Sunday, September 15, 2013

Erev Yom Kippur 5574: Kol Nidrei and the Bubble in Time

The sun is setting. Evening has come. Quiet descends on the city streets and country lanes.
People gather in synagogues and community centers.
Shhh. They are beginning. Kol Nidrei ve'esarei, ush'vuei….
A magical moment. What is its secret? The gathering is marvelous; the quiet, welcome and the melody echoes across continents and generations…
There is also a text: Kol Nidrei ve'esarei, ush'vuei….
A unique text unlike anything else in the prayer book: neither a prayer nor a biblical reading; neither a confession nor liturgical poem but rather a legal declaration – or perhaps a magical formula – in which we seemingly recant all oaths and vows.
A unique text and a controversial one, with a complex history and many interpretations. I would like to take this opportunity to cast light on Kol Nidrei from several angles. I will intertwine history and interpretation in a partial review that is in no way intended to detract from the validity of any other perspective.
The time and place of Kol Nidrei’s composition is shrouded in the past. The first testimony to its existence that has reached us comes in the writings of ninth century Babylonian rabbis who waged a campaign against it. If it were up to them, no one would ever swear an oath or make a vow, but if you’ve made a commitment, keep it! They waged a campaign, and lost.
Life is stronger than the study hall; the need people felt to enter the day of judgment “clean” of unfulfilled vows and promises overrode any legal or religious logic. Kol Nidrei remained and rabbis continue to worry.
One particularly worried rabbi was Rashi’s grandson Rabbenu Tam in 12th century France. In an attempt to resolve the insufferable problem of canceled vows and disregard for promises made, he transferred the declaration to the future and reworded it, “from this Yom Kippur to the next Yom Kippur” which is common among Achkanazi Jews even today. The double version “from last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur, and from this Yom Kippur to next Yom Kippur” was invented later. Even if this solved one problem, it created others. From the Middle Ages through the mid-19th century, and even the early 20th century, some European courts use a special formula when Jews gave sworn testimony, the More Judaico, lest they later retract their word on the basis of the Kol Nidrei declaration.
Furthermore, if you look at an accurate translation, you will also see that the verbs in the future-oriented versions remain in the past tense, which reinforces the fact that Aramaic was no longer a language that people understood. It is also possible to understand the blurring of grammatical tenses another way. Perhaps it is intended to blur real-time. Choreographer and commentator Liz Lerman observed interesting historical fact and noted that Rabbenu Tam lived during the period when the idea of “zero” became known in Europe. She envisioned him using the following train of thought when reformulating Kol Nidrei: “Imagine zero, then, as a space in life… where for the briefest of time there was no history and no future, just the emptiness of a present where everything is possible.”
In this spirit, I imagine Kol Nidrei as a corridor leading us into a bubble in time, to a special present, lifted above the everyday continuum and just so slightly disconnected from it; a vantage point from which we can see the past more clearly and also glimpse the potential inherent in the future. Primarily, however, we are surrounded by mirrors so as to see ourselves more clearly. There are other opportunities to analyze the constraints that force our hand. Today, we are called upon to examine what we, ourselves have done.
If you previously thought that Kol Nidrei was written for the conversos during the Inquisition, you are surely not alone because many were educated in the spirit of this “legend.” What this understanding lacks in historical truth is balanced by the deep meaning it imparts, as it confronts us with a searing question: “When my back is against the wall and the constraints of life force me to surrender, do I break down and give up, or do I hold on to hope and try to remain connected to my true self?
Surely this is a worthy question and one path that Kol Nidrei paves for us on our inner journey.
Despite its magical sound, reminiscent of abracadabra (which is also Aramaic), Kol Nidrei is a legal text. This clearly evident in the initial seven synonyms for vows and oaths, not unlike contracts that list every possible type of damage that might possibly occur, even if only a lawyer can distinguish between them. Without getting into the technical meaning of each word, we must acknowledge that the technical language covers a most unpleasant truth: even when we have the best of intentions, we do not keep all of our promises. This is not a matter of deception or fraud but rather admission of human weakness. In this sense, Kol Nidrei is an admission of our human frailty and an acknowledgment that we have likely disappointed ourselves and others.
An admission of our human frailty. Yes, that is the challenge we face ensconced in this bubble in time, where words are our primary tool. Positioned above ordinary time, we look back and see what we need to improve. There is always something to improve. Our shortcomings and failings did not disappear magically this evening when the sun set. To begin, we must acknowledge our flaws, and confess: first, to ourselves and God; then, to those we have harmed, using words.
The prayer book includes two checklists, one beginning “We have sinned, we have betrayed…” and the other. “For the sin that we sinned against You,” that we can use as a starting point in this process but they are not intended to be exhaustive lists, rather they are springboards. Everyone ought to take a break from reading the prepared text in order to silently formulate individual points for improvement.
The next step is to make a plan for implementing that improvement. An abstract intention not sin again is often insufficient. We must make a concrete plan. Vague statements like “I won't do X again” are rarely firm foundations for lasting change. More often than not, they succumb to the force of habit. It is important to be more specific, using a formulation like, “I will take the following steps to ensure that I do not repeat this action or to a help me acquire a better habit.”
Yes. Habit, more than wickedness is the highest obstacle in our path to a better future. The force of habit is so strong that some neurologists even doubt that humans have genuine free will. But other scientists dispute this neurological determinism and insist that we are indeed equipped with the most important types of free will and are capable of vetoing our urges. It isn't easy but it is possible. One way to force our conscious desires on our subconscious habits to use words to quietly convince ourselves.
Freedom of choice is a fundamental concept in Judaism: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20‎). Despite its forceful urging, the Torah makes it clear that the choice of life and good remains in human hands. On Yom Kippur, we are called upon to renew our commitment.
Having chosen life, we must have the strength of our convictions even if we occasionally falter. Most importantly, we must not despair. It is so easy to despair, and give in to weakness and habit.
In order to prevent this, we can balance our internal ledger by listing the good we have done. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “Just as there is benefit for repairing our souls in confessing sins, there is also benefit in confessing the commandments we have kept.” Inspired by this teaching, Rabbi Benyamin Holtzman of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa formulated a positive confession. I made a few changes, and now I offer it to you:
We loved, we blessed, we did deeds of loving-kindness, we spoke of beauty, we listened, we attempted, we remembered, we hugged, we nurtured, we created, we respected, we learned, we took advantage of the good, we tried, we stopped to look, we did our duty, we worked for justice, we were just (sometimes), we called upon Your Name, we wanted, we rejoiced, we supported.
I will now recite it again (in Hebrew) and invite everyone to repeat after me.
אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּמָלְנוּ חֶסֶד, דִּבַּרְנוּ יוֹפִי, הֶאֱזַנוּ והִשְׁתַּדַּלְנוּ, זָכַרְנוּ, חִבַּקְנוּ, ‏ טִיפַחנוּ, יָצַרְנוּ, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לַמַדְנוּ, מִצִּינוּ אֶת הַטּוֹב, נִסִּינוּ, סַרְנוּ לִרְאוֹת, עָשִׂינוּ ‏אֶת הַמוּטַל עָלֵינוּ, פָּעַלְנוּ לְמַעַן הַצֶּדֶק, צַדָקְנוּ לִפְעָמִים, קָרַאנוּ בְּשִׁמְךָ, רָיצִינוּ, ‏שָׂמַחְנוּ, תָּמַכְנוּ.‏
With the support of those around us, let us take advantage of the bubble in time to examine ourselves and our deeds. Approximately 24 hours from now, a great shofar will be sounded, the bubble will dissolve and we will return to the activity of life: to love, to bless, to attempt and to create. May we all have a successful day.
Shoshana Michael-Zucker
Kehillat Hod VeHadar

This [slightly abridged] translation is dedicated to the memory of Muriel Goldhammer. 

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