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Keeping promises
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Keeping promises

Matot-Masei — Numbers 30:2-32:42/33:1-36:13

Summer has barely begun and already I am thinking of Kol Nidrei. If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail, I guess, and I am a rabbi and a liturgist to boot, so when I see the sedra instructing us that we must carry out our vows, I naturally think of the prayer that accomplishes just the opposite. Jews turn out in droves for Kol Nidrei, not knowing, perhaps, that it is a legal formula declaring oaths and vows we might make null and void.

From an ethical perspective, the idea of discounting promises is scandalous. But in the heat of the moment, we do, on occasion, swear that “by God,” we’ll do something stupid, wrong, or impossible, and from a religious perspective, failing to fulfill such a promise constitutes taking God’s name in vain. So Judaism honors both sides of the dilemma: It considers vows binding but it also permits the nullification of certain types of vows made under certain types of circumstances. To be sure, nullification of vows rests on shaky legal ground, “hovering in the air,” as the Mishna puts it, “with nothing to support it.” It is a legal fiction that allows Jewish law to balance two opposing values: taking vows seriously but also compensating for the human tendency to promise things we cannot or should not carry out in practice.

Kol Nidrei, however, ups the ante: it is a blanket nullification of all vows made, not just this or that foolish promise that slips through our lips from time to time.

How did Kol Nidrei get into the liturgy?

Most scholars think it arose as an outgrowth of magical incantations inscribed on bowls that were then smashed, the idea being that when human beings make promises, demons undertake to effect them, even if they are for evil. Kol Nidrei was originally such an incantation, a means of releasing demonic forces from their obligation to cause damage by acting on vows that we foolishly make — in anger, say — and then regret making. The rabbis frowned on such superstition, of course, and Amram Gaon, the chief rabbi of Babylonia (858-871), and just the second authority even to have heard of Kol Nidrei, calls it “a foolish practice” and bans it.

But Amram was ignored. By the Middle Ages, Kol Nidrei had become firmly embedded in the liturgy. Later rabbis had to come to terms with the fact that its blanket retroactive annulment of vows ran counter to rabbinic law. The Torah said nothing about a proactive annulment of vows, however, so in the 13th century, the great French jurist Rabbenu Tam changed the wording to refer to vows made in the future, and at least in Ashkenazi custom (although not Sephardi) that is the version we now have.

Especially because it was in Aramaic, the language of Jewish law, it was easy to overlook the meaning. But when Jews began translating their prayerbooks into the vernacular, they were horror-struck to discover what it said. In some communities, Jewish leaders were hauled into court to guarantee that Jews did, in fact, keep their promises, despite Kol Nidrei. But even Reform communities, which did not hesitate to drop embarrassing prayers — particularly late ones with no legal standing and with ample rabbinic precedent for considering them “foolish” — found themselves stuck with this one, because of its haunting melody that people insisted on hearing. They tried substituting other texts — psalms for instance — but cantors resisted, for fear they would stumble over the wording and even lose their jobs because they had ruined the Yom Kippur experience. Other liberal prayerbooks (and even some Orthodox ones) just omitted the prayer, so that they didn’t have to include a translation. The cantor sang it from memory, people listened, and that was that.

So Kol Nidrei remains, despite all efforts to jettison it. No one these days considers it a means to evade responsibility to fulfill promises. It functions symbolically, as the annual call to return. Hearing it year after year is like going home again to a mythic communal past, sitting as our ancestors sat, and doing what they once did. We virtually feel the sacred permeate the room and renew us — as if magically relieving us of whatever is holding us back from being our best selves.

That is enough for me. The experience of Kol Nidrei is as sacred a moment as we have. And the sacred is hard to come by these days.

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