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Conversos, Kol Nidre, and Continuity

09/24/2023 12:34:12 PM


          Anyada buena, dulse i alegre. Tonight we begin the final ascent of our high holy day season. After a month of introspection throughout Elul, a beautiful Rosh HaShana Seder and celebratory Rosh HaShana Day, and these ten Days of Awe, we arc toward our close with Yom Kippur. Tomorrow, many of us will be at the synagogue all day, alternating between praying, learning, kibbitzing, and hopefully still getting in some last-minute person-to-person teshuvah and self-reflection. But Erev Yom Kippur tends to take on a more mystical tone. Maybe it’s because it’s a night, and the night is inherently full of mysteries. But there’s also something in the Kol Nidrei prayer that speaks to our souls on a different level than most of our prayers, and it is itself shrouded in mystery.

          Many people believe that the prayer was written by the Conversos of Spain. Conversos, also known as Anusim or Crypto-Jews, were Jews who converted to Catholicism under threat of death during the inquisition. Many Conversos continued to practice some forms of Judaism in their homes after their public conversions. In secret, they would still light Shabbat candles and teach their children some of the prayers and values of their ancestors. Women were especially likely to continue to pass down Crypto-Judaism to their children and grandchildren. Ironically, the first people to ever refer to women as rabbis were the inquisitors. Long before Jewish institutional powers would allow the ordination of women, the women burned at the stake for violating Queen Isabella’s strict rules for a unified religion throughout the country of Spain, were charged with the crime of being rabbis, alongside any male Torah teachers as well.

          For Conversos who ended up leaving Spain or Portugal anyway, and wanted to rejoin Jewish communities elsewhere, or even more so for their descendants who had been raised Catholic with only the slightest hints of Jewish faith and practice, returning to the community proved harder than it probably should have been. But Jews take vows and contracts pretty seriously, and having someone proclaim their faith to another religion was hard to get past for the medieval rabbis and the early new-world rabbis. Kol Nidrei was then used as a way to nullify vows that had been taken under duress, and those that were between the vow-taker and God. It was instituted officially as a Jewish legal formula by Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid-16th century in his work Shulchan Aruch, which is still to this day one of the two most adhered to codes of Jewish law. The timing of this codification of Kol Nidrei would certainly support the theory that Conversos wrote the prayer.

          However, there are versions of it in prayer books dating back to the 9th century, long before the Inquisition. The earliest known written form of it appears in Seder Rav Amram, one of the world’s first Jewish prayer books. Rav Amram was a Gaon, a leader in the Babylonian Jewish community that flourished for centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple and Jewish life in the Holy Land. Rav Amram did not care for Kol Nidrei, and called it foolish to think we can preemptively nullify our vows. That he still included it despite these objections, tells us that it was already fairly widespread by the mid-9th century when he wrote the Siddur. So, we are back to square one with not really knowing exactly when or where or by whom it was written.

          Still, the rest of the story around its origins and the Conversos may still be true. The Spanish Inquisition was certainly not the first time Jews were coerced into conversion under threat of death or expulsion. It is still quite plausible that the actual author of the prayer in the 8th or 9th century, probably somewhere in the Middle East, also faced such a choice and wrote Kol Nidrei for themselves or others in their community in a similar way to the mythos of the Conversos writing it. And, since we know medieval rabbis in Spain argued about its purpose or efficacy or possible detriment, it was clearly available to the 15th century Crypto-Jews and they may well have used it to shield their hearts and souls from the sin of forced conversion.

In contrast to Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch codifying Kol Nidrei, the other most adhered to code of Jewish law is the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, written about 400 years earlier, and Rambam expressed the fear that reciting Kol Nidrei to preemptively nullify our vows which we cannot fulfill would lead people to be less diligent in trying to fulfil them, and would cause moral deterioration. This was not an uncommon fear for the rabbis. Yet the common Jews insisted upon using the prayer.

          There also was a fairly constant concern for how non-Jews might understand this prayer if they were to get a hold of it in a version they could understand (I don’t know how many medieval European Christians could read Aramaic). Some Jews who converted to Christianity from Judaism truly had a change of faith. In their fervor for their newfound religion, there were a couple in particular who were happy to throw suspicion on their former Jewish community and discredit Jewish beliefs and texts. For example, Nicholas Donin, one such apostate in France, led the charge into burning as many books of Talmud as could be rounded up in 1242 Paris. Though the Kol Nidrei prayer does not appear in the Talmud, it was the basis of his accusation that practicing Jews were not trustworthy neighbors for good gentiles, and thus their legal teachings should all be destroyed.

          Yet still, the prayer persisted. Much like the Jewish people ourselves, despite hardships from within and without, something in these words clung to life, to meaning, to hope. The standard Ashkenazi tune, that haunting melody that calls us all to attention at the beginning of our service, was first written down in the 18th century, but it is based on a German folk tune that had been used for centuries already for Kol Nidrei. Each community had their own little flourishes and distinctions, but had a common base, and eventually one of the versions was recorded and became THE Kol Nidrei tune for most European and American synagogues.

          Though the words of the Kol Nidrei prayer are legalistic, and some of its history is fraught, I think the essence of how it persists and how the music especially touches our hearts, teaches us something about community resilience and about teshuvah. We will break vows and promises from time to time. Hopefully not just because we were forced to say things we knew we didn’t believe, but also perhaps because we promised something we wanted to be true, and we just couldn’t make it happen. We don’t recite Kol Nidrei to make ourselves less accountable to our vows, but rather to make ourselves more accountable to ourselves. It’s easier to keep trying, to challenge ourselves, to work toward better futures and more sustainable promises, if we are not dragged down by shame and guilt and grief. We can learn from mistakes, but only if we accept that they were truly just mistakes, and we take them in stride. Kol Nidrei allows us to release ourselves from being overly disappointed in ourselves so that we may not become so disheartened we give up on our values and goals. Kol Nidrei enables us to do true teshuvah, making amends for missteps and broken promises and returning to our starting point, our Divine center, our best selves. This is how we build resilience, as individuals and as a people. We keep learning, keep trying, keep hoping, keep returning. To ourselves, our communities, and our values.

          And to do this hard work of being a human and upholding Jewish values, we all must also support each other’s paths toward resilience. We must be willing to accept some degree of broken vows from others, we must look for evidence that they tried to fulfil their vow or that maybe it wasn’t a fair promise to ask of them in the first place. We must look out for one another, protect each other from the bigotries which perhaps spawned this prayer in the first place, and which still unfortunately persist to this day.

You know, I was struck by a quote in some of my reading about Kol Nidrei. Heinrich Heine, an apostate Jew from the mid-20th century, clearly less fervent and malicious than Nicholas Donin in his adherence to his new community, commented “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” That same morning, before I started to work on this sermon, I saw a friend had shared an interview from Pen American with Art Spiegelman, the artist behind Maus, and her pull quote she shared in the post was, “We haven’t learned much from the past, but there’s some things you should be able to figure out. Book burning leads to people burning. So, it’s something that needs to be fought against.”

May 5784 be a year where no one has to hide who they are to survive, may it be a year of striving for the best and accepting that it’s not always possible, and may it be a year of resilience and return to community. Amen and Groovy Teshuvy [may you have and make meaningful teshuvah].

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784