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.
The original version encompassed the preceding year, "from the last Day of Atonement until this one." Then, in the 12th century, Meir ben Samuel, the son-in-law of the revered French rabbi Rashi, altered the wording to reflect the year to come, arguing that pre-emptive annulment was more in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Nedarim, the Talmudic treatise on vows. Ben Samuel also added to the prayer the phrase "we do repent [of them all]," which aligned it more closely with purpose of atonement. His version has been taken up by the bulk of the Ashkenazim, while the Sephardim continue to prefer the older, retroactive one.
From its inception, Kol Nidre never attained universal sanction or appeal. Five of the heads of the Babylonian rabbinical academies rejected it outright, claiming that it undermined both the sanctity of personal vows as well as the necessary custom for canceling them. Nevertheless, the prayer gained traction in the other lands of the diaspora. It came in handy on the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition when Marranos—Spanish Jews who pretended to convert to Christianity to escape persecution—were forced to make bogus professions of faith in public and needed the winking dispensation of God to do so.
Jewish authorities have often sought to clarify Kol Nidre's intention, while occasionally advocating for its abolition on the grounds that it is theologically worthless. One popular objection to it has been that ignorant Jews would misinterpret the prayer as a license for deceit and treachery—just as anti-Semites have. The prayer was cited as justification for the Oath More Judaico, a humiliating and sadistic legal vow Jews were for centuries forced to swear before testifying in European courts. It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that most of the Continent began revising or removing it in earnest. (Romania's remained on the books until 1902.) Perhaps in response to this history of vulgar misinterpretation, Jews themselves have had a hard time deciding what to do with the prayer.A rabbinical conference in Brunswick in 1844 ruled unanimously that Kol Nidre was superfluous and should be eliminated from the entire religious tradition. This decision led numerous congregations in Western Europe and many more Reform congregations in the United States to do just that, or to replace the words of the prayer with a Hebrew psalm while retaining its elegiac melody. Orthodox and Conservative congregations still recite the words.
Whichever way one sides in this antique dispute, it's obvious that the line separating conviction and rhetoric in human discourse has always been blurry. "Lord, if you let the harvest come, I'll marry my neighbor's lazy-eyed daughter" was no more feasible or enforceable in the Dark Ages than "If Bush wins, I'm moving to Canada" was in 2000. Modern parlance has a host of throat-clearing clauses to cancel whatever sentiment follows, often in the same sentence, from "Don't hold me to this" to "Dude, I'm not saying, I'm just saying." And it's hard to imagine how the long, proud history of recreational Yiddish cursing would have progressed had Judaism not afforded this wiggle room with respect to anathemas ("May all the teeth fall out of your head except one, and may that one turn brown and rot.")
There's even an esoteric or Straussian reading of Kol Nidre. According to the Kabbalah, the prayer is actually intended as a two-way pact with the Almighty, absolving him of any vows he might make in the coming year that could affect his mortal creation. A man-made allowance for God to rescind promises of plague, pestilence, and Jobian misery suggests not just wishful thinking but a lack of trust in the wisdom and surety of his judgments. Heresy and agnosticism run not far behind. I'm not saying, I'm just saying.