All vows, renunciations, promises, obligations, oaths, taken from this Day of Atonement till the next, may we attain it in peace, we regret them in advance. May we be absolved of them, may we be released from them, may they be null and void and of no effect. May they not be binding upon us. Such vows shall not be considered vows; such renunciations, no renunciations; and such oaths, no oaths. (Translation adapted from the High Holyday Prayer Book, edited by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser.)
This legalism, the Kol Nidre, begins the holiest day of the year. On its face, it looks like thumbing our noses at all obligations, both religious and secular. How can you take seriously the promises of a Jew, who has publicly announced that he is not to be held to his promises?
Here is some of the history behind the Kol Nidre.
Here is a parable which I recount:
For hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived in extended families, trusting their intuitions, trusting each other. The communities were inclusive and utterly egalitarian. There was no coercion, no violence, no compulsion to participate. There was no need for coercion, because no one questioned that he was better off with his family than fending for himself.
Then there arose (no one knows quite how, but surely it was a last-ditch expedient in a time of terrible duress) a tribe that attacked and subjugated another tribe, enslaving its members. This enabled the masters to prevail through a difficult period, but the horror of violence and coercion haunted their souls and corrupted their judgment. The idea that some people could be better than others, and had more right to live was a scandalous blasphemy, but those who were of the “chosen” group dared not protest, and those who were of the slave class had no power to oppose the system.
Inevitably, there arose ranks within the two groups, gradations of power and powerlessness, a hierarchy in which there were few winners and many losers. Gradually, mutual trust was replaced with contractual obligation. Faith in fellow humans was replaced with trust in the fearful power of the state to enforce compliance.
This new social order, this appalling monstrosity provided a far less satisfying way to live for both its kings and their underlings. But it spread nevertheless. It spread via conquest, because the hierarchical social order, rooted in discipline rooted in fear, provided a decisive advantage for a military unit. Small, peaceful and cooperative bands didn’t stand a chance against a regimented empire, honed for conquest, an empire that, because of the profligacy of its organization, required conquest for its continued existence.
For the members of these hierarchical communities, life had lost its natural flavor. There was no joy in everyday activity, no satisfaction in participating and belonging. There were mutinies—a phenomenon unthinkable in the context of family-tribes. There were punishments and sanctions to deter those who might consider mutiny.
Along with coercion, deception flourished. The bonds of fundamental trust and goodwill that had been the cohering principle of tribal societies were now dissolved. Laws and the enforcement of laws replaced innate kindness and instinctive cooperation. Codified rules replaced natural wisdom.
Finally, the relationship to self also became corrupted. From natural integration and harmony, man drifted into self-discipline and the imposition of will.
All this took place centuries before technology, but technology has cinched the victory of the regimen over the family-tribe. Coercive social organization has conquered the world of nature as well as the world of men, and there is no resisting it.
But there remains in each individual human heart the memory of free association, of a community where love did not have a name, because it was the air we all breathed.
We know in our hearts that the coercive social order is an aberration that cannot last. Soon, we will return to the idyllic life, to the primordial order. Perhaps it will be this year. Then all of my commitments and obligations will become superfluities, to be supplanted by a participatory, consensual, communal family life.
Kol Nidre is our secret pact, yours and mine, our agreement that when the opportunity arises, we will release ourselves from the bondage of rules and obligations and contracts and promises; we will dissolve all rank and hierarchy and obedience; we will return to idyllic harmony into which mankind was born.