Kol Nidre, Covenants and Excommunication
I just attended Kol Nidre which is considered one of the more iconic and spiritually significant prayer services of the Jewish year. This prayer has even entered into popular culture with its culminating place in Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer . I have always loved this prayer for its beautiful and intricate melody, but this year I focused on the words in particular and found many things that struck me in unique ways.
The English translation of the main bulk of the prayer is as follows:
“All vows, obligations, oaths or anathemas, pledges of all names, which we have vowed, sworn, devoted, or bound ourselves to, from this day of atonement, until the next day of atonement (whose arrival we hope for in happiness) we repent, aforehand, of them all, they shall all be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, void and made of no effect; they shall not be binding, nor have any power; the vows shall not be reckoned as vows, the obligations shall not be obligatory, nor the oaths considered as oaths.”
This prayer/declaration has been used by anti-Semites as grounds to declare Jewish people not worthy of trust. This prayer they would argue makes Jews unworthy to hold office because they will not fulfill vows such as the constitutional oath. Yet, any person reading this with spiritual sense or even the barest understanding of the purpose of Yom Kippur would reject this absurd analysis. Kol Nidre is concerned with spiritual covenants between man and God that have gone unfulfilled over the past year.
I think that all of us can admit to having been guilty of making promises in our personal prayer that went unfulfilled. How often have we promised to God that we would read the scriptures more diligently or turn to him with our whole heart, only to find old patterns and habits reasserting dominance. In such cases, according to Jewish and I’d venture also LDS tradition, we become guilty not just of the actions that took us away from the straight and narrow path, but also of a violation of our relationship with God. Simply put, the whole plan of salvation is an enormous covenant between man and God. When we bridge our part of the covenant and violate the trust of God, that is an action with consequence.
The people’s of the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon took covenant making with the utmost seriousness. The famous story of Jephthah and his tragic promise to god which ultimately necessitated the sacrifice of his daughter is one such example. Likewise, in his The Book Of Mormon: A Short Introduction (2009) Terryl Givens has argued that one of the dominant themes of the Book of Mormon is the importance of covenants. By Contrasting Helaman’s Stripling Warriors and the Pacifist “Anti-Nephi-Lehis,” separated by only a generation, Givens suggests that the takeaway message from both of these stories is:
“That faithfulness to covenants righteously entered into trumps both. The anti-Nephi-Lehies ‘had entered into a covenant and they would not break it (Alma 43:11). By identical token, their sons ‘entered into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites (Alma 53:17) In the Book of Mormon, covenant is the thread of safety on which the survival, spiritual safety, and very identity of the people hang.” (Pages 50-51)
Thus, covenant relations were viewed as absolutely sacred and unalterable in biblical times. Likewise, (This Is from a not yet endowed member, so take my writing here with a grain of salt) the most controversial element of the endowment ceremony came from a desire to literalize the spiritual seriousness and significant of the covenant that one undertakes.
Still, it becomes clear that we cannot live up to every single promise and obligation that we make to the lord. We will fail to live up to what is expected of us. Thus, for Jews, the Kol Nidre prayer plays a very vital role in spiritual healing for the New Year. Likewise, our weekly taking of the sacrament can in some ways be said to be analogous. As we renew our covenants and seek absolution from our sins:
“O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen”
Another topic that was of especial interest for me in the Kol Nidre prayer was the mention of anathemas which in the version I saw last night was written as “excommunications.”
The explanatory notes in the prayer book I used explained that on the night of Yom Kippur those that had been excommunicated were brought back into the fold in order to allow the prayer to truly be efficacious and atoneing on the part of all members of the Jewish people and the congregation.
There is something profound here that I actually think that member of the LDS church can learn from. Those that are cast out of the community are viewed perpetually as still part of that community and of vital concern. Spiritual improvement of the individual is viewed as tied up with the communal. The highest form of spiritual success could only happen when every person of the covenant was restored to the fold. One ancient Jewish tradition stated for instance “The Jewish Messiah will come if every Jew properly observes two consecutive Sabbaths (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 118).” Every year, Jews were given a chance to renew their covenants with God and to regrow their ties to the faith. In some ways, perhaps we are doing a massive disservice when we do not allow excommunicated members of partake of the sacrament. If the sacrament is truly a weekly companion of what is a yearly practice among Jews, then should we not likewise truly give all individuals a chance weekly to restore themselves spiritually with God. I think there’s a lot to admire and learn from the Jewish custom.