Kol Nidre: A Declaration That Holds Us In Its Grip
For hundreds of years, dating at least to the 8th century, the Yom Kippur service has begun with the chanting of Kol Nidre, not a prayer but a legal formula that released Jews from their vows. At first, the text canceled vows that we made since last Yom Kippur and were unable to fulfill in the year gone by. Later, the text was re-written to nullify vows that we will be unable to fulfill in the year that lies ahead.
One popular explanation for this change is that the rabbis devised it for the coming of the Crusades to counteract coerced vows of conversion when Jews were forced to renounce their Judaism publicly. Certainly, during the Spanish Inquisition many Jews disavowed their faith, yet persisted in preserving their heritage secretly. The rabbis, in effect, offered a way to make a vow without really meaning it, like keeping your fingers crossed behind your back when making a promise.
Not surprisingly, many people have had a problem with this text and the loophole it offers. A ninth century sage called it “a foolish custom.” Antisemites seized on the notion that the oath of a Jew is worthless. In response, apologist rabbis scurried to defend the integrity of Jews and said that Kol Nidre was not meant to apply to oaths made before courts of law, but only before God. Many modern Jews have denounced the passage altogether.
Nonetheless, Kol Nidre survives, even among some secular Jews whose efforts to expunge it from their services are often overruled by popular appeal. So why have we clung to what so many learned authorities have proclaimed to be unhealthy? To what we ourselves may find disagreeable? To a legal formula devoid of any poetry? To something we may not even understand?