Is Kol Nidre Kosher?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve encountered questions about Kol Nidre. Specifically, I’ve been asked whether Kol Nidre is “kosher” for Humanistic Jews. Indeed, I was asked that yesterday!

So…what say I?

First, Kol Nidre isn’t ordinarily something the individual person recites. It is instead sung by a shaliach tzibbur–the person leading the service–who stands in for the entire community. There’s good reason for this from a practical perspective: the Kol Nidre melody is not for amateurs. Take a look at this video which, a little unusually, features a soloist accompanied by other singers, but which still captures well the melody.

Doing this well takes a well-prepared voice.

Now, to the text itself, which is what makes or breaks it for Humanistic Jews.

The Kol Nidre itself–the core paragraph–is sort of a legal disclaimer annulling unfulfilled vows. It is, in halakhah (Jewish law), held to apply only to vows between an individual and the God of Israel. The rabbis of the Babylonian academies strongly disapproved of the Kol Nidre text and its very idea, but the custom was “sticky” and persisted despite rabbinic objections. (For a bit more detail, see A.Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development.) Even as Jews were claimed to be untrustworthy by Christians persecutors because of this text, the Kol Nidre remained a central piece of most Jews’ experience of Yom Kippur, and eventually inspired Max Brüch to compose a solo cello piece which featured the Kol Nidre melody.

Having a long history doesn’t mean that the Kol Nidre automatically makes it into Humanistic Jewish liturgy; after all, the traditional theistic Amidah has been around at least 2000 years, but it doesn’t pass muster. And to be sure, lots of what appears in a traditional mahzor (the prayer book used for the High Holidays) isn’t used by Humanistic Jews.

But the Kol Nidre text, for all the insistence that it is incapable of annulling vows between people, contains no suggestion that its scope is somehow limited to deals with God–and indeed, it mentions nothing about a god at all. It simply says that any vows, oaths, etc., that one enters into in the coming year may be annulled.

Taken alone, the Kol Nidre text is, by its language, perfectly acceptable for Humanistic Jews. There are paragraphs above and below it in the traditional mahzor that are not used–the shaliach tzibbur presenting himself and asking permission to plead for the people from the court on high and the court below, for example. But those aren’t the paragraphs with that plaintive melody. And nothing says Humanistic Judaism quite like second-guessing centuries-old halakhic decision-making from an entrenched rabbinic establishment.

The upshot is that with a text that acknowledges our failures as people without any necessary tie to a god, and with a melody that strikes home for many people, Kol Nidre is not only acceptable for Humanistic Jews but perhaps more than any other melody catches some of the awe of the Days of Awe.