I went through my usual routine when asked to write something or speak somewhere. First I was flattered to be asked and agreed happily. Then I gave some thought to what I wanted to talk about and did some research. Then, as it approached, I cursed myself and the person who asked me and kept repeating my mantra: Why do I get myself into these things? By Wednesday (i.e. two days before) I'd done a lot of research and had an idea of what I wanted to say, but still hadn't written a word. A friend asked me to read and offer suggestions on his Yom Kippur speech (he's President of his Temple) and as I was doing it I kept saying to myself "I really should be writing mine." Anyway, I got it done in time; it was very well received; I'm back to being glad I accepted.
I decided to speak about Kol Nidre - what its appeal is to Jews of all stripes - and about Jewish community, and try to tie those two topics together. It's, of course, better when spoken, since the delivery is part of it. But for anyone who's interested in reading it, here it is:
Shana Tova, Gmar Chatima Tovah. My name is Dale Rosenberg and I’m a long time member of the Park Slope Jewish Center. I’ve spent many high holidays at PSJC but this is my first time at this service, since I generally attend the upstairs one. So when I was asked to give the dvar for the downstairs service I approached Angela, who organizes it, to find out what it’s like. She told me a bit about it, including the fact that David would be leading the davening, which is always a treat. I am the least spiritual person in the world – really, I barely have a soul – but when David Rosen starts chanting, that beautiful resonance touches whatever subatomic particle of spirituality I do have within me. So I was glad to hear that.
I was also intrigued by something Angela said. She said that this service is both the Overflow Service and the Community Service. I know from many years spent as a PSJC High Holiday Usher that we always welcome members of the larger community. We never require membership or tickets to attend any of our services, including those on the High Holidays. Now – don’t get me wrong – we would love for everyone who comes here to become members of our shul. And, if that’s not feasible we’d like you to support the shul by buying tickets ahead of time for the High Holidays. But not everybody has personal circumstances that allow that kind of planning ahead and we want everyone who wants one to have a place to go on the holidays, so we never, ever turn anyone away.
Still, for all of our other services – even on the High Holidays – we can accommodate everyone who shows up, somehow, without having an overflow service. It’s only on Kol Nidre night, Erev Yom Kippur, that we are so packed to the gills that the main sanctuary and the balcony are so full that we have this additional service in the lower sanctuary. And that’s not unique to our shul. All over the country, certainly, and in many places around the world, Jews who never enter a synagogue throughout the year come to shul to hear Kol Nidre. In fact, the Jewish activities in the US that unaffiliated Jews are most likely to engage in, according to surveys are: attending a seder, lighting Hanukah candles, and going to shul to hear Kol Nidre. Of those three, this is the only one that’s not done at home, that by its very nature requires a Jewish community. Even people who feel completely disaffected by organized religion will often put those feelings aside and come to hear Kol Nidre. It’s possible that some of you in this room fall into that category. It’s certain that some of the members of PSJC upstairs – since it is the only time we fill the whole space that way – do.
Angela’s remarks about Community and Overflow got me thinking on two tracks:
1. What is it about Kol Nidre that makes it so compelling to Jews of all stripes – involved and uninvolved, spiritual and not, belonging to any of the major movements or none at all?
2. What does it mean to be a Jewish community and to serve the larger population of Jews, including those who are unaffiliated and those who are disaffected and disillusioned with organized religion?
So I’m going to muse a bit on those topics. I’ve done a little research on Kol Nidre and will tell you some of what I’ve learned, and I’ve done some thinking about my own experience of Jewish community and will share some things that, I hope, will be of interest and perhaps stimulate thought about your own experiences and how Jewish community can sustain and support us all.
Okay, first Kol Nidre. What is it about this service, and its central prayer that is so compelling? It’s in a language most of us don’t understand – and not even in the language of most of our prayers. As Rabbi Carie points out, the reason a few of our prayers are – like Kol Nidre – in Aramaic rather than Hebrew was to make them more accessible. Aramaic was the lingua franca when these prayers were developed, so prayers that were particularly important, that you wanted to make sure everyone understood, were sometimes rendered in what was the vernacular, rather than in Hebrew. Kol Nidre and Mourner’s Kaddish are two good examples. But, of course, it’s not our vernacular, so here it is in a dead language that I can safely say none of us grew up speaking.
We do have translations, but they don’t really clarify much. What a weird chant this is! It seems to say that we are absolving ourselves of all promises we make, just as we start our new year, just as we try to turn a new leaf after a period of introspection and reviewing the wrongs we’ve done others and making amends. Why would we cancel all our vows and promises and contracts from now until next year at this time? Why would we make them null and void? What can it mean?
One thing about Judaism - ours is a very legalistic religion. We’ve got a Torah chock full of laws and a Talmud full of interpretations of those laws and another 1800 years of post-Talmudic interpretation and we’ve got modern movements that interpret the laws differently and make different determinations of which ones are binding on us and tell us what the modern equivalent of the ox that gores is and … well, you get the picture. We’re a religion that fights, passionately, over legal details others couldn’t care less about. We are not a religion, we are not a culture, we are not a civilization that’s likely to go around canceling laws and contracts willy nilly. So what’s going on here?
Well, of course, pretty much every machzor and every article on the high holidays points out that Kol Nidre is not intended and never was used to cancel contracts or promises involving other people, but only promises to G-d. Vows to G-d were taken very seriously in ancient times, and getting released from them was a complicated legal matter. There was concern that – in the fervor that accompanied the fasting and mass confession of Yom Kippur – some Jews might get carried away and make vows that they really could not keep. So the Kol Nidre formula was developed to nullify those inadvertent vows without having to go through a difficult legal process for each one.
We don’t know exactly when it was written, but we do know that it was in use in the 6th Century CE, and likely wasn’t new then. We also know that in the 12th Century, Rabbi Meir ben Shmuel - Rashi’s son-in-law – made a change to it that all Ashkenazic Jews follow to this day. The older form of Kol Nidre annulled vows from the previous year. Rabbi Meir changed it to refer to vows going forward – from this Yom Kippur until next – so as to not leave people in a state of broken vows for a full year.
Unsurprisingly, Kol Nidre has been the subject of many anti-Semitic tracts, particularly given Rabbi Meir’s changes. Now I want to be very clear. I’m not saying that Kol Nidre is a reason for anti-Semitism, just an excuse. Anti-Semites don’t need reasons for hating Jews; they don’t even need Jews – there are people who hate us who’ve never met one of us. But they have long pointed to Kol Nidre as evidence of our perfidy.
Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the Modern Period, Jews in Europe were – if they were allowed to testify at trials at all – required to take a special oath called an Oath More Judaico – “oath in the Jewish manner,” before they did. These oaths varied from country to country and were often accompanied by humiliating and/or physically painful accoutrements, like having to wear a crown of thorns while you take the oath or having a branch of thorns pulled slowly between the loins of the Jew taking the oath. Ouch. Here’s an excerpt from one of the oaths: “So help me the five books of Moses that I may nevermore enjoy a bite of food without soiling myself and may sulphur and pitch flow down upon my neck that flowed over Sodom and Gomorrah, but 200 times more, and may the earth envelop me and swallow me up as it did Dathan and Abiram if what I say is not true and right.” These oaths continued well past the time when Jews were emancipated in the European countries and supposedly became full citizens. In fact, the last one was revoked in 1912. And all of these oaths were intended to counter what was viewed as the Jewish contract-nullifying, lie-condoning, get-out-of-jail free card, Kol Nidre.
And, lest you think that this kind of anti-Semitic view is something from another time and place try googling Kol Nidre after the holiday and see what you get. Ted Pike of the National Prayer Network, for example, thinks that any Jew who goes to a Kol Nidre service is clearly ineligible to be a judge or legislator in this country. Holocaust deniers cite Kol Nidre as a reason not to believe survivors about their experiences. Right wing Radio Host Jeff Rense says “The Kol Nidre mentality is the underlying cause for all the anti-Jewish reaction by normal people down through the ages. Have we ever heard a renunciation of this ‘prayer’ by any Jew - orthodox, reform or otherwise? In fact, how many of us are even aware of this subversive practice, this license to lie, which is glorified in a holy ritual every year?”
So what’s the draw? Here we have this chant that doesn’t have practical meaning for most of us in an age when “I swear to G-d” is a figure of speech, not a legally binding vow. It is written in a language we don’t understand, used by our enemies to vilify us. Yet we want to hear it, many of us are moved just by the music of it. It was sung by Al Jolson in the first sound movie (yes – Fun Fact to Know and Tell), and we at PSJC make an extra effort – as do many shuls – to make it available to all who want to hear. What’s that about?
Well, I think it’s about community, which brings me to my second topic. I will come back to Kol Nidre and say how it relates to community, but let me begin by telling you a little bit about my experience of Jewish community so you can get a sense of where I’m coming from.
I spent my early childhood in rural North Dakota. My father was, at the time, being a country doctor and that was a great place to do that. My parents were basically secular, but they strongly identified as Jews. They just weren’t sure what to do about that. It was all complicated by the fact that we lived in a town full of Norwegian Americans. We were the only Jews in the town; my brother Joel was the first Jewish child in Northwood Public School; my sister Kayo was the first Jew born in the town – my mother had previously gone home to give birth to us older kids. My brother Joel and I were the oldest and to us what being Jewish meant was something we were that nobody else was – we had no other referent for the word. When we were truly shocked to hear our grandparents were Jewish our parents decided they had to do something about this.
So they concluded we needed some sort of Jewish education. The nearest Jewish community was in Grand Forks, 40 miles away. There wasn’t a Hebrew School but there was a rabbi, and he agreed to give Joel and me lessons. So every Sunday my mother drove us to Grand Forks for lessons with the rabbi. Joel and I called him “the Jewish rabbi” because we found out that he was, too!
Then later we moved to Connecticut, where there were lots of Jews. I’m told we were quite the oddity – four little Jewish kids with Norwegian accents. Hey, that’s where we learned to talk. But we got acclimated.
And we went to Hebrew School. Our family joined a Conservative shul and I went three times a week to Hebrew School through high school. We had always celebrated shabbat by lighting candles and with a special meal, and we had seders and followed some food restrictions for Pesach, but neither of my parents could read Hebrew and neither of them had formal religious education. So most of what I know about Judaism is what I learned at school and shul and through reading and adult education over the years, not at home growing up. In fact, it mostly went the other way when I was growing up. We'd come home from Hebrew School and say "We're supposed to do X" and sometimes we'd add that to our family practice. So I feel I really grew up in the Conservative movement and I truly reveled in the sense of belonging and the depth of learning potential that Jewish community gave me.
And then at age 19 I came out as a lesbian and lost all that. My parents disowned me, removed all pictures of me from their home and insisted that no one in the extended family have anything to do with me. I got no support from the Jewish community that had meant so much to me. This was 1974, btw, and I think it would be very different now, even in West Hartford, Connecticut. In fact, I know it is. But I was on my own then, and far from home (I was in college in Montreal at the time) and felt there was no place in Judaism for me. And you know, I think I was right. I think that we in the GLBT community and our straight allies have fought and won and built places for us within Judaism, but it took time and a whole lot of effort to get there.
One of those places is PSJC. It’s not a gay shul – we’re in the minority here, albeit a pretty vocal and active minority. But we at PSJC are – as our mission statement says – “a Conservative congregation, actively welcoming Jews of all ages, backgrounds, affiliations, family structures, and sexual orientations.” “Actively welcoming” – what a great phrase that is! As a lesbian and a mother and somewhat of a history geek and a bit of a pedant I feel so blessed to have found a place that actively welcomes me and my family. Let me tell you an illustrative story about that.
Having grown up at a time when women did not wear tallitot, I was a little taken aback to come to PSJC and see women wearing them here, and to find that it’s a requirement if you have an aliyah. So I always refused aliyot. Not that I had philosophical or theological objections to a woman with a tallit – quite the contrary. But I didn’t grow up with it and didn’t know the blessing and was afraid I’d put it on upside down or backwards or something and make a fool of myself. So when I would be offered an honor, I always declined. This went on for years. Then one day Neil Kuttner – who has since moved to Westchester – was giving out honors and he offered me an aliyah and I said, “No thank you.” But he heard a little hesitation or something in my voice and he persisted, asking “Are you sure?” And I blurted it out “I don’t know how to put on a talit.” And Neil, bless him always, said the most beautiful sentence in the English language – “I’ll teach you.” And he did. See? I may be making a fool of myself with this dvar, but my talit is on just fine.
And that, to me, is what Jewish community is about. Teaching, learning, inclusion, but most of all – connection. Interpersonal connection one-on-one, with the congregation, with Jewry throughout the world and throughout the ages.
Which brings me back to Kol Nidre. This weird, arcane Aramaic chant that has no practical meaning in 21st Century America and which has been used against us from medieval times to the present. Rabbis have tried from time to time to eliminate it. The Reform movement dropped it from their prayers for years, as did the Reconstructionist Movement. Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century German Orthodox Jewish leader (not to be confused with the Reform leader Samuel Hirsch) also tried to have it removed from the liturgy.
But the people wouldn’t stand for it. Why? I’m told that in Reform congregations where they eliminated Kol Nidre people hummed the tune anyway. And surely, in part, the appeal is that beautiful music. I’m sure that’s why Al Jolson and Neil Diamond sang it. But that’s not all. It’s not just that it’s beautiful, but that it’s connecting. Kol Nidre is the one prayer that in all the Ashkenazic world is sung with the same tune. How long have we been using that tune? We don’t know. Since the destruction of the Temple? Close to 2000 years? Maybe.
I think that when we stand and look at the torah scrolls and hear that melody we have a visceral connectedness, a bond, with Jews all over the world and Jews through 2 millenia who have stood – and withstood – and listened and argued and learned and fought and lived and died and loved. And as disconnected as some of us may feel all year long, we are drawn back to the place – hamakom – where we can hear that chant again and know that we belong, that we are part of a community that is here to nourish us and sustain us whenever we need it.
I wish for all of you that in the coming year you have the connections that sustain you. Gmar Chatimah Tovah, Shanah Tovah, Shabbat shalom.