badly of God’s people,”
he said.4 Rabbi Amar is entitled to his opinion, and I am entitled to mine. And my opinion is:
Rabbi Amar is not very religious.
But if you get ten Jews in a room and stand me up beside Shlomo Amar and ask them which of
us is the rabbi, I’m willing to bet it won’t be me.
But maybe God doesn’t look like George Burns.
Maybe a rabbi does look like me.
And maybe a religious Jew does look like you.
Because maybe being religious can be different than we think.
We have a bad habit of confusing religiosity with certainty. It’s easy enough to do. As many of
you know, I grew up in Toronto as an adamantly Conservative Jew. In the crowd I grew up in –
and I am not proud of this – we referred to Holy Blossom as the Church on the Hill, just like
many of you grew up hearing Temple described as the Church on Sherbrooke Street. I was
aghast when their youth group had a pizza party after the seventh day of Pesach. I believed that
the Torah and rabbinic tradition told us how to live the way God wanted us to, and sure, there
were some differences in interpretation, but it was pretty clear what we were - and were not -
supposed to do. I spent a lot of time thinking about halakha, Jewish law, and not a lot of time
thinking about ethics or spirituality or God.
And then one day I was sitting and studying Talmud in Jerusalem at the Conservative Yeshiva,
when we came across a passage that led to a conversation about gays and lesbians in Jewish
law. “There’s just no room for it,” my teacher said. “Kacha zeh – that’s just the way it is.” And I
realized: That is not what my God looks like. That is not what my religion looks like. My God is
one who made all of us in the divine image. My religion is one that embraces interpretation and
change. My Judaism is not one that shrugs its shoulders at the exclusion of any human being.
So, like a good person of the book, I read. I snuck into the library of the Jerusalem campus of
the Reform seminary, HUC, and I found what felt like forbidden fruit. I found it, and I checked it
out: a book called Engendering Judaism, by Rachel Adler. In it, Adler argues that it’s impossible
to change the system of Jewish law from within, and that it’s not only possible but desirable to
Jeremy Sharon, “Chief rabbi: Better not to pray than to pray Reform,” The Jerusalem Post, September 16, 2012.
Song of Songs Rabbah 1:6.
live a Jewish life which is not defined by traditional halakhic rules. In other words, that liberal
Judaism is in fact not less than traditional Judaism, but a legitimate and honest way of being a
Jew. Here is the passage that got me:
The old praxis can be preserved intact only if we schizophrenically split off our religious
lives from our secular lives and live two separate existences with two different set of
values and commitments. But the obligation to be truthful and the yearning to be whole
are what made us progressive Jews in the first place.5
In other words, if you truly believe that men and women are equal, why would you identify
with a Judaism which countenances anything else? If you truly believe that we live in a world
where Jews and non-Jews interact, and we don’t want to turn back that clock, why would you
identify with a Judaism that closes doors instead of opening them?
There is one reason, I suppose, and it goes something like this: Tradition, tradition! To keep that
image of what God looks like. To keep that image of what a rabbi looks like. To keep that image
of what a religious Jew looks like. To do things the way your parents did it. To stay with what is
familiar and safe.
One of my favourite stories comes from Simon Wiesenthal, who tells of a man who lived near
him in one of the displaced persons camps after World War Two. This man borrowed ten
dollars from Wiesenthal and assured him that he had a package coming from a relative any day
and would positively pay him back the next week. At week’s end, he had an excuse for not
paying. And the next week, he had an even better one, and so it went for almost a year. Finally
one day, the man came up to him with a ten-dollar bill in his hand and said. “My visa has just
come through. I’m leaving for Canada tomorrow. Here’s the ten dollars I owe you.” But
Wiesenthal waved him away: “No, keep it. For ten dollars, it’s not worth changing my opinion
We humans are creatures of habit. To change our opinions, to change our assumptions, can be
incredibly hard. But that is the work of these Days of Awe: to ask ourselves who we are, and
examine whether what we believe is in keeping with how we live. These days are all about, in
Adler’s words, the obligation to be truthful and the yearning to be whole. Put that on a scale
against what is familiar and comfortable, and ask yourself where you stand. If the Judaism we
see as authentic is not the Judaism that lines up with our lives, of course we won’t see
ourselves as religious. Of course we won’t let religion in.
Maybe we confuse religiosity with certainty.
And that is precisely what our service tonight warns us against.
The Kol Nidrei prayer is beautiful, but it is an enigma. There are many theories about its origins
and attempts to explain its meaning. Quite frankly, it has been a liability. Its use has been
controversial among Jews since its inception some thirteen hundred years ago. And in non-
Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism (Philadelphia, 1998), Beacon Press edition p.26.
Cited in Rabbi Harold Kushner, “While There is Still Time,” Yom Kippur sermon 5760.
Jewish communities, it was taken as evidence that you couldn’t trust a Jew’s word. In the
Middle Ages, and as late as the nineteenth century, some courts had a special ‘Jewish oath’.
This required that any Jew who was to swear an oath in court would first have to stand in his
synagogue, holding a Torah scroll, wearing tallit and tefillin, and there swear that his civil oath
would not be revoked by a Jewish court or by Kol Nidrei. The baggage carried by Kol Nidrei was
so negative that in 1844, the reformers’ rabbinical conference in Brunswick, Germany agreed
that the prayer should be abolished, and in many Reform prayer books, it was. 7 There was
simply no getting around the fact that on the holiest day of the year, we were making a public
proclamation that any vows we might make in the coming year were absolutely null and void.
When it comes to contracts, Kol Nidrei is understandably problematic. But when it comes to
life, it is absolutely true. We have no idea what tomorrow holds. Maimonides, in his great
treatise on repentance, insists that we should confess before we eat our final dinner before the
Yom Kippur fast, in case we choke on our food and miss our chance to repent.8 How can I make
a promise if I don’t know I’ll be here to fulfill it? Kol Nidrei, I believe, is meant to remind us of
our frailty, our vulnerability, our mortality. Rather than being evidence of dishonesty, Kol Nidrei
is radically and existentially honest, reminding us that nothing is certain. Maybe even our
understanding of ourselves.
Maybe religion isn’t about certainty after all. Maybe it’s about humility. Maybe it’s about faith.
Maybe it’s about saying I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I will do the very best that I
can to be a good person and make the world a better place, and to try to figure out who God
might be and what God might want. Our Torah readings tomorrow will underline this theme.
Keep Shabbat; honour one’s parents; set aside part of your harvest for the poor. And we do all
those things here. We bring the beauty of Shabbat as a sanctuary to our busy lives. We honour
our parents above and beyond religious differences, and through our Jewish Interfaith Family
Forum, we support our diverse families. We bring in food, not from the fields, but from the
grocery store, to give to others. We insist on finding meaning in our Judaism and in our lives. To
borrow another phrase from Fiddler on the Roof, if that’s not religious, what is?
This past Shabbat, two congregants spoke at services about what these days mean to them.
One of them mentioned that some in his family mark Yom Kippur by fasting, and others do not.
Now, do I believe that this is a meaningful fast, and that those who are able to observe it
should? Absolutely, and you can approach me at any point over this very long day to ask why.
But am I sure that it’s what God wants? Do I think the sky will fall if you don’t fast? Do I wish I
had the power to force you?
No, no, and no. Tomorrow we’ll read from Isaiah, in which God asks: Is this the fast that I have
chosen? The question is not bad. What is powerful about Reform Judaism, what drew me to this
movement, is that it is open to questions, and it is honest about the world we inhabit. We have
left the ghetto far behind, and we don’t look back. We come here freely. Our responsibility is to
learn and it is in our hands to choose. To be a rabbi in this world is not to coerce but to teach,
Annette M. Boeckler, “The Magic of the Moment: Kol Nidre in Progressive Judaism,” in All These Vows: Kol Nidre,
ed. Lawrence A. Hoffman (Woodstock, VT, 2011), pp.39-66. For the background cited here, see pp.40-41.
Maimonides, The Laws of Repentance 2:7.
to find ways to open doors to those looking to come in. And to be a religious Jew in this world is
not to follow a set of 16th century rules – or not follow it, and feel guilty – but to live in a way
that is shaped by Jewish wisdom and true to the heart of who we are.
“A new “learning” is about to be born – rather, it has been born,” wrote Franz Rosenzweig, a
beacon of liberal Jewish thought, and a great advocate of adult Jewish study:
It is a learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads
into life, but the other way round: from life… back to the Torah. That is the sign of the
It is the sign of the time because it is the mark of the people of the time… All of us to
whom Judaism, to whom being a Jew, has again become the pivot of our lives… we all
know that in being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead
everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the center; from the outside in.
…It is not a matter of pointing out relations between what is Jewish and what is non-
Jewish. There has been enough of that. It is not a matter of apologetics, but rather of
finding the way back into the heart of our life. And of being confident that this heart is a
Jewish heart. For we are Jews.9
To be honest, this way is harder. It’s much easier to idealize a traditional Jewish life – to support
it with our assumptions or our wallets – and to let ourselves off the hook.
But the obligation to be truthful and the yearning to be whole demands more of us. God does
not want us to check our minds, or our hearts, or our convictions at the door. There is no
certainty here, only humanity, only humility, only hope. Only the conviction that a Jewish life is
worth living, and that this synagogue can be its home.
“Biblical Israelites are not the real Jews,” Jay Michaelson writes:
Neither are Hasidim, 20th-century modernists, neurotic New York psychoanalysts,
Moroccan saints, angst-ridden intellectuals, High Reformers or anyone else. Real Jews
are all of the above — and the rest of us who take Jewishness seriously, in one form or
another… Real Jews are the ones who make Judaism real for themselves.10
They could even include Oliver Andrew Hamilton the Third, if he is willing to take the call – not
just for Federation, but for a deeper Jewish life. I hope he does. I hope you do too. May we take
our Jewishness seriously, and open the door to a new year.
Franz Rosenzweig, “Upon Opening the Jüdisches Lehrhaus: Draft of an Address,” On Jewish Learning, edited by
N.N. Glatzer (Madison, WI, 1955), pp.98-99.
Jay Michaelson, “The Myth of Authenticity,” The Jewish Daily Forward, December 23, 2009.