In the West, we are used to starting a new calendar year with some resolutions – commitments we take upon ourselves. Those usually revolve around self-improvement: improvement of one’s body (take out a gym membership, start a diet, commit to regular walks), or one’s behavior (be kinder, more compassionate, volunteer or give more). New Year – new me.
Judaism and Buddhism also offer spiritual practices centered on similar but deeper commitments – vows, garments for the soul, as Jewish sages called them. Their understanding of vows is somewhat different, but not necessarily at odds with each other.
“One who takes a vow in order to strengthen his good resolves and improve his way of life is worthy of a praise,” states Shulkhan Arukh, the basic code of the Jewish law.
A vow in the Buddhist tradition means choosing to direct your life to act in harmony with the earth and with all living beings. Japanese Zen master Kosho Uchiyama illustrates this concept with the following metaphor: “We act with a spirit of looking after everything as our own life. Like mother caring for her child, we aim to function unconditionally and tirelessly, and to do so without expecting any reward.”
By taking on these bodhisattva vows, a Zen practitioner commits to ending or easing the suffering of all beings. It sounds quite lofty, but it really comes down to helping people do their best, serving them, shifting the focus from one’s own needs to the needs of others, the needs of nature, the needs of the planet. Taking these vows and living according to them can set an ordinary person on the path of enlightenment.
Vows vs. Goals
In both traditions, a personal vow is not the same as a personal goal. Goals are intended results, while vows are ways of acting or behaving that can lead to these results. A vow ensures that we complete the journey to the goal, while directing how we think, behave, and speak during each step.
Vows reflect our deepest intentions. One may, for example, vow to listen deeply, or to help others heal, or to always be guided by love and compassion, rather than fear, or to avoid indulging in poisons of any kind.
Goals, on the other hand, should be more specific, as well as “modest, doable, and within reach,” advise contemporary writers Sivan Rahav Meir and Yedidya Meir. They cite a story by a rabbinical student who presented a particular commitment to his rabbinical advisor, and the advisor, in turn, asked him to “cut that commitment in half so that [he] will be sure to fulfill it.”
Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira (The Piaseczno Rebbe) offers an example of such difference between goals and vows. Every year, set for yourself a specific goal, he suggests. “If your name is Reuven, for example, imagine what kind of Reuven you will be next year, what your achievements, your service and your middot (character traits) will be like one year from now.” But throughout the year, assess your actions and behavior against that imaginary self. “Is your daily service and acts of self-improvement enough to reach the level of next year’s Reuven?” he asks. In other words, keep an eye on your goal, but stay present with your vow.
When the focus is entirely on the goal, it is easy to lose awareness of one’s moment-to-moment actions and behavior – the practical overtakes the spiritual. Taizan Maezumi Roshi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA), recommended starting each day with reciting your own personal vows. They can be simple or formal, spontaneous or part of a set ritual. ZCLA practitioners, for instance, chant the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows at every meditation sit and ceremony.
Reminded of them daily, the vow starts to take root and guide our unconscious, becomes “a seal that imprints itself on the wet clay of another emerging life,” explains Roshi Jan Chozen Bays, a student of Maezumi Roshi, “but it is more than a passive seal. It has a propelling energy. It propels us into the search for an end to suffering and into finding ways to help each other. Finally, . . . it propels us into practice.”
How to Break a Vow
Unlike Mahayana Buddhism, the Jewish tradition does not encourage taking vows, especially when they are not necessary. The Shulkhan Arukh, quoted above, opens the chapter on vows with “Be not habituated to make vows. . . Even vows for charitable purposes are not desirable.” Why?
Vows are “a form of divine service,” explains Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, that fall into 2 categories: vows of consecration (things one promises to do beyond the regular requirements) and vows of prohibition (things one promises to avoid). All vows are made before G-d, as stated in the Torah: “Whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing, you must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord, having made the promise with your own mouth” (Deuteronomy 23:23-24). When broken, they are a transgression, a form of an offense to the divine.
Vows are therefore legally binding in the Jewish law, the halakha. In Srugim, an Israeli TV series about observant Jews, Tehila, the love interest of Nati, takes a vow not to date until her ex-boyfriend, Nati’s roommate Azaria, finds himself a new girlfriend. Desperate Nati goes to consult a rabbi as to what Tehila needs to do to break her vow, and the rabbi lays out the steps for conducting a formal nullification of vows (‘hatarat nedarim’). This ritual takes place in the presence of three people who act as a kind of judges in a religious court hearing, and involves specific rules, procedures, and restitutions for annulling a vow. Because of that, observant Jews often say ‘bli neder’ (“without a vow”) when they make a promise to avoid turning a promise into a vow.
This might sound complicated, but it’s exactly what makes a vow is a vow. One can let go of a promise if it no longer suits him or her, but a vow isn’t meant to be broken.
In both spiritual traditions, making a vow is an act of committing yourself to something deeply meaningful, something that aligns your life direction with your spiritual path. What are your vows today? Where are they taking you?
See other posts in the Returning to What’s True blog series on mindful practices throughout the day to return to our sacred selves:
Lane Igoudin, M.A., Ph.D., is professor of English and linguistics at Los Angeles City College. He regularly blogs for Applied Jewish Spirituality and produces Blessing the Sea, a monthly newsletter on Jewish mindfulness. For more information, please visit his website.