Of all the Jewish prayers, Kol Nidre is one of the most recognizable—and certainly the most controversial. Neil Diamond intoned it in order to penetrate the stone heart of his cantor father at the end of the remake of The Jazz Singer, and Al Jolson sang it, mercifully out of blackface, in the 1927 original. Max Bruch used the haunting music that accompanies the prayer to furnish the full title, and half the theme, of his celebrated adagio in 1881. Beethoven, too, borrowed the theme for the sixth movement of his String Quartet Op. 131, which had been commissioned by the heads of Viennese Jewry seeking to honor the founding of a new synagogue. Even Perry Como and Johnny Mathis recorded their own renditions in the late '50s.
For observant Jews, Kol Nidre represents the liturgical kickoff for Yom Kippur (opening services are named for the prayer, which means "All vows"), a repetitive and crescendoing piece of Aramaic recited before sunset on the Day of Atonement. For anti-Semites, it's evidence that Jews are duplicitous and two-faced. The trouble has to do with a misconstrued doctrine of pre-emption. The full text of the prayer reads:
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.
As stand-alone statement, divorced of its context and Talmudic source material, it does seem to suggest that there's no such thing as a promise or oral contract affirmed in Judaism. But, of course, context is everything, and the prayer refers only to personal vows—those made by man in relation to his own conscience or to God, not interpersonal ones made by man to his fellow man. Contrary to claims made by perplexed exegetes such as David Duke, Kol Nidre was not invented as a sinister tribal clause to cheat gentiles or one another with impunity.
Judaism goes to great lengths to legislate social behavior, both within and without the community. As Rabbi Gil Student describes it in his primer on the arcana of vow annulment, the Talmud "dedicates one sixth of itself to detailing the Jewish court system which adjudicates based on the sworn testimony of witnesses." Why expend so much ink on the rules and procedures for dealing with betrayal and injustice if a yearly invocation affords an easy get-out-of-jail-free card? The Talmud says that if a person wishes to free himself from a vow made to a second party, he has to plead his case before a religious court in the presence of that person, who must then consent to the vow's nullification. It doesn't matter if the petitioner is beholden to an adult, a child, or a gentile; the same standard applies.
The arduous and prohibitive process by which one can be freed from a personal vow eventually led to the adoption of Kol Nidre in the first place. The only passage in the Pentateuch pertaining to personal vows is Numbers 30:3, which states: "If a man takes a vow to G-d or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth he shall do." In ancient Israel, gaining absolution for these kinds of pledges meant presenting oneself to a scholar, an expert, or a board of three select laymen. One could plead forgetfulness, unintentional violation, or stupidity. A common excuse was that one had entered into a vow without fully understanding its consequences. Typically, an annulment would be granted if the lapsed pledge-maker could prove through interrogation he had erred in good faith. However, the ritual was eventually exercised to the point of exhaustion—imagine going to court every time you broke a New Year's resolution. Kol Nidre was introduced in the 10th century, and transcribed in the Seder Rav Amram Gaon, the first comprehensive Jewish prayer book, as a convenient umbrella policy.