LASMAN: New Year’s narratives


The Jewish High Holidays, which began this week and will end in ten days after The Day of Atonement, have always fascinated me — they reverse the trite formula of the New Year’s Resolution, based on regret and recommitment. The standard Resolution is made as the looming January 1 casts doubt on a year’s worth of decisions or failures. The narrative of the Resolution holds that we’ve done things we wish we hadn’t, or failed to do things we should have done. Next year, we’ll be tempted to do those things again. So, from the presumed moral clarity of the New Year, we vow to do (or not do) differently as those temptations return.

But Jews do it differently. Consider Rosh Hashanah’s tashlikh — casting sins, represented by bread crumbs, into flowing water — and Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidrei — the sung renunciation of all upcoming “personal” vows between God and man. Together, these constitute a very different narrative. On Jewish New Year, we also admit that we’ve done things we shouldn’t have. But then, we forget about them. This is a new year, after all, so why not make a clean break? But in our ongoing efforts to be better people, we know we’ll make more promises to ourselves, and break a lot of them. We’ll inevitably fall short of our ideal selves: the Holy Days aren’t a moral high ground. We’re not perfect then, or ever.

Anti-Semites throughout the ages have used tashlikh and Kol Nidrei as proof of Jewish untrustworthiness. But a more careful reading reveals them as the opposite: sincere and reflective attempts at personal honesty, rather than the Resolution’s sudden grab at moral rectitude before a slide back into hypocrisy.

So to reflect the diversity of my heritage, I’m now going to risk that very same hypocrisy and make something of a Resolution: to try to avoid the Resolution narrative, and start looking through the High Holidays lens instead. To illustrate, I’d like to wrestle with a subject that will be especially salient between now, in 5772, and the year 5773.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been both clarified and convoluted by Mahmud Abbas’ bid for statehood at the United Nations. By rejecting negotiation in favor of a global referendum, Abbas seeks to draw a line in the sand. He expects that most countries, given the chance, will step over to his side. But in doing so, he has also flouted the wishes of the US, the largest supplier of foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, and Israel, the country that any Palestinian state would have to work with daily, if not hourly.

The New Year’s Resolution approach would suggest one of two absolute commitments: there must be a completely independent Palestine established within this year, at any costs; or, equally, any move towards Palestinian statehood must be rejected as dangerous, illegitimate, or an attempt to delegitimize Israel. Many insist on one view or the other, both disturbing denials of reality. Beyond the rhetoric, it seems all but certain that a completely independent Palestine will not exist within a year, but will certainly come closer to reality, both on the ground and in international institutions like the UN.

Adopting the New Year’s Resolution narrative hasn’t worked in the past. Case in point, 1948, when the British bungled the end of their Mandate in Palestine. The Brits resolved that, following August 1 (and later May 14), they would leave the region, with one Arab and one Jewish state filling the vacuum. Even as this strategy became less tenable, the British stuck to it and the rest of the world ceded responsibility. As many as 22,000 people died in the immediate bloodshed that followed, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and intractable enmity became the enduring paradigm of Jewish and Arab relations.

A High Holidays approach to the question of Palestinian statehood would recognize that an uncompromising position is a gamble, turning lives on both sides into betting chips. In true tashlikh fashion, it’s vital to acknowledge that vast injustices have been committed on both sides. But then, trusting tashlikh, we would try to cast them away, rather than clinging to grudges as recriminating trumps. We should begin not with firm Resolutions but with a Kol Nidrei: rejecting unshakeable dogma and adopting a vigilant and responsive sensitivity towards Israeli security and Palestinian liberty. Both will likely benefit from this new, non-New-Year’s narrative.

The fundamental problem with the New Year’s Resolution is that it suggests the world can be made better by fiat. It is therefore a binary system: it can only completely succeed or completely fail. It ignores the constant questioning that any difficult problem, personal or global, demands. Absolute promises do not improve individuals or their societies. In contrast, the High Holidays offer a narrative of personal responsibility, as we refuse to chain ourselves to a past sin or principle that has become morally indefensible. Recognizing human imperfection, it strives for deeper humanity.

Samuel Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.