No Apology for Kol Nidre

Noraa Neither Kaplan

It is in these days of Awe, yamim nora’im, we are asked to apologize for sin and to beg for forgiveness and to long for absolution, but I will not apologize for Kol Nidre.

It has been called into question by antisemites.

It has been used against Jews, offered up as proof to our unfaithfulness.

It has been stamped out and forbidden.

It has been legislated and prefaced.

It has been modified and changed.

It has been plundered for its melody and replaced with different texts.

It has been removed altogether from Yom Kippur services across the world.

I will not apologize for it too. Kol Nidre does not need to be forgiven, forgotten, absolved, repented, recanted, reneged, hidden.

Kol Nidre reads:

All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves,

from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement and from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement

Regarding all of them, they are repudiated.

All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect.

Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.

Why is it that the most sacred prayer of Judaism is a legal formula that breaks our promises? Is there any virtue in breaking one’s oaths? Is there any beauty in undoing a promise? What good is there in unswearing, unconsecrating, unvowing, unprohibiting?

Is it the emotional core that keeps Kol Nidre alive another year, the fearsome, awe-struck, degraded understanding of our deepest failure and our recognition of the completeness of Hashem’s perfection?

Is it the beginning of a fast, a first stage of grief? Is it a denial? A vision of ourselves repudiating our own deaths, delaying it another year? A failure to see our absolute bondage to Adonai, our Master?

Is it the triumph of survival that keeps Kol Nidre alive? Does it persist in spite of its prejudice to remind us of our own resilience, that neither Hashem nor the state can wipe out the Jewish people?

Or is it all these things and none of them? Is it nothingness itself? Is it the abjected, degraded, disgusting pit of despair? The tzimtzum space beyond space before, after, but always simultaneous with the creation? For every work that Hashem has fashioned there is a space torn in the Nothingness that has preceded all. For every human life, there is a human death. Emptiness is eternal.

It is the recognition that as much as we aspire to glory, crave the light of Hashem and goodness, long for closeness to the Shechinah, the feminine presence of God that is all things and none of them, we will truly never inhabit the Shechinah as much as the Shechinah can inhabit us. We will never be a site of goodness in the same way our very bodies, our very flesh are sites for sin, for our bodies arrive signified, arrive written on with the truths of life like a golem.

And it is for precisely this reason, for the reason that existence itself is a spoken act (for Hashem created us all not with hands but with words! Our very flesh is the discourse of the heavens!) that we refute our vows. For they pale in comparison to the contract of life that all humans are imbued with. Our words are dim candles to the sun of Adonai’s contract and the moon of the Shechinah contraction.

Because we were created with words and the capacity to make words ourself, and because we cannot yet, not until ha’olam haba, make vows that we can fully keep, that our vows are not vows. And it is because our vows are not vows that we must offer up our bodies themselves to God. And because our bodies are already God’s, because we arrived possessions, playthings, pets, projects, pretty things but also wretches, sinners, failures, deviants, sources of grief and rage and divine tears that we must finally offer not promises for a life according to Hashem’s will but our life itself.

Kol Nidre is another contract, and another contraction: a contract of negation. A contract which frees us from the bondage of eternal promises that us temporary, impermanent, imperfect mortals cannot even speak, or at least cannot speak honestly. And because it is a sin to tell a lie, we must treat each year, each day, each hour, each action and instant as a new contract! A new oath! A new promise!

Each present moment is an individual gift from God, and so each present moment we perform the gestures of goodness and evil, maleness and femininity, sanctity and perversion, love and hate, freedom and bondage.

It is for this reason that I will not apologize for Kol Nidre! I do not need to atone the limits Adonai has given me in their wisdom! I do not need to atone for being the woman I am! And I do not need to swear an oath of who I shall be for I am what I am, just as Adonai is what they are.

May you be sealed in the book of life, forgiveness, and happiness for the upcoming year. And may each moment of your year be a clean slate, may we take the spirit of starting over with us through the whole of our lives.