Kol Nidre, the solemn service that leads into Yom Kippur, will be held in synagogues around the world this evening. Not actually a prayer but rather a “legal formula for the annulment of certain types of vows,” as Herman Kieval wrote in a brilliant 1968 article in COMMENTARY, Kol Nidre is a bit of religious theater by which the Jewish believer is transported across space and time into a primordial face-to-face encounter between good and evil, repentance (called teshuvah, or “turning,” by the Jews) and redemption.
The climax of the Yom Kippur service will come tomorrow afternoon, when the cantor’s repetition of the musaf “standing prayer” will undertake a mimetic reenactment of the Temple’s sacrificial service. Although the literal meaning of Kol Nidre is the cancellation of vows (“Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; our oaths shall not be valid oaths”), its dramatic function, then, is the discarding of ordinary habits and expectations at the entrance way to the absolute, the sub-zero of religious faith. By the time the believer falls to his knees during musaf tomorrow, hungry, stinking, and exhausted, he will have nothing left to give but his soul.
I already have my Yom Kippur reading picked out: Jon Levenson’s new Princeton book Inheriting Abraham, the first title in the new series “Jewish Ideas” sponsored by the Tikvah Fund and selected by former COMMENTARY editor Neal Kozodoy.
But these High Holy Days are meaningful to me in another sense too, a deeply personal sense. Five years ago, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, I was diagnosed with Stage Four metastatic prostate cancer. “The thing about Stage Four,” the late Christopher Hitchens said, “is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.” Average survival time for men with M+ prostate cancer (as it is abbreviated) is one to three years. I was given a one-in-three chance of living another five years. Yet here I am, prepared for the fifth time since then to abandon all my oaths in order to start again. Every year at this season I must repent for vowing not to die (if I have anything to do with it). Late tomorrow night, around midnight, I will take the same vow again. In between, though, I must hover semi-deliriously in the disquieting faith that the Creator of the Universe will decide, as the liturgy has it, who will live and who will die in the coming year. Yom Kippur is the most difficult theatrical production I’ve ever had to sit through.
Please forgive this resort to confessionalism. And for my Jewish friends: may the seal be for good! Talk to you Thursday.