Kol Nidre – the contract my soul and my history need

Kol Nidre 5774

Elliott batTzedek, Fringes Havurah, Philadelphia

While I know this will surprise you, Jewish tradition has many different opinions about Kol Nidre and what it means. Many Rabbinical Authorities have tried to suppress it over the centuries, both because of the ritual itself—how through repetition we are magically released from vows – is problematic AND  because Christian governments used the existence of Kol Nidre as an argument for excluding and punishing Jews.  Of all of those centuries of arguments, I want to focus on only one, but it’s a big one: whether the release of vows in the Aramaic text is for “between now and this time next year,” which is the Ashkenazic practice established by Rashi’s son-in-law, OR whether, as in the Sephardic version, the release is “from last year to this year.” The Reconstructionist machzor we are using has adopted the Sephardic version.

When I first encountered Kol Nidre, it was the Ashkenazic version, projecting into the future the need to be released from any vows that might be made. This version moved me, shook me,  and also made me feel profoundly safe, protected, held. Not because I was looking forward to a year of making promises I felt already absolved from keeping, but because many parts of my childhood were ugly. I was victimized and assaulted, physically and sexually. All of which hurt in nearly countless ways.

But what most destroyed my soul as a child was that I was forced to give my consent, to agree that I wanted these things to happen. I was forced to vow against myself and what I knew to be true, and to experience this being forced so many times that the lie came to feel real.  This was my experience, and I know it has been the experience of most people who have been violated.  During the years I was helping women who had survived being trafficked and being used in the pornography industry, one theme I heard over and over until I thought my heart would break is that the victim was always told to smile, and forced to sign or film a statement of consent.  Being forced in this way to speak against oneself, especially when it happens continually for years, is the ultimate expression of power-over, for it is intended to destroy not only the body, but the mind and the soul, and it often does.

Being forced in this way to speak against oneself is the ultimate expression of power-over, for it is intended to destroy not only the body, but the mind and the soul, and it often does.

Living with the personal and political knowledge of the cost of forced “consent” is incredibly alienating; in a broader culture that relies on the illusion of safety, knowing that evil does happen is like viewing the world through a thick fog.  As I went through the years-long experience of becoming a Jew, Kol Nidre shone through this fog.  Finally, finally, a deep spiritual statement that reflected the truth of my life—an acknowledgement of the horror that, sometime in the coming year, we could be forced to make a vow that violates our body and inner-most selves. Kol Nidre acknowledges this truth, and offers a deep spiritual ritual in response—our sworn communal statement assuring that such vows will not be permanent, and will not bind us. I can barely find words for what chanting Kol Nidre, out loud within a community, did to heal that part of myself which still felt guilty for all the times I expressed a consent I never, in any way, chose for myself.

I can barely find words for what chanting Kol Nidre, out loud within a community, did to heal that part of myself which still felt guilty for all the times I expressed a consent I never, in any way, chose for myself.

In a profound way, I think that my experience of these words is also the experience of the generations of Jews who insisted on chanting Kol Nidre even in the face of rabbinical resistance. It is a Jewish experience to live knowing that, however good life is now, a shift in power or attitude could produce a government or an inquisition or a crusade that would come to your home, destroy or kill, or force a vow of loyalty to a king or pope or christian god.  And even making this vow once was no protection, since Jews have been forced to swear again and again, in a power move that devastates communities and individuals through public rituals designed to make forced “consent” seem real.

Kol Nidre, it seems to me, is an expression of the collective wisdom of the Jewish people in light of this knowledge and experience. It is incredibly painful to acknowledge that, however strong and safe you feel, you could in the coming year be the victim of any act of violence, much less the intimate terrorism of being forced to vow against yourself.  I think that women live with this knowledge about the ever present threat of rape, although that awareness is usually under the surface, expressed as nervousness about being alone at night, or fear of one group or another of men. People all across the globe, facing ethnic cleansing and occupation, know this fear. I think that Jews have also lived for a very long time with this fear right under the surface of everything. 

Kol Nidre is the link between Torah and our ongoing historical experience as Jews

Although it is rarely safe to acknowledge this fear, the period of intense self-reflection and openness between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur creates a space for what is buried to come to the surface, safely supported by community, tradition, and liturgy.  So it no surprise to me that people insisted on making Kol Nidre part of the Yom Kippur experience; Kol Nidre is a profound cultural response to the conflict between Torah’s understanding of the power of speech and the daily reality of our wider lives. Kol Nidre is the link between Torah and our ongoing historical experience as Jews; Torah commands that vows must not be broken, no matter the cost, while Kol Nidre, like a lullaby from the Shekhinah, whispers that, while you never know what the year might bring, you will be okay, tradition will still be there as a cradle for your soul and a shield against even the most intimate attack.

This cradle, this shelter and protection, also of course occurs in the Sephardic version of Kol Nidre, in which we are released from vows made in the previous year. That version, too, respects our complicated histories. But for me, it is the acknowledgment of the year to come that is the comfort I need.  I know too much about the world, we all do, to believe that nothing bad is going to happen. (And if you do believe that now, the liturgy of the next 26 hours will quickly disabuse you of the idea!). I also know—and this, believe me, is not easy to face—how easy it is to force us to swear against ourselves. Threaten our kids, our partner, our animals, anything we love, and any words we might be pushed to mumble will at the time seem far less damaging than the threat of loss.

So whatever version of Kol Nidre I listen and respond to, what I hear in my soul is always “from this year to the next,” because that is the contract my soul and my history need.

So whatever version of Kol Nidre I listen and respond to, what I hear in my soul is always “from this year to the next,” because that is the contract my soul and my history need. The steeply dropping note of the first syllable is the breathing out of decades of shame and guilt because I’d been forced to vow against myself, the wailing of the Aramaic vowels are my grief being shared, and the deep sense of completion after the prayer is a hard-won release.

My best hope for all of you here tonight is that you don’t need my Kol Nidre. That you never need my Kol Nidre. That, together, we go on working for a world in which no one ever again needs my Kol Nidre. For, in the words of prophet Andrea Dworkin, in her dream of a world without rape: “then, and only then, when the threat is over, can we begin to talk about real freedom.”

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