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Kol Nidre 5777 – Rabbi Paul Freedman

I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah that last month I was at a two-day seminar with other Jewish lay-leaders and professionals, including four of us from this community. I explained that one of the initiatives of the Reform Movement, launched at this summer’s Chagigah conference, is focussed on community development and re-imagining Jewish leadership, and that Radlett Reform – as one of the largest and fastest-growing vibrant communities – is committed to the work. As preparation for the seminar, we had been asked to read a chapter of the The Pelopennesian Wars, by Thucydides. A badly-scanned copy of a translation of this ancient Greek text arrived a few days in advance, with no clue as to its relevance. The title simply said CHAPTER SEVEN OF THE PELOPENNESIAN WARS, BY THUCYDIDES, though in case you want to follow it up for yourself later, I’m now pretty sure it’s actually chapter 5! I’ve subsequently read that the extract that we were given, known as The Melian Dialogue, is apparently often cited by political scientists in ‘international relations theory’ as a classic case study in political realism (and not cooperative Liberalism).

In Community Organising, the lesson we are supposed to learn is from the different approaches of the Ancient Melians and Athenians, in their negotiations at one point in the Peloponnesian Wars. The philosopher David Hume said of Thucydides “The first page of Thucydides is, in my opinion, the commencement of real history. All preceding narrations are so intermixed with fable, that philosophers ought to abandon them to the embellishments of poets and orators.” Thucydides, nearly 2500 years ago, is perhaps the first ‘proper’ or scientific historian. In chapter 7 (or 5) writes:

 The Athenians decided to launch an expedition against the island of Melos. They had thirty ships, 1,200 front-line ground troops, 300 archers, and 20 mounted archers, all from Athens, along with eight ships and another 1,500 ground troops from the allies and other islands in league with Athens. Melos was a colony of Sparta at the time. Many years before, when all of the other islands had formed a voluntary alliance of Greek states that invited Athens to take the lead in a war of liberation and vengeance against mighty Persia, Melos alone had refused to join. When that informal alliance…evolved into the Athenian Empire, Melos continued to remain unaffiliated. The Melians enjoyed all of the benefits of the empire, without bearing any of the burdens…

 The Athenian generals Cleomedes and Tisias encamped with their force in Melian territory. Before doing any harm, they first sent representatives to try to negotiate with the Melians. The Melian leadership did not invite these representatives to speak to the general populace. Instead, the Melians asked them to present their offer to a smaller governing body.

 The Athenian representatives then spoke as follows:

‘So we are not to speak before the people, no doubt in case the mass of the people should hear once and for all and without interruption an argument from us which is both persuasive and incontrovertible, and should so be led astray. Now suppose that you who sit here…should refrain from dealing with every point in detail in a set speech, and should instead feel free to interrupt us whenever we say something controversial and deal with that before going on to the next point? Tell us first whether you approve of this suggestion of ours.’

 The Council of the Melians replied as follows:

‘No one can object to each of us putting forward our own views in a calm atmosphere. That is perfectly reasonable. What is scarcely consistent with such a proposal is the present threat, indeed the certainty, of your making war on us. We see that you have come prepared to judge the argument  yourselves, and that the likely end of it all will be either war, if we prove that we are in the right, and so refuse to surrender, or else slavery.’

 The dialogue proceeds backwards and forwards. The Athenians repeatedly appeal to the Melians’ sense of pragmatism: the Melians appeal to the Athenians’ sense of decency and fear of the gods. // The Melians would rather die as an independent island than be part of the Athenian Union. The negotiations ultimately fail. The episode ends – both in Thucydides’ account and as was borne out in history – with the Athenian delegation leaving and going back, to return with their army. Before long the Melians were forced to surrender unconditionally to the Athenians, who colonised the island, put to death all the Melian men of military age, and sold the women and children as slaves.

 Now you can just read this as a story of the strong crushing the weak. ‘Might is right.’ In political science it is instead an illustration of how nations will act to maximise self-interest and to maximise their own power. But it is also an example of two very different approaches. Although the mighty Athenians win easily against the small island of Melos – yet, both would have profited more if the negotiations had succeeded. The Athenians offer compromise, albeit on their terms: the Melians are idealists and prefer (would we say nobly?) to die for their principles and  independence.

 So when the Athenians rather than the Melians were held up as an example for us in community, it was certainly not because the Athenians were stronger, or necessarily right; rather it was that they were open to discussion, to compromise, to concessions in pursuit of the greater good. We might characterise the two approaches as principleversus pragmatism, but that would unfairly paint the Athenians as being without principle. But pragmatism means ‘weighing up’ not ‘sacrificing’ principles. Perhaps it’s pluralism rather than fundamentalism


Religion is often painted, at least in part, as a set of beliefs and principles – a worldview that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong. If that’s the case, different religions can offer different principles or sets of values, different views of what’s right and wrong. If we feel passionately enough about our own religion’s view of right and wrong, we might even go to war with those who think differently! And it would also mean that if we share the same religion we surely should share the same values and definition of what’s right and wrong… Clearly that’s not Judaism! Two Jews, three opinions, and all that… But I suspect it’s not true of other religions either. In general, in nuanced questions of how we should behave, Judaism offers us a treasure trove of texts, the material, the tools and context with which to take moral responsibility and to answer questions for ourselves, with integrity to wrestle to find the right path.

 It takes deep wisdom, and perhaps a little humility, to properly appreciate –  fully to understand that not only might we not always know the answer; there may not even be just one right answer. In real life, for all its beautiful messiness, there are competing values where we are required – forced – to find a balance.

 Twenty years ago, towards the end of his life and having lived through most of the 20th century, British Jewish philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote a sort of message to the 21stcentury, a century that he wouldn’t see for himself, but which he felt sure could be only a better time for humanity than the century he had lived through. The danger that he warned against, what he felt was at the root of the terrible atrocities of the twentieth century, was a kind of absolute, uncompromising idealism.

 “The central values by which most men have lived,” he wrote, “are not always harmonious with each other. Some are, some are not. Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality… Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organisation, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire… I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.”

 “So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

 “I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so muchcompassion…So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals.”

 Perhaps that’s what the Athenians in their negotiations with the Melians were trying but failed. The idea that competing values need to be balanced is not new. In Europe, how will we balance sovereignty and border controls with free movement and a free market? And on Yom Kippur, as we reflect on our individual actions in the past year – to be judged by God or ourselves – how do we balance justice and mercy, being held to account and being forgiven, for our own failings?

 A charming midrash in our own tradition expresses the need for both, indeed that the need for balance or compromise is intrinsic to the makeup of the universe. To understand the midrash you need to understand a Jewish code: there are two names of God that we frequently use, Adonai and Elohim. The Shema reminds us that Adonai andEloheinu  are echad – one and the same God, but the code is that Adonai is taken to represent God’s attribute of mercy and Elohim God’s attribute justice.

 Reflecting on the expression used in Genesis, that ‘Adonai Elohim, the Eternal God, made earth and heaven’ (Gen. 2:4) the midrash suggests that this may be compared to a king who had some empty glass vessels. Said the king: ‘If I pour boiling hot water into them, they will shatter; if freezing cold water, they will contract [and shatter].’ What then did the king do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them, and so they remained. So too, said the Holy Blessed One: ‘If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of justice alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of justice and of mercy, so it can endure. (Gen. Rabbah 12:15)

 There is a similar process hidden in our own liturgical journey from this night of Kol Nidre to the very end of Yom Kippur, the conclusion of Ne’ilah tomorrow night. The imagery and drama of Kol Nidre, especially the Kol Nidre prayer itself, recited three times before the open ark with the scrolls as witnesses is – perhaps unfamiliar to most of us – the imagery of the courtroom. With the opening words of the scene, of the service, biyshiyvah shel ma’lah uviyshiyvah shel mattah, ‘by the authority of the court on high and with the consent of the court below,’ we prepare to set our case before the Ultimate Judge on High, the Most High Court Judge in fact.

 But by the end of tomorrow we will not just have done our own work of introspection, not just pleaded our case on its human merits, but also recognise that ultimately the judgment must be tempered with mercy. It will be time to move on to the year ahead, time for action and to return to the world and play our best part in it. For by then, we will have spoken and sung literally thousands of words, and at Ne’ilah we will approach instead the gates of mercy. In the end words will fail us, we will run out of prayers and we will resort instead to a final cacophony of shofar blasts. But the very last words of Yom Kippur, in front of the open ark, over and over again, thirteen times in all, will be Adonai hu ha-elohim. – God of both justice and mercy.

 We pray that we may be judged as we ourselves resolve to act: ultimately in the image of God with both justice and mercy, with principle and balance, caring for ourselves and each other. For in the words of the prophet Micah, what does God require of us, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and so walk humbly with God.

 Ken y’hi ratzon, May this be God’s will, and let us say, Amen.

Paul Freedman

Senior Rabbi

Radlett Reform Synagogue

Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781