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Kol Nidre’s Conundrum

How can you enter a day of moral repair with words on your lips that annul your past and future promises?

Helen Plotkin
September 24, 2012
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos wikipedia
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos wikipedia
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos wikipedia
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos wikipedia

As Yom Kippur begins on Tuesday night, Jews around the world will gather in synagogues to hear the cantor sing Kol Nidre, whose melody will break your heart.

But the words of this song may be even stranger and more disturbing than its haunting melody. Kol Nidre is a legal declaration repudiating our vows. Just before the sunset that ushers in the Day of Atonement, the congregation stands before a symbolic court of law, represented by three Torahs held in the arms of community leaders. The cantor sings:

All vows and prohibitions and oaths …
that we may vow or swear or prohibit upon ourselves
from this Yom Kippur until the Yom Kippur that is coming upon us for goodness—
regarding all of them, we repudiate them.
All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect.
Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.

In the oldest version of the declaration, dating from around 800 CE, the vows that are disavowed are those we have made in the past year, from last Yom Kippur to now. In the 12th century Rashi’s son-in-law changed the text to annul vows that we would make in the coming year. Either way, the main issue is the same: Beginning in the Bible and continuing in rabbinic literature, there is an awareness of the ease with which we forget our vows. This passage in Deuteronomy is poignant in its advice to the would-be vow-er:

23:22 If you vow a vow to YHVH your God, do not delay in fulfilling it, for YHVH your God will surely seek it from you and there will be an offense in you. 23 But if you refrain from vowing, there will be no offense in you. 24 What comes out from your lips you are to keep, and you are to do as you have vowed to YHVH your God, volunteering what you have spoken with your mouth.

In other words, it’s always best to refrain from vowing, because it is easy to forget and the consequences are grave.

But isn’t this outrageous? How can you enter a day of moral repair with words on your lips that annul your past and future promises? Without vows, how are we supposed to embark on a path of self-improvement? We make vows in order to turn over a new leaf, to promise a fresh start, to define a new path that will take us in a new direction. And isn’t that exactly what we hope for from Yom Kippur? How odd, then, that this ritual of disavowal should come just at the start of the Day of Atonement! What kind of pessimism would lead us to annul our vows even before we have a chance to try to fulfill them? For many contemporary Jews, attendance at Kol Nidre is one of only a handful of non-negotiable Jewish acts. Are we drawn to it only because the melody is so beautiful, the ritual so solemn, and because most of us don’t understand the Aramaic words, anyway?

A careful understanding of the language and imagery of the High Holidays provides a lens through which the power of Kol Nidre comes into focus. The vows that the song alludes to are akin to New Year’s resolutions; by deflecting the impulse to make such resolutions, Kol Nidre acts as an antidote to our unhelpful reliance on willpower as the path to self-improvement. It points us instead down the more productive road of strengthening our relationship with what we hold most dear.

Out of context and without the perspective of Jewish interpretation, the words of Kol Nidre are easy to misunderstand. Indeed, in many times and places these words were dangerously misunderstood by non-Jews under whose power Jews lived. They were taken to mean that the oaths of Jews in court and the promises of Jews in business were not reliable, and as a result Jews were often subjected to harsh and humiliating treatment.

But the Jewish tradition insists that the vows Kol Nidre disavows have nothing to do with the agreements made between humans in civil or business situations. They are, rather, promises of donation and promises of abstention—promises we might make with ourselves or with God to be more constant in our study, prayer, or practice, to show up for people in need, to eat right and exercise. Kol Nidre reminds us not to make Yom Kippur about these sorts of vows, not to make it a day of New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s resolutions are a pessimistic project because everybody knows they will be broken. They feel optimistic at first, accompanied by a great surge of willpower, but their downfall is something most of us know from experience: Willpower works for a while, and then it stops working. Once the power of the will is broken, once perfection is no longer a possibility, it’s very hard to get back on track.

By putting vows aside, Kol Nidre clears the path to different kind of self-improvement. Instead of making vows, we do teshuvah. The noun teshuvah comes from the Hebrew root shuv (shin-vav-bet)—to return—and it has two meanings. First, teshuvah is the act of returning, a coming-back. Second, a teshuvah is a comeback, a response, as in “I asked him a question and he came back with a teshuvah,” or “She told him she loved him and his teshuvah was a kiss.” On Yom Kippur, the goal is to become aware that we are standing in the presence of infinite grandeur and to offer the appropriate teshuvah, to come back with the right response. The High Holiday liturgy that is designed to evoke this response is strikingly short on promises of good behavior. Instead of putting vows in our mouths, what it does is try to place us inside a relationship that, once we are aware of it, we would never dream of betraying—a relationship to which we cannot but respond

One of the central images of this relationship is experienced by many contemporary people as unhelpful or even off-putting. During the High Holiday season, many of the regular prayers change slightly to highlight images of God as king, with humans playing the role of subjects. There is nothing in contemporary political and social life that matches the relationship between king and subject that these prayers imagine. Most of us have no kings in our lives, and even in fairy tales it’s hard to conjure a king who is perfectly grand and powerful, and who is dedicated to the loving care of his subjects like the king who is a metaphor for God. But imagine there were such a king and that you were invited to sit with him at his table. In a situation like that, it would not be willpower that would keep you on your best behavior. You would not need vows to remind you not to put your feet on the table, stick your fingers in the mashed potatoes, or help yourself to food without being offered or without saying thanks. Your inner response to the reality of the situation would inspire a sense of awe that would prevent such crude behavior. The emphasis on God as king during the High Holidays is meant to help us return to the awareness that every moment of our lives we are sitting at that table. Our appropriate response—our teshuvah—is sure to follow.

The Yom Kippur liturgy insists that we are part of a relationship. The image of king and subject is only one metaphor for this relationship. Among other relationship images that appear in the liturgy—and throughout the Jewish texts—is the image of lover and beloved. This metaphor may be more helpful for illustrating to contemporary people the difference between two tools for self-improvement: willpower and relationships. If you are true to your relationship with your beloved because you have vowed not to have an affair and because your willpower is strong, then chances are you need to work on your relationship. The right reason not to have an affair is that your relationship with your beloved is precious to you and you know that it will be harmed by disloyalty and betrayal. If your relationship is strong, then your inner response to its reality inspires you to protect its sanctity. You need not rely on vows and heroic willpower to uphold the terms of your covenant.

Vows are brittle. Once we break them, they are irreparable. Relationships are even more powerful, but they are made of a different substance. Instead of breaking, they languish. But we can return to relationships; they can be repaired and ultimately strengthened. The work of Yom Kippur is to return to the awareness that we are standing in the presence of God and to cultivate the inner response that makes us true to that relationship. Vows can only distract from the real work by making us think that our willpower is the key to our success. Kol Nidre erases the distraction and sets the stage for genuine teshuvah.

Rabbi Helen Plotkin teaches at Swarthmore College and at Mekom Torah, a Philadelphia-area Jewish community learning project. She edited and annotated In This Hour, a collection of early writings by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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