Chapter IX



"Judaism is not a religion, but a misfortune," said Heine in one of his bitter moments. He was thinking of his own unhappiness. No one has as yet calculated the extent of its misfortune to the rest of the world.

The defender of religion (and because they are usually people to whom it is a source of livelihood, they are not the very nicest people to get into an argument with) insist that religion is absolutely essential to the well-being of society. Let religion be taken out of every day life, say these spiritual prodigies, and with it will go every sense of what is right and what is wrong: before you know it, the world would find itself in a state of moral if not actual anarchy.

I am quite certain that religion is not essential to the welfare of society and that it brings into every community it pierces, much more harm than good. And I am fully in accord with Edward Gibbon who hated Judaism and Christianity alike and, years after the publication of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, confessed that his examinations of the Old and New Testaments might have been in error; but so absolute was his feeling of the completeness of his case against them, he had not felt it necessary to go through them with the care he had bestowed on other works of antiquity. 

I happen to like reading the Old Testament purely for the reading pleasure it gives me. But if that sort of writing does not give you satisfaction, reading almost anything else will be better for you.

Gibbon accuses Christianity on inheriting from Judaism religious intolerance along with the rest of the religion. One of Gibbon's most vigorous opponents, [26]  Abbate Nicola Spedalieri, a catholic scholar of charm and distinction, replied that Christian intolerance was not derived from the Jews: it sprang from the overwhelming zeal of a fresh young people for a new beloved religion.

Spedalieri was too engrossed in the studies of his religion to realize that religious intolerance was practically unknown in the world before the appearance of Judaism.  The very genesis of the Jewish People is in religious intolerance. They have lived by it. And it seems to me to be a neat bit of historic justice that they will eventually themselves be destroyed by it.

Search painstakingly through the best extant accounts of the ancient world. Go carefully through all the learned studies of primitive peoples, from Taylor to Frazer. Can you find even a trace of a proselytizing religion? [27]  Strictly speaking, of course, Judaism never was, and is not even today, a proselytizing religion. But Judaism was the first religion in the world which divided everything into those things which are right and those things which are wrong. And that started all the mischief. As long as religions were content with inventing idols in their own images, or in the images of their great teachers, or in the images of birds and beasts whom they either loved, or hated, or in images of the sun, the moon or some great boar, religion was simply the modest means by which the peoples of the earth paid tribute to the mysteriousness of their origin and destiny. But the moment one people decided that its own conception of these mysteries was right, and the inspirations of all the other peoples wrong, thereby creating an aristocracy of the emotions, the pot of religion overboiled and scalded a whole world. It was this conviction, that it was right and that all the other people in the world were wrong, that Christianity inherited in full from Judaism. Once it found itself filled with the fury of intolerance, Christianity not only attacked the pagan world but its Jewish teachers as well.

I am not prepared to speak for any religion but the religion I was born into and which has followed me about for forty years like an evil shadow. I have no hesitation in declaring that if the Jew's sole chance of survival lies in the preservation of his religion, it is time for him to throw his cards on the table and call [it] quits. Judaism is today the only bar between the Jews and the world they love and would like to share with their neighbors. Every synagogue we Jews build in Christian countries is a finger of scorn we point at our hosts, a sore finger we stick in their eyes, like the leering of a senile old woman who does all sorts of foul mischief before you, and feels safe in the knowledge that you will not lay hands on her to remove her, for fear of contamination. It is as we said to the gentiles:

"There is a right and there is a wrong. The right is to be found only behind the doors of our synagogues, and there only. Everything in your churches is spurious, as you should know of your own accord, for your very first churches were built by apostate Jews who knew only how to pervert the true religion which is ours."

By publishing the ten commandments among the nations, the Jew gave birth to religious intolerance. By building synagogues in Christian countries they continue to keep it alive, and their own consequent destruction by it becomes daily more imminent. Why, I would like to know, is a synagogue more in place in a Christian country than were the altars of Baal in Palestine when the prophets pronounced them to be an unbearable abomination? Suppose the Turks began coming to America in great numbers, built mosques in our market places, and began to prostrate themselves several times a day on Broadway, on Grand Street, or on Main Street, depending on where they happened to be the moment the muezzin called them to prayer? Would not Jew join gentile enthusiastically in trying to suppress them? Why is a synagogue different from a mosque or a Buddhist temple?

Jews like to advance the thesis that you cannot, dare not, do violence to Judaism because it is the perfect religion, and probably the highest standard of wisdom and ethics developed by the human race. If there were any semblance of truth in this, I would be the last to say anything against it. Mankind has developed little enough of wisdom and perfection: certainly we should not destroy what little we have of it. But it is not true that Judaism is perfect in any respect. The observances of the Jewish religion are as varied, as different in assembled virtues, and as full of crudities as any religion I have ever read about. Certainly no other religion in the world has offered the world a spectacle as contradictory, as malicious, as full of the spirit of unreasonableness as the Jewish recital of the prayer Kol Nidre during Yom Kippur. I suggest that if we are going to start tearing down this great fortress of Jewish religious prejudice and intolerance, Kol Nidre is perhaps the best starting point.

Kol Nidre has been a point of sore controversy for the Jewish People throughout the Middle Ages. I do not like to be the first to raise the hydra-head of this monster on the American continent. But I cannot afford to pass by anything which may help me make my point.

Kol Nidre! What the sound of that word means to a Jew from the first time he heard it in the white twilight of a tall-candled synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur, and on through the wilderness of ghetto years, only a Jew can understand! The most intimate memories of childhood, youth and manhood, twine themselves about that tune, and he hangs upon it, as upon the branches of a tree, the choicest of his emotions, till to threaten sacrilege against Kol Nidre would seem to threaten life itself.

Yet what is Kol Nidre actually? I reproduce here an authorized translation from the regular prayer-book issued by the Hebrew Publishing Company:

"All vows, obligations, oaths or anathemas, pledges of all names, which we shall have vowed, sworn, devoted or bound ourselves to, from this day of atonement (whose arrival we hope for in happiness) to the next, we repent, aforehand, of them all, they shall be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, void and made of no effect; they shall not be binding nor have any power; the vows shall not be reckoned vows, the obligations shall not be reckoned obligatory, nor the oaths considered oaths.


"And it shall be forgiven to the whole congregation of Israel, and to the stranger who sojourneth amongst them; for all the people act ignorantly."

And is that, you ask, all of Kol Nidre? That is all there is to Kol Nidre, I must answer. In reciting it the Jew solemnly swears before his Lord God that he has only one fealty, loyalty or obligation, and that is to Him, the Lord God. No matter what business he may undertake to promote with his neighbor, be it material or moral, he wants the Lord God to understand in advance that there will be one implicit condition (a condition, however, he does not undertake to explain before entering into an argument): the execution of it must be favorable to Him, the Lord God, or it will be considered by the Jew void, of no account, utterly useless, as if it had never been mentioned, as if nothing relating to it had ever been negotiated.

When the meaning of Kol Nidre became known during the Dark Ages, a cry of rage broke from the throats of the goyim. "In that case," they cried, "a Jew may enter into any arrangement with us, with a light heart. Does his enterprise prosper? Then he abides by the agreement. If not, he can always denounce the whole affair by remembering that in the moment of Kol Nidre, the most sacred of all moments in the Jew's life, he had practically, fully and without equivocation negated it."

And so it came about that the eve of Yom Kippur became, for the gentiles throughout Europe, a time for protest against Jewish knavery. Usually the gentiles living near a Jewish community would announce the coming of Yom Kippur by displaying posters everywhere reading:

"Beware: The Day Is At Hand When The Jew Renounces As Insincere Any Dealings He May Have With You During The Coming Year. Beware!"

In many communities legislators considered it necessary to have a special form of oath administered to Jews - an oath intended to negate the oath of Kol Nidre. This oath was known as the Jew's Oath. There were judges who absolutely refused to take any supplementary oath from a Jew, as totally insincere and untrustworthy, and they based their objections chiefly on Kol Nidre.

The origin of this most extraordinary (as well as un-wisest) of all Jewish prayers is hidden in the mists of the Dark Ages. No one knows how it came into existence, in the first place. No one has any idea how it became so vital a part of the synagogue service. It is only fair to add that, in spite of the general acceptance which Kol Nidre has enjoyed since its inception, there has never been a time when there was not a really strong and honest opposition to it among Jews. One of the six Gaonim of the two Babylonian Academies, for instance, five placed themselves unalterably against admitting it into the program of prayer for Yom Kippur.

How did it happen, then, that, despite the anger of the gentile world which considered the prayer a gross and insulting breach of faith with it, and against the advice of the wisest and most pious among the priests of Israel, Kol Nidre was not only adopted into the Prayer Book but achieved such distinction in the Jewish mind that it can be associated in the minds of the people in holiness only with the Ten Commandments?

Usually, as I have already pointed out, the evils of Israel are the evils of leadership. Kol Nidre does not follow the rule, for if it were a matter of following the advice of leaders, Kol Nidre would have been dropped out of Jewish life long ago. The retention and magnification of Kol Nidre in the grand order of the synagogue is a characteristic bit of Jewish mob obstinacy - in this case an obstinacy entirely without justification in reason or in history. Its authorship has never been imputed to a vital personality, nor is its origin associated with important events in the history of the people. The text has never even been regarded as sacred, for there are two different versions, one in Aramaic, the other in Hebrew, which differ in several important details. The accepted current version has an important alteration made in it by Rashi's son-in-law, Meir ben Samuel, who changed the original phrase "from the last Day of Atonement to this one" to "from this Day of Atonement to the next one."  As if, morally, it makes any difference whether you welch on an arrangement already made or on one you might make at a later date!

The members of the two Academies in Babylon only began the long but unsuccessful campaign of opposition to Kol Nidre, when Juda ben Brazillaia, Spanish author of the twelfth century, declared himself against Kol Nidre because, he claimed, the ignorant Jews took it too literally, and so were the cause of endless embarrassment for the more enlightened of the people. A rabbinical conference held in Brunswick in 1844 decided unanimously that the formula was not essential to the general concept of Judaism, and should be suppressed if possible.

On the other hand, Kol Nidre has not been without its champions. The defenses have been many and varied, and they have all agreed on one point: the vows referred to in Kol Nidre are exclusively religious.

The Saadya Gaon, for instance, maintained that Kol Nidre was introduced only for the whole community, and most certainly was not meant to have any application to the life of the individual Jew. In other words, his argument boils down to this: the Jewish community could enter into arrangements it had no intention of keeping, but the individual member of the community might not!

A more subtle argument - I have not been able to trace to anyone in particular - claimed that "the dispensation of vows in Kol Nidre refers only to those which an individual voluntarily assumed for himself alone and in which no other persons or their interests were involved."

But the height of interpretative shrewdness is reached in the explanation of Rabbi Isaiah of Trani. "Since the Jews come to the synagogue on Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness for all their sins, it is important that they clear themselves of all vows which they might carry out during the following year."

Obviously dishonest seems to me, also, the specious argument that the views referred to in Kol Nidre are exclusively religious. If the author of Kol Nidre had meant that, he would have begun the prayer with the simple words "All vows unto Thee O Lord made": he would not have taken the trouble to mention "obligations and pledges of all names."

Nor am I more impressed with the explanation that the prayer is intended to apply to the congregation as a whole and not to any individual member of it. This would make the whole business appear both stupid and useless. For the congregation never conducts any business for itself with other congregations or communities; what need would there be for such tremendous emphasis on nothing?

And what are those (vows) which an individual voluntarily assumed for himself alone, and in which no other persons or their interests are involved? In our own life, they would approximate new year's resolutions, and the like. Besides, whereas it is possible to talk of obligations as being intended entirely for one's own self, it is difficult to conceive of pledges which do not involve other people.

I cannot see any more sense or sincerity in the argument that Kol Nidre was introduced into the prayers of Yom Kippur, and placed at the head of all of them, so as to facilitate the Lord's forgiveness of the sins of the Jew by the Jews voluntarily abjuring all business arrangements they might make during the following year. It does not improve the stature of the Jew as a human being. It makes of Israel's Lord God an even more odorous demon than he shows himself in the book of Exodus.

The only reasonable theory is the one recently introduced by Dr. Joshua S. Bloch. Kol Nidre, he says, originated during the Visigoth persecution of the Jews in the seventh century. The Visigoths forced Jews to forswear Judaism with the most fearful oaths and anathemas. The converts had to solemnly declare that they believed in the Trinity, and that Jesus was the Redeemer promised to Israel by their prophets. They promised also to make of themselves spies amongst the unconverted Jews, to report to their rulers any scheme the Jews might concoct against their enemies, and also to report, if they discovered it, if any Jewish converts to Christianity practice in secret their own religion, or any part of it. They were, moreover, forced to vow, never again to intermarry with their own people. The penalty for disobedience was death by stoning. As, it is needless to add, the forced converts to Christianity invariably remained at heart true to their religion, when Yom Kippur came they found many ways of secretly celebrating it. In this they were troubled by one thing. They were breaking the vows that had been forced on them by their oppressors. As a means to counteracting this shadow on their consciences, Kol Nidre was introduced at the very opening of the prayers of repentance before the ordeal of Yom Kippur might be said to have properly begun. Through it the Jews begged to be abjured of all vows they had made or would make.

But what about the appearance of Kol Nidre in the prayers of communities who were not troubled by the Visigoths or any other enemy with the Visigothic tactics? Dr. Bloch explains that in one form or another this form of persecution was handed on to all Jewish communities, for under their Byzantine rulers, and still later as Marranos in Spain, the Jews suffered of similar vows made to their conquerors.

The chief objection to this theory is that the Jews in Spain did not know Hebrew well enough to introduce the Kol Nidre into their liturgy, for its inner meaning. Besides, the Jews of Spain and the Jews of Babylon were in constant communication. How did the Babylonian Jews fail to explain the meaning of Kol Nidre to the Jews of Spain, unless, as it seems very likely, no such explanation existed amongst them?

All Jews concede that the real reason for the persistence of Kol Nidre in the Jewish ritual is the painful sweetness and haunting tearfulness of the melody. It came into our life a dybbuk, an evil spirit, but it has arrested our ears with the plaintive chanting of an angel suffering. The musical motive of Kol Nidre was not new. It was old and essentially Jewish. From the song of Moses and Miriam, through the songs of Deborah and Solomon, down to the inspired elegies of David, the theme flowed right into Kol Nidre where it reached a high tide of beauty and ecstasy. Kol Nidre has dug a trench for itself deep in the heart of the Jewish People. It seems as if to try to undermine it is to undermine the life of the whole people. But, if we must continue to sing it in order to keep alive, why cannot we discard the awful words, words without melody, beauty  or imaginativeness?  We must unearth Kol Nidre and fling the foul corpse over the rim of the earth, if we are ever to get rid of Judaism.

I have the same objection to Yom Kippur (Day of Forgiveness) that I have to the Catholic institution of Confession. It breeds instability of mind and character. If a man knows that no matter how badly he behaves a whole year, no matter what crimes or iniquities he commits, a day is sure to come when all his transgressions, civil and criminal alike, will be forgiven him, it is only human that he should be tempted to do rash, violent things to promote his worldly fortunes.

The Jewish Prayer Book lists the following sins specifically, as amongst those which are unconditionally forgiven the Jew on Yom Kippur:

Sins committed with incestuous lewdness;

Oppressing one's neighbor;

Assembling to commit fornication;

Deceitful acknowledgements;


Evil imagination;

Denying and lying;

Taking and giving bribes;


Extortion and usury;





Treachery to one's neighbor;





The Jews with whom I have discussed this matter, answer my objections to the institution of forgiveness in Judaism by pointing out that the modern nations have all approved of the idea of their own accord by themselves enacting laws which nullify debts after statutory time, and by adopting, in one form or another, a bankruptcy law. What they fail to observe is that bankruptcy law, even in the United States, where it is most generously worded and applied, clears a man of his obligations only when he has managed to prove  beyond a shadow of doubt that he has absolutely no property of his own left outside of the clothes he wears, the bed he sleeps in, and, in some countries, the tools of his profession or occupation. Anything else of value he owns must revert irrevocably to his creditors.

Much as the hopeless debtor comes before the Referee in Bankruptcy, the Jew comes before his Lord God in the Synagogue. "Forgive me for I have stolen," he says. Does the Lord God reply: "You will be forgiven provided you make a complete restitution to those from whom you have stolen?" No. He forgives the thief unconditionally, just, I suppose, for the honor of finding himself with him in the same room. The Jew, then, safe in the knowledge that three hundred and sixty-five days later there will be another equally generous Yom Kippur, sanctifies himself at the end of the holy day and continues to steal as before.

In the three prisons in which I have sojourned as the result of my forced association with Jewish lawyers and Jew-controlled courts, I found the overwhelming number of habitual criminals to be Catholics and Jews. The Catholic knows that he can clear himself of anything by the simple act of going to Confession. But the Jew goes the Catholic one better. He denies, by his recital of Kol Nidre, even before he undertakes it, any possible responsibility in crime. Can it be doubted what a fearful influence for evil this must exert on his character as a citizen and as a human being?

Kol Nidre must go. After Kol Nidre, must go the synagogue. And with the synagogue must go Judaism which has been the cause of untold evil both to the Jew and the world about him. [28]  Perhaps the best advice given to the Jews by one of the greatest of all modern Jews, Karl Marx, in his review of the Jewish question:

"If the Jew wants to be emancipated from the Christian State, then he must demand that the Christian State abandon its religious prejudice. Is the Jew ready to abandon his religious prejudices?


"The Jews waits on a future which has nothing to do with the future of mankind.


"For if the individual, although a Jew, can be politically emancipated and receive civic rights, can he claim and receive the so called rights of man? The question is whether the Jew as such, that is the Jew who admits that by his very nature he is compelled to live in everlasting separation from others, is capable of receiving and conceding to others the general rights of man.


"The idea of the rights of man was first discovered in the last century, so far as the Christian world is concerned. It is not innate in the individual, it is rather conquered in the struggle with the historical traditions in which the individual has hitherto been brought up. Thus the rights of man are not a gift from Nature, not a legacy from past history, but the price of the struggle against the accident of birth and against the privileges which history has bequeathed  from generation to generation up to now. They are the result of education, and can only be possessed by those who have acquired and earned them.


"Can they really be claimed by the Jew? So long as he is a Jew, the limiting quality which makes him a Jew must triumph over the human quality which binds him as a man to other men, and must separate him from the gentiles."

The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.



[26]  A horde of critics and disparagers of Gibbon sprang up right after the publication of the first volume of his famous work.

[27]  The expulsion of the Jews by Tiberius is the very first sign of religious intolerance in international affairs. The second was the persecution of the Christians.

[28]  How the meddling of religion with life works out is illustrated in the famous case of the Tewkesbury Jew. When I first heard this story it was purely one of a horrible atrocity perpetrated by an arrogant gentile lord on a humble, unresisting Jew. The tale, as the Jew tells it, is just a monstrosity. But in a book published in 1258, and entitled Chronological Outline of the History of Bristol, it is related as follows: "A Jew fell into a privy in Tewkesbury on a Saturday, and would not suffer anyone to pull him out, for the reverence he had for his Sabbath; and the next day, being Sunday, Richard de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, would not suffer anyone to pull him out for the reverence he had for his Sabbath. On the morrow morning, being Monday, the Jew was found dead." There is an even earlier commentary written by a local wit in 1228, which tells the same story in rhyme:

"Jew reach thy hand to me; from Draugh I wil thee free.

Our Sabbath I observ; and will here rather sterv.

Then Jew, sans more adoo, then keep our Lord's Day too."

This simple, astounding chronicle should serve as a guide-post to the whole of the religious conflict which shows the Jew creating prejudices which his neighbors follow and eventually curse him with. Is it plausible, unless there were something fundamentally wrong with them at the core, that a people as intelligent as the Jews should not call a halt to such arrant nonsense after two thousand years of catastrophic pursuit of it?