אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכׇל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃
If a person makes a vow to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.
In discussion with a colleague about great Jewish movies, I mentioned that there was one Jewish movie that I loved but was actually a really bad film. That movie is The Jazz Singer, the story of Jess Robin, formerly Yussel Rabinovitz, who returns to his home synagogue to sing Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur evening. Jess had fled his Orthodox upbringing to become a jazz singer and, in doing so, shattered his father’s dreams that he would follow in his footsteps as a cantor. The father disowns his son, but then, in a highly emotional moment, as his father lies dying, the son comes home to sing Kol Nidre in his father’s place. The movie ends with the words, “The seasons pass—and time heals—and the show goes on.”
I was referring to the 1980 version of the movie, starring Neil Diamond. The original 1927 film, starring Al Jolson, followed the same story line, based on an earlier play by Samson Raphaelson. Ironically, that same year, something fascinating happened in Jewish synagogue life, also to do with the chanting of Kol Nidre. While Al Jolson’s version of Kol Nidre was being heard in movie theatres all across North America, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement and one of the 20th century’s most original and influential Jewish thinkers, decided that Kol Nidre would not be chanted in his synagogue. To quote Kaplan, “If we were to make use of music instead of words as a means of prayer, we could not conceive of any music more appropriate for the Yom Kippur mood than the music of Kol Nidre… But as prayer is also to depend upon the use of words, no text could be more inappropriate and less in keeping with the spirit of Yom Kippur than the text of Kol Nidre. It is a vow; a dry, legalistic formula couched in ancient Aramaic to be recited in matter-of-fact fashion in the presence of an improvised Beit Din of three men for the purpose of absolving one from ritualistic vows.” Kaplan wanted to keep the music but throw out the words. Kaplan’s synagogue in New York went along with their rabbi and abolished the wording of Kol Nidre. Instead, the melody was chanted using a selection of Psalms as the lyrics. But the change lasted for only one year. The next year they brought back the traditional Kol Nidre. There is something about those controversial words and that unattributed melody that invoke an emotional resonance in Jews that is just way too strong to be vanquished. It touches Jews’ hearts rather than their heads. As the Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
We learn from this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, that vows are serious business. It states, “If a person vows a vow to God or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:3). With a vow, we are articulating a commitment, which, in Jewish tradition, has great power. If declared, a person must do everything possible to fulfill their vows, whether to God or to others. Kol Nidre, however, gives us an opportunity to be released from our forgotten or unfulfilled vows. It gives us a chance to be human. Not rational and intellectual, but, for a moment, purely emotional.
Rabbi Jordan Cohen