September 28, 2009

“Kol Nidre” and Yom Kippur
by Pastor George Van Alstine

While I’m writing this, our friends at the Pasadena Jewish Temple are united with Jews all over the world in experiencing their most sacred holiday, Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. This is the moment for honest self examination, confession of sins, and healing of broken relationships at the beginning of a new year. Established in the Bible (Leviticus 16), this important time of admission of human failure has been observed annually by Jews of all time and in all places.

Many of us non-Jews may have been first touched by the Yom Kippur experience while watching the 1927 early “talkie,” “The Jazz Singer,” featuring Al Jolson. Jolson plays the wayward son of the revered cantor who led worship in the synagogue where he grew up. In a climactic scene, Jolson faces a wrenching choice—should he perform in the opening of his first big show as a jazz singer, or should he replace his dying father in singing the great traditional music at the synagogue’s Yom Kippur Eve service. You may have been struck by Jolson’s singing of the moving minor key passages of the dramatic “Kol Nidre,” the memorable musical highlight of Yom Kippur.

“Kol Nidre” means “All Vows,” the first two words of the song. It is not a prayer, but a declaration that all personal vows made to God and not fulfilled shall be considered repented of and forgiven, annulled and non-binding. In this way, worshippers can feel liberated from the guilt of rash promises made to God on which they have not followed through.

In the 11th or 12th century an interesting change was made in the tense of “Kol Nidre’s” wording, so that the vows referred to are those that may be made during the next twelve months, instead of those made during the past twelve months. In a sense, this expresses advance repentance for sins that are sure to be committed in the future. In the newer version of “Kol Nidre,” the sad predictability of human failure is mournfully confessed.

As a non-Jew, I fully enter the “Kol Nidre” experience. Whether in its older past-tense form (“I confess I have broken promises to God during the past year”) or in its newer future-tense form (“I know myself well enough to be sure I will break promises I am making to God now”), I find that “Kol Nidre” truly reflects my own nature. As a Christian, I am blessed to be able to add the testimony expressed by the Apostle Paul:

“Wretched man that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
(Romans 7:24-25)