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The Kol Nidre Code

04/06/2015 08:24:00 AM


The Kol Nidre Code
Yom Kippur, 2006/5767
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

An historical mystery: you can call it, The Kol Nidre Code. The holiest moment of the Jewish year is Kol Nidre. The service is named for its opening prayer. But it's a very strange prayer, for despite its haunting melody, the words of this prayer are dry, technical and legalistic. It sounds much more like a disclaimer at the bottom of a contract than a prayer initiating the holiest night of the year. So what makes this prayer so holy?

The Kol Nidre formula cancels vows. Verbal vows are sacred in Jewish tradition. In Jewish law, vows to other people are enforceable contracts. Vows to God were sacred obligations. Kol Nidre cancels only these religious vows. The problem is that in the corpus of Jewish law, no such procedure exists. The Mishna allows for an individual's vow to be expunged by a ruling of a rabbinic court. But there is no provision for a community to cast off its vows with a simple declaration. For this reason, the early rabbis condemned this prayer and forbid its recitation. Rav Hai Gaon of the 8th century, among many other great rabbis, called it: "Minhag Shtut," a stupid practice. So how does such a "stupid practice" end up as the holiest prayer of the year? Why did the Jewish people enshrine a practice that their rabbis so vehemently opposed?

One more mystery, before we get to Kol Nidre, we recite this paragraph: B'yeshiva shel ma'alah…

"By the authority of the heavenly court And by the authority of this earthly court, With Divine consent And with the consent of this congregation, We hereby declare it permissible To pray with those who have transgressed."

The last word in that Hebrew formula that is intriguing: Avaryanim. "Those who have transgressed," is the right translation. But why would we need special permission for that? The fact that we're all sinners is acknowledged by our presence tonight. Otherwise, we'd have no need for Yom Kippur!

There is another translation. Avaryanim can also mean "Iberians" – The Spanish and Portuguese. This unlocks the mystery of Kol Nidre.

Jews lived in Spain and Portugal since Roman times. They flourished under the tolerant rule of the Moslems and continued a brilliant culture and communal life under the Christian reconquista. In 1391, Christian clergy instigated a vicious anti-Jewish campaign that resulted in wide-spread riots and attacks on Jewish communities all over Spain. To save their lives, large numbers accepted baptism and lived as faithful Christians. These Conversos or New Christiansm aroused the suspicions of faithful Catholics and were never accepted fully into the Church. Other Jews accepted baptism outwardly but maintained Jewish life in secret. These were the so-called, Marannoes. The Church found itself in the difficult position of telling them apart. Who was the true believer, who the expedient convert, and who the closet Jew?

When we traveled to Spain some years ago, we were amazed at how much pork they eat. Every meal includes some pork or pork product. In downtown Madrid there is a magnificent place, a delicatessen and restaurant called "Museo del Jamon" – the Ham Museum. A veritable palace of pork. It turns out that in the 14th century, Conversoes who were trying to convince their Christian neighbors that they had converted sincerely, and Marranoes, who wanted to appear to be practicing Christianity faithfully, would make a big public display out of eating pork. Pork became political. And it remains to this day a central part of the Spanish diet. At one point, I was tempted to burst into this Museo del Jamon and announce, "Brothers, you're free! No need for all this any more!" Somehow, I didn't think they'd welcome such news.

In 1469, Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile, uniting the Christian kingdoms of Spain. They instituted the Inquisition to identify those secret Jews whose presence sullied the religious purity of their kingdom. In 12 years, the Inquisition condemned to a fiery death 13,000 men, women and children, and spread terror to the entire community. But even this did not satisfy the Christian monarchs who feared clandestine Jewish influences corrupting the spiritual purity of the realm. To achieve true religious fidelity and uniformity, it was necessary to expel the Jews. On March 31, 1492, the edict of Expulsion was issued and on July 31, the last of 100,000 Jews left Spain. Those who fled to Portugal were expelled from there in 1496.

Left behind were the Marannoes, the secret Jews, the Conversos, the new Christians, and the Inquisition's reign of torture and terror. Zealous Conversos collaborated with the Inquisition, and informed on neighbors whose conversion to Christianity did not appear true enough, only to find themselves subject to the Inquisition's scrutiny and accusation. Over the next generation, thousands of Marannoes and Conversos fled Iberia and found their way to Jewish refugee communities in North Africa, Turkey, Italy and Holland.

Imagine the drama of that confrontation: Jews who had suffered the humiliation and oppression of exile, who left behind homes and property and rich lives in Spain out of faithfulness to Judaism, faced those who had converted to Christianity, professed faith in the Christian God, worshipped publicly in Church, and now claimed a place among Jewish people. Does one get a second chance at Judaism? If the newcomers were Marannoes, and had remained faithful, how could they prove it? If they were Conversoes, but now regretted their conversion, how could they demonstrate their loyalty?

Imagine the precarious situation of the refugees: They had failed as Jews and they had failed as Christians. Standing before the synagogue, they felt deep shame at having betrayed the faith of their ancestors for the comforts of Spain.

The Marraones who risked their lives to maintain surreptitious Judaism, under the suspicious eyes of the Inquisition now found their lives under the suspicious eyes of the Jewish community. The Conversoes who made the ultimate sacrifice of faith and family to accept the message of Christian salvation, only to find themselves turned away from the Church because they were indelibly Jewish, now faced a Jewish community that considered them indelibly Christian.

They lived with secrets. In Spain, we were forbidden to reveal how Jewish we are. Now we are forbidden to reveal how Christian we are. Who are we really?

Some families had been Marranoes for a century. Despite their best intentions to maintain both the outward Christian life and a secret Jewish life, over the generations many would confuse the façade as reality and the reality as façade.

What happens to people when the inner and outer lives don't match? What happens when they grow accustomed to hiding?

And imagine the dilemma it presented in those communities. The Inquisition was not above sending spies, themselves former Jews, into these communities, and using this information to arrest and condemn family members left behind in Spain. Whom then should the community welcome? Whom should it shelter? Whom should it turn away? Who belongs to us?

So the Rabbis declared: Anu matirim l'hitpallel im ha-avaryaneem. Tonight, we are permitted to pray with these Iberians. Tonight, everyone is welcome. Because, tonight we recognize much of ourselves in their dilemmas.

Tonight, there are among us many who carry a deep burden of shame, because the see themselves as having failed, as Jews, as parents, as adults. Tonight, there are among us many whose inner life and outer life don't match and don't mesh. Tonight, there are among us those who are hiding secrets. They carry a past they cannot confess and a present they cannot face. Tonight, there are among us those whose identity and values and commitments are unsure and unstable. They don't know where they belong. Tonight, there are among us those who bear awful regret and remorse. Tonight, there are among us those who are lost, adrift in life, with no map and no direction.

Despite the rabbis' best efforts to repress this prayer, Kol Nidre was embraced by Jews, because tonight we acknowledge that we are all Iberians – we are all hiding something. We all have secrets. We have all failed at something, betrayed some ideal. We have all found ourselves far from where we planned to be in life, far from where we should have been. And we have come tonight seeking a second chance, a second chance to come home, to join the community, to seek God's forgiveness. Anu matirim l'hitpallel im ha-avaryaneem.

Here is my confession: Growing up, I desperately wanted my family to be the Cleavers. I wanted my dad to be Ward and come home each evening at 5, in his neatly pressed suit and tie, with briefcase in hand, hang his fedora hat near the door as he greeted my mom, June, who appeared at the door in high-heels and pearls. I wanted to sit down to dinner – the meal mom whipped up in just one small pot, in her heels and pearls – and talk enthusiastically (and one at a time) about fixing cars, and football games, and going to the prom. I wanted an older brother named Wally who wore a letterman's jacket and offered to teach me the manly arts. And I wanted to be the Beaver.

I wanted to live in a family that never argued; where no voice was ever raised, where any existential problem could be solved by dad's good humored wisdom and mom's freshly-baked cookies.

That was the norm that I measured my family by. That was normal. All around us in our neighborhood there were families that looked just like the Cleavers. Why couldn't my family be normal too?

I remember once I forced my poor Dad to take me to the Father-Son night at the Junior High. There we were among these men in their chino pants and golf shirts watching closely as the Wood Shop teacher demonstrated the proper way to use a lathe. He gave a wonderful rap about how every family should have a well-equipped shop in their garage so fathers and sons could share the glories of working with their hands. All those lawyers-dad's and insurance-salesman-dad's and engineer-dad's shook their heads in agreement. And there was my poor dad, the baker, who actually made his living with his hands, and had told me since the day I was born that I was to go to college and make my living with my mind. Because there was nothing exalted in working with your hands, it was just so much back-breaking, spirit-numbing, drudgery. My father turned to me at one point and said, "How'd you like to go get some ice cream?" I agreed and we left, to spend the rest of the evening sharing the things we loved the most: a half-gallon of Thrifty's best chocolate ice cream, an talking about: politics, religion, The Twilight Zone, and big ideas.

My family was nothing like the Cleavers. My dad never wore a tie, (to this day.) And mom never wore heels. We were loud. We were emotional. We loved intensely and we argued intensely. There was no shop in our garage. The garage was filled with Aunt Sarah's furniture. My life was filled with Aunt Sarah's furniture. And Aunt Sonia's, and Uncle Henry's and my Bubby's. They brought history into our home: the pogroms, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, Israel's struggles, the American labor movement, civil rights, the Vietnam war – that's what we talked about at the dinner table. Who had time to learn to fix cars? We had to fix the world!

But we weren't normal. And that hurt. I so wanted to be normal. The tyranny of the normal weighed on me. I was sold an image, a standard, a map for the right kind of life. And each deviation brought pangs of shame. And so I hid. I split myself into two separate selves – inside/outside; a Jewish inner self, an outside American normal self. Welcome to Iberia.

As I grew older, I made a marvelous discovery – the Cleavers were in black and white. They were emotionally colorless. My family was in glorious, Jewish Technicolor! And I loved it. Not only did I love it, my friends loved it. Especially all the Cleavers who lived in the neighborhood. They began showing up at our home on Friday nights to watch my mom light candles and my Dad say Kiddush, and to share the boisterous philosophical-political-moral conversation that was our Friday night table, alongside my mother's four-course desserts.

I remember that even when I went away to college, my high school friends would still come to Friday night dinner at our house. I'd call home on Friday night, and mom would say, "Guess who's here? Your old friend Reid." Reid was my best friend in high school, and a Clever if there ever was one. So I told her to put him on the phone. "What are you doing there, in my house?" I demanded. "Making Shabbos!" he responded, "you think my mom makes knaidel like yours?"

Who sells us this map called "normal?" Who sets the standard for the right home, the right family, the right life? Whose produces the image of the right self that so tyrannizes us?

We have pictures in our wallet of our kids. But elsewhere, we carry pictures of what's normal for our children. We've prepared a map for their lives, for their growth and development. And when the kid doesn't keep to the map, we scream at the teachers for their incompetence. We blame the therapist for wasting our time. We demand the doctor prescribe another medication. We turn on ourselves, and wonder how we could have failed at parenting. And then we'll turn on the kid. Rabbi Schulweis once noted that there is a particularly Jewish form of child abuse, it's called disappointment.

The father held a position of importance and respect in the community. People always looked to him for advice on business and personal matters. He was a model of public virtue and leadership, and prided himself on the fine reputation and high position he'd achieved. He built around himself a family life that was picture-perfect: Loving wife, terrific kids, close friends, broad associations. Then, after his Sophomore year in college, his son came home and asked to speak to his parents. At school, he came to understand something about himself. He'd never been uncomfortable with women, but never attracted to them. This year, he'd acknowledged to himself that he was gay. He'd begun a loving relationship with a man at college. It felt right to him, without shame or remorse. He loved his parents and shared everything with them. He wanted to share this with them too, openly and honestly. He hoped they'd understand and accept.

The father was devastated. It can't be. The revelation was dizzying. Don't you know who we are? We're not that way. It's not normal. It's sick. It's perverted. It's evil. It can't be. We'll get you some therapy. Somewhere there's a doctor who can fix this. We'll move you to a local college. You'll live at home. No, not at home, anywhere but home. What would happen if his family, his friends, his associates found out? What would they think of him? What would become of his reputation if it became know how thoroughly he failed as a father? How could he live with this shame? Welcome to Iberia.

Slowly he turned from his inner turmoil and looked at his son. It dawned on him that this was still his son, the son he'd taught to ride a bike, and throw a ball, and tie his tie. Maybe this was not a failure of childrearing. He was, after all, the same wonderful, bright, loving son he'd always been. The one the father always loved and respected. And still loved and respected. He threw aside the tyranny of his public persona and embraced his son. He told him: I don't understand this. But I love you. So help me. Teach me. I still want to be your father. And I still want you to be my son. Bring your partner home so we can meet him. Ok?

All Jewish kids get A's. Right? They all go to Stanford, Brown and Berkeley. They all play first violin in the orchestra, the lead in the play, and captain of the soccer team. We look at our kids as they are reflected in the eyes of others. But is there pride for the kid who is different? Is there love for the one who doesn't conform to our idea of the normal? Can we see the kid, not through the eyes of others, but see the kid with our own eyes and appreciate his or her gifts? Do we have a place for the child whose journey is off our map?

He was perfectly successful. He lived the perfect life: an exceptional record in college and law school, the brilliant career, the perfect wife, the perfect kids, the perfect home and cars and vacations. The whole package. Except it never sat right with him. Perfection can be a tyranny. Maybe because he'd gained it so easily, it felt all too easy to lose. Maybe because deep down he felt he hadn't really earned or deserved it. It was his charm rather than his ability that opened doors. Maybe it was his father's rigid expectations, his constant reminders of his own career triumphs. Or maybe because in the end, it just didn't seem to add up to all that much, not compared to the greatness he'd dreamed of. As he got older, the inner unrest grew stronger. But there was no one in whom he could confide. His wife was busy with her career and her pursuits. His friends would not have believed him. And besides, men don't easily share these things. His father was more a competitor than confidant. So he held it in, and held it together. He was perfect, and he was perfectly miserable. Welcome to Iberia.

One night at a company party, someone offered him a hit of cocaine. Why not? he thought. He never did it in college, too busy earning perfection points. Maybe now it's time to live a little. Moments later he felt remarkable. All the anxiety gone, he was once again at the center of the universe. He laughed more joyfully, and felt so much more alive than he had for years. When the same client visited him in his office days later and offered another hit of the drug, he was eager. Anything to feel that good again. Soon after, he contacted the client and asked to buy some of the drug. The client was only too glad to help out. He kept it hidden and used it judiciously, but regularly, to lift himself out of the depressions that had been plaguing him. Another, larger purchase ensued. And another after that. Gradually, the cocaine displaced everything else in his life – his work, his friends, his wife and kids. Nothing mattered except the drug. When confronted, he reacted violently and irrationally, denied he had a problem, and questioned the loyalty of those who suggested otherwise. Piece by piece, he lost it all – the career, the family, respect, love, and eventually, life itself. At the funeral, the rabbi summed up this life: A perfect tragedy, a perfect waste.

One thing a rabbi knows: No matter how good we all hold it together on the outside, on the inside, everyone is an Iberian. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has shame. Everyone has moments when life drives us off our map. No one ever planned for a divorce or a disease or a criminal act. No one anticipated an undistinguished career or underachieving child. No one ever expects life to bring failure, to bring disappointment. No matter how good we look on the outside, no one's life is normal, not television normal. And no one's life is perfect. We all hide, we escape, we deny what's true. Or worse, we try to cast out or destroy the one who has frustrated us.

That's the problem. There is life after divorce. There is treatment for disease. There is rehabilitation after prison. There are new career opportunities. There are ways to help our kids. Life has plenty of second chances. God gives second chances. But only after we let go of the shame, acknowledge what's before us, forgive ourselves, and reach out for help.

That's why this is the holiest night of the year, and these are the holiest words: Kol nidre, v'esaray, v'cheenuya, v'cheenusay, u'sh'vuot. All the oaths and vows and promises we could not fulfill, are cancelled. All the maps that designate what's normal, are torn up. All the expectations that we held up, for ourselves, for our kids, for our families, for our friends, are relinquished.

V'nislach l'chal adat bnai yisrael. We are released from the tyranny of the normal. We will not allow the tyranny of expectations to stand between us and our children. We will not let the tyranny of perfection torture and twist and steal away life.

V'ka'asher na'ata l'am hazeh me'mitrayim v'ad hayna. Our failures are forgiven. Our shame is lifted. There is nothing that we must hide; no more secrets. No more running away from the truth. Tonight we are released to write our own maps, to seek our own way. We will live outwardly what we feel and believe and love inwardly. No more split identity. No more façade. Tonight we are finally free.

Vayomer adonai, slachti kidvarecha. And the Lord said: I have forgiven! We are whole again. We are home again.

Baruch ata adonai elohaynu melech ha-olam, she-hechiyanu, v'kee-eemanu v'higyanu lazman hazeh. We praise God, the God of second chances, who has gives us this gift of new life, new hope, new opportunity, a new year. Amen.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780