Tonight is a special night for many people on this campus. This evening, dinner excursions will be curtailed. Parties will be about 15 percent less populated, maybe more. The same goes for breakfast tomorrow--and lunch. Hundreds of students will disappear for the day without reappearing until Saturday night.
Tonight is Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, which begins just before sundown. And as a Harvard student, you can take notice of it--whether you are Jewish or not.
The service that hundreds of Harvard students will attend this evening is called Kol Nidre, or "All Our Vows." It is one of the most effective and compelling legal fictions of all time. In this ceremony, which is only performed once a year, the synagogue is converted into a courtroom. Torah scrolls are brought out before the congregation, and three people--usually the person leading the service plus two others--stand together at the front of the room to comprise a court of law. With court in session, the person leading the service recites three times, in a melody at least 900 years old, a formula of annulment of all future contracts between God and the individuals present, active from that exact moment to that exact moment next year.
No one really knows where the text of Kol Nidre originated, but throughout Jewish history, the legal loophole has been a useful one. The service for Kol Nidre was put to use in medieval Spain, for example, when recently Christianized Visigoths began "encouraging" Jews to convert to Catholicism--and threatening them with death if they declined the offer. Facing these appealing options, many Jews publicly converted while continuing to live secretly as Jews. Faced with the fact that so many of them had made false vows before God, Jews took advantage of the Kol Nidre formula, knowing that if they appeared in court to recite Kol Nidre the year before, God could not take their vows of faith in Christianity seriously.
In the late medieval period, non-Jews in authority who learned about Kol Nidre found further ammunition against the Jews, arguing that their religion exempted them from keeping legal promises. But Kol Nidre only annuls vows taken between man and God, not vows involving others. Today, Kol Nidre forces us each year to confront our weaknesses, to remember all of the private promises made and not kept and to remember the power of words to destroy us and restore us.
Tonight, if last year's numbers repeat themselves, approximately 3,200 people will attend services on Harvard's campus. The first twist that college adds to Yom Kippur is that in college, there is no separation between individuals' public and private lives. In the real world--that is, any situation in which the people with whom we live and those with whom we work are not the same--those with whom we live generally lead the same lifestyle that we do, while the people we work with may or may not.
In public high schools, for example, one's private beliefs and practices can have virtually no bearing on their school life. While enough students were Jewish at my pubic high school to merit school closing on Yom Kippur, whatever other people from school were doing on that day off was completely irrelevant to me. I would just come home from school on the afternoon of Kol Nidre, and at my home and synagogue--the only places I went that day--it was the Day of Atonement for everyone I saw.
Tonight, however, observant students like myself will come home after putting our souls on trial to roommates for whom this is just another Friday night. And though for me tomorrow will be a day of fasting, I will certainly see others walking back from lunch or heading toward the dining halls for an early dinner.
I remember Kol Nidre night of my first year, when I wandered around the Yard on my way back from the service. Groups of people in suits and dresses returned early, walking in clumps toward the Yard, while students in jeans slipped past them on their way to the library or the Square. I suddenly realized that between the evening's shadows and the cancelled vows, the night had visually divided students by their clothing into those who were observing the holiday and those who were not. This is diversity in action, some might say. Yet it is the sort of diversity in which you see other people practicing some bizarre thing and it means nothing to you, except as an item of curiosity, like a strange relic in a museum.
The second fact that makes the Yom Kippur experience unique in college, and which prevents the holiday's message from being uniquely Jewish, is that each year at Harvard is distinct from the one that preceded it, and everyone in the University community experiences that change. Unlike most of professional adult life, when summer vacations and fresh starts in September do not exist, life at school gives us an opportunity every autumn to see our lives with fresh eyes and, if we wish, to remake ourselves--with or without the aid of the deity of our choice. Each year, all of us make promises for the coming year that we know we can't keep.
This year, for example, I'm not going to panic over my work. I'm not going to talk back to people. Plus, I'm not going to let little things bother me--like all those times that I groan a little too loudly when that annoying kid in my section starts pontificating for the 100th time.
Of course, there will be many moments when I will forget those vows. In fact, I can think of dozens of instances just in the past nine days where I have already forgotten them. But as the year begins again, I remember that I made these vows last year too, or similar ones, and I can see more clearly who I am and who I want to be. And when I walk through the Yard and pass by someone to whom I've been less than kind, I remember other, far uglier vows that I've taken, vows where I said I would never speak to that person again, or that I would dislike them forever, or that I would get back at them for something I thought they did--and then I am grateful for the legal loophole, for the tiny gap in my own mind that allows me to forget and shed the habits I once had. These are not "Jewish" ideas, or even religious ideas exactly, or at least they are not exclusively such. They are ideas of self-evaluation, ideas attractive to almost every thinker in history, religious or otherwise.
At Harvard, there are no isolated communities except those that we construct for ourselves. We all live together, and when things go on among one part of Harvard's population, they cannot avoid touching everyone. Tonight and tomorrow, whether you plan to appear in court or to take your meals in a dining hall, imagine the moment as an opportunity. Here, on one of Harvard's many unofficial holidays, we can experience the beauty of university living--that is, living universally.
Dara Horn's column appears on alternate Fridays.