Lawrence A. Hoffman and the Message of Kol Nidre

Editor of a wide-ranging collection of essays on the dramatic and troubling Kol Nidre prayer.

Yom Kippur continues to maintain its great power over people; if any day can draw Jews to the synagogue, it is the Day of Atonement, when tradition says we are judged for our deeds. Kol Nidre, the prayer service that begins the fast day even before the sun has set, may be the most dramatic moment in the Hebrew year, yet the Aramaic formula from which it takes its name, and which is recited three times at the start of the service, has long troubled the rabbis and many lay people as well. What are we to think of a statement declaring that we can not be held responsible for any and all vows that we may undertake but not fulfill during the coming year? How does that sit with a holy day meant to encourage us to take responsibility for our words and actions? Kol Nidre is the topic of the new book "All These Vows: Kol Nidre" (Jewish Lights, 250 pages, $25 ). Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York, the volume contains more than 35 essays about the prayer by a wide range of scholars, artists and religious leaders, ranging across the Jewish denominational spectrum. It is the second of a planned series edited by Hoffman about the liturgy of the High Holidays, which began with last year's "Who by Fire, Who by Water," about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer.

One essay in the new book traces back to the 1940s the mistaken belief that Kol Nidre had its origins among the crypto-Jews of post-Inquisition Spain, intended to release them from promises made under torture to disavow their Jewish faith. In fact, "All These Vows" says the prayer dates back to 9th-century Palestine. Several authors drive home the point that, just as Jewish legal scholars have been opposed to Kol Nidre, it has been a favorite among the Jewish public. This is probably attributable less to the text itself and more to the dramatic way in which it is recited before the open ark and its moving melody, which dates back at least to the 16th century. Haaretz spoke with Hoffman from his home in New York.

Can you talk me through the story of Kol Nidre?

The prayer comes to us not from the rabbis, but from the people. Our first mention of it is from roughly the 9th century, when a gaon - a leading rabbi in Babylonia - quotes some of his predecessors, who say, We don't do this prayer, we think it's foolishness.

And they also complain that it comes from another land, no?

Yes. It turns out that we now know that it came from Eretz Yisrael. There were all sorts of differences in customs between the Land of Israel and Babylonia. As backdrop, you should know that that the first prayer book came into existence in about 860 C.E., written by Rabbi Amram Gaon. Amram was fighting Palestinian custom. So he especially disliked Kol Nidre. Actually, almost nobody liked the prayer, if they were authoritative rabbis. That's because it contradicted halakha. Jewish law looks very seriously at the matter of taking vows and of using God's name in vain. The rabbis understood that you might make a mistake, and you could annul a certain vow by going to rabbi or a court. You could say, I made a vow to my wife, but I didn't get to keep it. Or you may have stretched the truth about the size of that fish that you caught. But a blanket annulment of all oaths? Unheard of.

How do we know that its origin is in Palestine? Is it mentioned in the Cairo Genizah?

Yes, we know about it from a responsum that comes from the genizah. Up through the Talmudic era, both Babylonia and Palestine offered a great deal of liturgical alternative. Once you get to the Geonic period [roughly 600-1000], because the Muslim capital was in Iraq, and [that society] was highly centralized, that led to a highly centralized rabbinate. In Palestine, that never happened. So it's not surprising to find all sorts of alternatives there. And the geonim [in Babylonia] were opposed to many Palestinian innovations.

The next step is in Ashkenaz [Germany], where we know that by the 11th century, they were actually singing it - three times, so we can see already that it was a central prayer. The rabbis were stuck with it. So, Rashi's grandson [Rabbeinu Tam], a great rabbi in the group known as the Tosafists, decided to change the prayer so that it was not, strictly speaking, contradictory to halakha. Rather than having it cancel vows in the past, he changed it to the future tense.

But how is that morally or emotionally helpful?

That's exactly correct. It didn't solve the moral problem. But let's understand the rabbis' perspective in the Middle Ages. They were legalists, and if you're a lawyer, your job is to make sure that your client doesn't disobey the law. It wasn't as if the rabbis were unconcerned about the morality of it, I'm sure, but there wasn't much they could do about that.

A third development made the problem worse, and that was the adding of an entire courtroom choreography, as I call it, in the 13th century. This is when Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg adds material to it, so that it seems as if the heavenly court has come down to judge here on earth. The scrolls are taken from the ark, and we are told that we can pray with sinners. We are suddenly summoned to this court. We can only imagine, especially in the medieval context, the moving nature of that particular choreography.

In terms of psychological preparation, on Yom Kippur you are in a dress rehearsal for your own death. You're wearing white, you are wearing a kittel, which is what you're buried in, you are fasting and you are not engaging in sexual activity. And most significantly, the Torah scrolls are removed from the aron hakodesh, the holy ark, and it's as if you're looking into an aron, a casket. You're staring at this empty wood box, and you're dressed in white, and you're saying a confession. If that isn't your deathbed, what is?

But it's in modern times, isn't it, that in many communities they stop saying the prayer?

The problems in modernity are as follows: To begin with, we become aware of a moral demand made upon us, as universal human beings, in a way that medievals were not. That is because after Napoleon, we are freed from ghettos, we study philosophy and go to university. We think of ourselves no longer as the hunted and the persecuted of the earth, we see ourselves along with other Europeans, who are our friends now, as people who will make history together. We will stride across history arm in arm, making change. That was the 19th century's heady optimism. To make matters worse, once we enter modernity, we begin making new prayer books, with translations in the vernacular. As long as the prayer was in its original Aramaic, nobody knew what it meant anyway. It wasn't even in Hebrew. But now it's staring you in the face: Here it is in German, or English, or in French, and so it becomes clear that we are making a statement that says: Don't trust us. Back in Germany, there was actually a custom by which a Jew was brought to court, upon trial, to swear that Kol Nidre would not hold on any testimony that he might have to give in a trial. You can imagine how embarrassing that was.

So, no wonder rabbis tried so hard to get rid of it. But of course they failed. They might say to the cantors: I would like you to say a psalm instead. I know you've got to sing the song, but don't use the words. But cantors were sometimes paid by how well they did on the holiday, and they were not going to fool around with Kol Nidre, putting new words to it and stumbling. So by and large, the cantors said to the rabbis: Thank you for sharing. To be sure, in many liberal synagogues, there were no cantors, there were soloists, or the rabbi had the power to enforce it ...

How have your feelings about Kol Nidre developed over the years, considering that your field of expertise is Jewish liturgy?

I think I personally recapitulated in my own being the entirety of Jewish history. That is to say, at one point, I simply loved the prayer. It moved me the way it moves everybody. Though I had no idea what it meant. Then I became a mature and responsible adult who knows what it means, and now I was embarrassed by it. Fortunately, at that point, I was going to Reform synagogue, though I was raised in an Orthodox shul. And the Reform synagogues that I was going to had already made the changes. Most Reform prayer books had even got rid of it, and I thought that was great. The cantor would chant it, or it was played on a musical instrument, but the words weren't there. I may have missed the cantor's voice, but at least I didn't have to confront the meaning of it.

And then finally, of course, I become a liturgist, charged with editing prayer books and writing them myself. I've taught in yeshivas as well, and now I'm faced with the moral problem of what my position should be, what we should be doing.

It sounds like your position has softened somewhat.

Well, we enter the liturgical arena frequently not quite certain what to make of it. We get words we may not necessarily agree with, and we get a form of drama that's not contemporary sometimes. And yet, we are all in search of the sacred. We live in a desacralized world, which is not a bad thing. It means that we've discovered the laws of nature, and that God doesn't micromanage the universe. I think that's a good thing, because that allows us to better our condition by continuing our scientific research and treating the world as it really is. But we have paid a price: People think that just because the world is demystified, that it is without mystery. The purpose of the High Holiday liturgy is to reestablish the notion that even a demystified world need not be without the mystery of grandeur, the mystery of the human being, in all of our nakedness, and yet with our striving for greatness, to stand before God and plan our lives anew. So hopefully one goes to the synagogue and one gets a sense of the excitement, the grandeur, the mystery of being human, the potential before us. That's the sacred. Hopefully, in this series of books, we will make all of the liturgy stand out for people, so that it does what it should for them, it gives them a sense of greatness as a Jew and as a human being, and of the potential we have before God and the world.