To the Editor:
Rabbi Kieval’s article “The Curious Case of Kol Nidre” [October 1968] does much to explain this inconsistent formula. His quotation from Chief Rabbi Hertz is to the effect that the Jewish tradition is against cheating and in favor of honesty. . . . But the question is not what the Jewish tradition says, but what Kol Nidre says. It seems to say something entirely different, which is why it continues to distress us so.
I think the difficulty persists because we do not remember that the promise (or vow, renunciation, anathema, oath) originally had a dual content. First, “I swear to God” or substitute wordings having the same weight. Second, “to do such and such.” In breaking a promise an individual performed two acts which made him culpable. He swore falsely, that is, took God’s name in vain, which is an act requiring punishment. Secondly, he failed to perform the mitzvah of honesty. “Whosoever has in his possession money belonging to his companion . . . but denies liability when the other demands the money from him, transgresses a negative commandment” (Maimonides, Mishneh-Torah, Book of Asseverations). There is no release from the performance of mitzvot. . . . Even Kol Nidre . . . cannot change the obligation to perform the substance of a vow. What Kol Nidre does, and the only thing it does, is ask forgiveness for taking God’s name in vain.
The writer of Kol Nidre understood the dual nature of a promise. He limited his text to the “I swear to God” part, excluding altogether the substantive requirement. Why he restricted himself thus, I don’t know . . . [but] it has caused enormous difficulty.
Great Neck, New York
To the Editor:
In an otherwise interesting article, Herman Kieval errs in his footnote on Kol Nidre by Arnold Schoenberg. The fact is that Schoenberg’s composition is clearly based on the traditional nussah for the Kol Nidre prayer. This is obvious in the use of the chant motifs, in the full statements of its principal melodic line, and in the harmonic scheme. The composition begins with the traditional opening motif, slightly embellished, and expands on this motif in Schoenberg’s typical idiom. In the body of the composition the traditional theme is set literally, with an accompaniment of contrapuntal lines which contrast with its legato style.
The piece is not dodecaphonic. It is, in fact, strongly oriented to tonality, but it does make use of the composer’s innovative techniques, and depends for its development on many twelve-tone devices. However, to the listener acquainted with basic principles of contemporary composition, or even to earlier multilinear music, the use of the traditional Kol Nidre theme should be immediately perceived.
The tune is surely more obvious in this piece by Schoenberg than in the Beethoven example which Rabbi Kieval mentions, the latter depending entirely upon the opening three-note Kol Nidre motif, misleadingly presented, and upon its stylistic allusion to the ghetto melancholia. Furthermore, the Schoenberg setting captures more of the vitality of the Kol Nidre spirit than does the Beethoven fragment.
Department of Music.
New York City
Rabbi Kieval writes:
Mr. Ziff is only one of a number of readers who have properly called attention to the inaccuracy in the footnote concerning Schoenberg’s “Kol Nidre,” which was appended to my article by the editors.
I may add that my colleague, Professor Albert Weisser (one of those who corrected the Schoenberg error), also observed that Bruch’s “Kol Nidre” is not, strictly speaking, a concerto. While on the subject of music, I should like to mention the theory published by Dr. Johanna Spector of the Seminary Cantors Institute and College of Jewish Music (the JWB Circle, “Jewish Music Notes,” October 1950). Dr. Spector demonstrates that our popular Kol Nidre melody derives from the cantillation of the opening passage of Genesis as sung in Babylonia 1200 years ago. In the geonic period, the Creation passage was chanted from the Torah on the Day of Atonement in the afternoon.
Mr. Gelbart’s conjectures about the presumed intention of “the writer of Kol Nidre” are intriguing but improbable. The burden of my study is precisely that there was no single “writer.” The inconsistencies to which he alludes result from the historical fact that the several Kol Nidre texts currently in use are the confused end-products of a series of changes and compromises which make it impossible any longer to reconstruct the original intent. For example, the text which finally won the approval of Hai Gaon was intended only as a prayer seeking divine forgiveness for the sin incurred in failing to keep a solemn promise or—quite possibly—for having taken a vow in the first place.