Though Jewish traditions perhaps didn’t always value hesitation when it came to sacrificing children, hesitation is built into Jewish culture on the High Holidays. Traditionally, the days from Rosh Hashanah through to Yom Kippur are “The Days of Awe”—the Yamim Nora’im.
That Hebrew word, Nora’im, comes from a Hebrew root meaning fear. For the rabbis, the whole period of the High Holidays was permeated with fear of judgment. Ultimate judgment, judgment with an uppercase “J.”
It was like this for many ordinary Jews, too. After all, one of the traditional greetings at this time of year is L’shana tova umetuka tikatevu v’teikhateimu: “May you be inscribed and sealed into the Book of Life for a good and sweet year.” In other words: “Hopefully, we’ll both still be alive this time next year!”
That fear—the fear of judgment and sin—is part of what created the central text of hesitation in the high holidays: the Kol Nidre chanted so beautifully only minutes ago.
The core paragraph of Kol Nidre is not really a prayer. It’s a quasi-legal, Aramaic text that has, over the centuries, come to take a form that tries to invalidate vows, oaths, and the like for the entirety of the coming year.
Here’s how it begins:
All vows, binding promises, dedications, consecrations, substitutions for formal vows, pledges of consecration, and oaths that we vow, swear, dedicate, or bind upon ourselves—from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur, may it be for our benefit!—we blot them out…
And Kol Nidre ends with:
Our vows are not vows; our binding promises are not binding; and our oaths are not oaths.
Even as the New Year is only beginning, then, we say Kol Nidre. It’s a very public, very lawyer-like effort to cross our fingers behind our backs—and hope that no one pays too much attention to the promises we make over the next year. Kol Nidre is the Jewish people’s long recognition that even as we promise ourselves and our loved ones to do better next year, we know we’re human.
We’re already hesitating. We’re already unsure. We always were. So unsure, in fact, that even 1300 years ago, our ancestors demanded inclusion of a “get out of jail free” card for the most serious day of the year! The Aramaic in the Kol Nidre is often translated as saying “we regret” our promises, but in Biblical Hebrew the word also means “to chisel” or “to scrape.” We so fear failing that we try to blot out all our promises in advance.
And oh, how the rabbis despised the Kol Nidre. Despised it! They worried that people would think you could get out of any vow. The Reform movement removed Kol Nidre from the liturgy for some time, because antisemitic slurs often pointed to the Kol Nidre as evidence that Jews simply couldn’t be trusted.
So the rabbis limited Kol Nidre’s effect: it applied only to promises that affected no other person–vows of the sort one might make only to Yahweh. But the rabbis could not keep Kol Nidre out of Yom Kippur.
It’s one of those rare times when the people won out. But as with so many other things, the Kol Nidre was interpreted into near oblivion. In its rabbinic interpretation, Kol Nidre is hardly the stuff of what it takes to say what we mean.
Yet we say Kol Nidre even today. For many, it’s a centerpiece of the High Holidays. So when we say the Kol Nidre now, do we say what we mean?
I think we do, and we mean it in the best traditions of what it means to be a Humanistic Jew.
What feeling is it, deep down, to which Kol Nidre gives voice? What is Kol Nidre about, really?
I would suggest that Kol Nidre is an expression of our fears. Our fears that we won’t—our fears that we can’t—do what we promise to do: promise to others, to be sure, but also to ourselves.
Kol Nidre expresses our fears about whether the things we promise are things worthy of our time.
It expresses our fears about promising to do anything at all.