My problem with Kol Nidrei

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Kol Nidrei should have disappeared a long time ago. After its introduction in the '800s, it was sharply opposed for the next 400 years by rabbinic authorities who saw it as a meaningless gesture. In the 1100s, a debate emerged over which vows, future or past, Kol Nidrei refers to. And in the 19th century, because of anti-Semitic claims that it enabled Jews to violate oaths, many reformers (and even, for short time, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) removed Kol Nidrei from the service. It is a problematic prayer.

So why is Kol Nidrei still part of the service? Only because of the melody. There are moving tunes, in both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi tradition, for Kol Nidrei. No matter what, it is here to stay because the tunes are majestic and awe-inspiring.

This was my problem with Kol Nidrei. I was trained in Lithuanian-style yeshivot to think about serious Jewish content, about talmudic texts and theological sources; Kol Nidrei is the opposite of that. Kol Nidrei is a ritual that hangs by less than a thread of hair, with an inferior halachic pedigree, and is only preserved because of its tune. It bothered me that it is religious fluff, all musical culture and minimal religious content. So why did it find a place of honour leading off the Yom Kippur liturgy?

Frankly, contemporary Judaism is overstocked with religious fluff. There was an advertisement many years ago from a yeshiva in Jerusalem that had a picture of a bagel, lox and cream cheese sandwich with the caption: “Is this the culmination of 3,000 years of Jewish history?” This sadly is all too often the case, with Jewish identity reduced to the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof, brisket and satin kippahs. This superficial cultural Judaism offers no rationale for continuity, and no true link to spirituality. 

Because of this, I saw content and culture as antagonists. To me, bagels, lox and cream cheese Judaism was the opposite of the Judaism that nurtured me in yeshiva. And even the melodies like Kol Nidrei were just superficial enhancements, pleasant, but ultimately unimportant.

But I was wrong. Culture is important too. Melodies, foods, even jokes have a role in preserving Judaism.

In the language of Halachah, we call these elements a minhag, or a custom. Minhag is about the little distinctive cultural touches that make observance more fascinating. Rabbi Maimon (the father of the Rambam) wrote about the importance of respecting customs like eating doughnuts (sfinj) on Chanukah. Indeed, it is often the customs, with their distinctive tastes, aromas, colours and melodies that inspire us in ways we are not fully aware of.

What my overly intellectual perspective had missed is this: that the little things, the aromas, tastes, colours and melodies, are a powerful way of conveying the content, the great ideas I so love. Culture can create an emotional connection unavailable in the world of ideas.

And this is the power of Kol Nidrei, the power of singing the same song as our grandparents, even if the words are obscure. And even the intellectually inclined among us should never overlook it.

In 1913, a young intellectual decided to convert to Christianity. As a final farewell to Judaism, he decided to go to Yom Kippur services. But after listening to Kol Nidrei, he left a transformed man. In the years that followed, this man, Franz Rozensweig, became a prominent Jewish philosopher and inspired many others to make their journey back to Judaism.

Ironically, a great intellectual was drawn back to Judaism by Kol Nidrei, a prayer that is more melody than meaning. And even today, otherwise alienated Jews show up for Kol Nidrei, drawn in by the inspiring melody.

Now, if we could only teach our alienated Jews how to love the content, to engage the ideas of Judaism as well.