When Kol Nidre is sung on the eve of Yom Kippur, Jews everywhere are wrapped in spiritual emotion as they pray to be entered in the Book of Life. The chant of Kol Nidre captures this spirituality because if the Jewish soul could be set to music, Kol Nidre would be the melody. These somber notes capture the pain of the Diaspora in a way that no words can express.
Jewish tradition says that on the sacred eve of Yom Kippur, you can hear the flutter of the wings of angels as they wait to be inscribed in the Book of Life. Angels, too, must appeal for judgment on Yom Kippur. Except for the murmur of angel wings, the congregation is silent as the cantor sings the stirring prayer of Kol Nidre. As the soulful prayers ring out, there is a spiritual unification of the congregation; a sense of connection that binds all listening into a pervasive cohesion.
But why do I also feel anger when I hear the solemn melody, a bitter anger over the meaning of the emotional chant? Certainly anger is far from the repentance called for on Yom Kippur. The answer lies in the translation and deadly meaning of Kol Nidre: “All Vows.” These were the vows that generations of Jews had to make when they were forced to convert to Christianity. Their choice was simple but devastating: convert or die. This excruciating choice of conversion or death was offered on the point of a sword. This was not choice – it was total subjugation. Kol Nidre was the heaven-sent cry of Jews for forgiveness for making the vow of conversion; a prayer of release from the emotional torment the vow forced upon them.
These vows were the source of my anger. Anger that my ancestors had to make vows that stripped them of the Judaism that preserved them as they wandered through centuries of exile.
Even their conversion would not keep the Conversos alive. The powerful Spanish Inquisition of the time questioned the sincerity of the Conversos’ new faith, and many were burned at the stake as heretics. My anger mounted from the rank injustice and power of life and death over Jews whose only crime was to practice a different religion.
But as quickly as my anger came, it quickly abated. I realized that I experienced this rush of emotion in a synagogue in America.
In this country I was protected by a Constitution that separated church and state, a confirmation by government that I had the right to practice the religion of my choice. With that blessed protection, neither I nor my children would ever be forced to make a vow of conversion.
Secure with that assurance, I relaxed and listened for the flutter of angels’ wings.
Herbert Belkin writes from Swampscott.