On its surface, Kol Nidre looks like a legal boilerplate to cancel and release a person from spoken vows.
But if it looks like a prayer, and sounds like a prayer, then it is a prayer. The Kol Nidre meditation comes from our hearts and souls fully clothed in the cultural garb of our community. It is expressed in the way that the meditative masters of our faith think, and the way they talk.
And so the deep emotional utterance of Kol Nidre comes forth out of our mouths in a legal idiom, the way the rabbinic masters chose to express their meditation, acting in the archetypal mode of the scribe archetype that is so familiar to them.
As part of their jobs, our archetypal scribes keep track of vows. Like good accountants, they keep their “spreadsheets” of which vows are in effect and which have been nullified. And they know the means to move a vow from one column to the other.
They also know there are many types of vows. You can choose from a menu of vows and enter your details on the spreadsheet. Then you choose from a menu of nullifications and enter those as well. That’s the surface content of the prayer.
"All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called 'konam,' 'konas,' or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent.
May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths."
Now we are sure that this prayer of Kol Nidre is not about actual vows, be they trivial or important, like these for instance: I’ll never eat a Pringles potato chip again. I will never speak to so-and-so. I won’t set foot in that synagogue.
This potent liturgy is about our emotional vows, those habits and traits that have power over us. They control our actions, they emanate from our psyches deep within.
But as scribe-lawyers understand, the trivial and the weighty vows of words can be annulled. That makes sense to them. And now they offer this prayer to us to help us accomplish that inner emotional task that is the analogue to vow nullification.
To compassionately reverse the wrongs, to take back control, to change course, to forgive ourselves for the evil, the rotten things that we have done, and will do, our mistakes, missteps, misstatements, that we have performed to ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors and friends. To move on.
To have compassion on oneself is no easy task. So we come together in synagogue and we say it is the most sacred day of the year. We come as a collective to be with each other for the lengthy liturgies of compassion.
The Sephardim make the Kol Nidre prayer into a declaration and response, which dramatizes a point. The second half is recited by the congregation to answer the declaration of the Hazzan asking to annul his vows, and the congregation responds, “All of them are permitted…nullified.”
These meditations start in a group, the community of worshippers, assisting one another. But still, it is so difficult to attain the goal of compassion and forgiveness for one’s own deeds and thoughts by oneself, and it remains difficult even with a supportive group. We need to turn to God for help. God is not the object of the inaugural Kol Nidre meditation. He is not mentioned therein. But later, as the process of creating compassion stalls, it becomes clear that we cannot accomplish the goals on our own. To help us, we go on to invoke and to seek a higher power.
Starting with the Selihot prayers, which follow in the Maariv service, we spend considerable energy through many of the remaining prayers, to implore God to help us attain compassion through our meditations. That is the crux of the emotional content of this liturgy.
It makes some dramatic sense. In our many Selihot over the next day’s supplications we do not merely act as “nudniks” with incessant repetitions. We seek to achieve a true state of meditative compassion for our own sins–shortcomings, feelings of anger, hatred, greed, envy. Repetition of formulae is one recognized meditative strategy that we employ.
And again, all of this takes the shape that our cultural and religious heritage dictates. The selected idiom in Selihot is the one of another major archetype of our prayers, the meditator.
That’s what we mean when we say that Yom Kippur is a long meditation of compassion in the Jewish scribal and meditative idioms, in its emotional trappings and as part of our liturgical drama. The resonant category of compassion in the drama of Yom Kippur liturgy jumps out from prominent contents in the prayers. The use of the Hebrew terms of compassion, rahum or rahamim, sit there on the surface, spoken throughout the Yom Kippur davening, as we see in the prayers.
The goal of Yom Kippur is to receive and to give rachamim and selihah and the array of accompanying emotionally resonant reliefs. And we expect that through its multifaceted variations and repetitions, the typical Jew will derive all the benefits that accrue therewith, compassion and forgiveness for oneself and one’s community. That is the transformation process that we may call Teshuvah. And that leads to the result that we may call Kippurim.
--Tzvee, repost from 5772
A published academic version of this discussion can be found here: A PRAGMATIC STUDY OF KOL NIDRE: LAW AND COMPASSION