Kol Nidre Sermon 2017

On this very night, exactly 90 years ago in 1927, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was leading Kol Nidre services at his synagogue in New York City. What made this Kol Nidre service very unique was Kaplan’s omission of the Kol Nidre prayer. A Kol Nidre Service without the Kol Nidre prayer?

The prayer normally opens up the service. The text is short and is repeated three times, with a haunting melody that dates back to the Crusades. Here are the words:

“All the vows (kol nidre), all the commitments, all the oaths that we take upon ourselves between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur – may this year be a good one, so that this statement is vacuous – we express our regrets in advance for making any such vows, and we announce that they are null and void. They cannot be upheld or enforced. These vows are not vows. These commitments are not commitments. These oaths are not oaths.”

To Kaplan, Kol Nidre’s focus on the abrogation of one’s vows seemed to conflict with, and even undermine, the holiness of the holiday. To him, it spoke of contracts instead of kedushah, sanctity. Worse still, Kaplan feared that American Jews would misunderstand and misapply the prayer’s tenets to encompass ordinary business dealings rather than one’s relationship with G-d. Confiding in his diary, Kaplan recounted with disdain how several of his congregants confessed that they resorted to Kol Nidre to absolve them of their financial responsibilities and charitable pledges. He wrote, “A text that was capable of being so interpreted as to condone delinquencies ought not be tolerated as part of the ritual.”

Rabbi/Dr. Mordecai Kaplan argued fervently that we should actually believe the words that we pray. In his line of thinking, our liturgy and all of our religious observances should accord with “our highest ethical and intellectual standards” so that we can pour our full hearts into them. So if there’s a prayer or ritual that doesn’t jive with our rationality or modern sensibilities, then we need to “reconstruct” it into something more inspiring and meaningful for us in today’s world. For Kaplan, none of Kol Nidre’s text could be salvaged, so he replaced it with Psalm 130, to the tune of Kol Nidre, to begin his service 90 years ago.

Even though he had the Board’s permission to omit Kol Nidre, there was serious backlash from his community at the synagogue he founded, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. His congregation was mostly made up of people who had recently forsaken Orthodox Judaism for the promise of a “reconstructed” religious experience. To them, Yom Kippur seemed incomplete without singing Kol Nidre. Old habits die hard. The power of tradition proved much stronger than Kaplan’s dismay.

Ever since 1927, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism has adapted a “reconstructed” version of Kol Nidre, which amended the text with several qualifying phrases, making it clear that these are vows between ourselves and G-d.

In 1941, Kaplan’s next major change to Jewish ritual sought to keep the Passover Seder in line with our “our highest ethical and intellectual standards.” The New American Haggadah was the first haggadah in all of Jewish history that completely left out the 10 plagues. Kaplan didn’t want to worship a supernatural deity who punishes the innocent along with the guilty. To him, collective punishment and the killing of innocent people is something we should condemn, not glorify, even if G-d was the culprit. What was the response to Kaplan’s New American Haggadah? It was panned…not just by his own community, but also by his colleagues at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and also by Agudat HaRabbanim, a precurser of the Orthodox Union. With his haggadah, Kaplan may have gone too far.

Despite the critiques, Kaplan knew that his work was vital to keeping Judaism alive, exciting, and meaningful in the 20th century. In 1945, a month after the end of World War II, Kaplan released a new Shabbat Prayer book. In its introduction, Kaplan wrote:

“People expect a Jewish prayer book to express what a Jew should believe about God, Israel and the Torah, and about the meaning of human life and the destiny of mankind. We must not disappoint them in that expectation. But, unless we eliminate from the traditional text statements of belief that are untenable and of desires which we do not or should not cherish, we mislead the simple and alienate the sophisticated.”

Thus, Kaplan notably eliminated references to several traditional doctrines: The personal Messiah, resurrection of the dead, divine retribution, Jews as the chosen people, and the restoration of the Temple sacrificial cult. In some cases, he and the editors replaced the traditional texts with ones that responded to the moral tone they wished to set; in others, they simply excised the troublesome passage completely.

And how was Kaplan’s Shabbat Prayer Book received by the New York Jewish community? The Agudat Rabbanim, which is now called the Orthodox Union, held a public book burning for this Siddur, then excommunicated Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. He is the first and only American Jew to have a herem, or censure, pronounced on him.

The purpose of the excommunication was to silence Kaplan, but his congregants, colleagues, students, and other followers continued to support his groundbreaking work. He remained on the faculty at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary for decades thereafter. Kaplan astutely recognized, decades ahead of his time, that Judaism will lose its relevance if it doesn’t adapt and evolve to meet the needs of each generation. In his 1934 work, Judaism as a Civilization, he made the case that since the days of Moses, Judaism has constantly been evolving and changing due to geography, outside influences, and the various personalities who contributed to our wisdom and practices. There’s the saying, “change is the only constant,” and it’s as true for Judaism as it is with anything else. To think that our Jewish practices and teachings have been unaltered since the days of Moses is a nice myth to buy into, but it’s not a completely accurate story.

Kaplan defined Judaism as “the evolving civilization of the Jewish people.” If Rashi, an 11th century Torah scholar, walked in here right now, he’d have no idea what’s going on. Similarly, if Rabbi Akiva, who lived in 2nd century Palestine, walked into Rashi’s synagogue, HE’d have no idea what’s going on there. And if Moses walked into Rabbi Akiva’s Synagogue, he’d ask, “So where do you sacrifice the animals?” To say that it’s an unbroken chain of tradition from Moses to today is a myth that may have deep resonance, but it leads to a belief that change or evolution is contrary to Jewish tradition, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Several years ago, this community affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. Recognizing that Conservative Judaism is in decline across the country, you chose to embrace change, evolution, and a more inclusive and welcoming environment. In my first year here, I tried to change as little as possible, but I know that I introduced many new melodies and practices that had never been done here before, like playing guitar during Shabbat services. That change has gone over quite well I think, and tonight, I’d like to introduce a new community discussion that we’ll be having over the coming months.

How many you believe that G-d is planning to send a Messiah who will bring peace on earth? How many of you believe that when that happens, you will be resurrected in the Land of Israel? Those are both core Jewish beliefs articulated by Maimonides 900 years ago in his 13 Principles of Faith. Throughout our liturgy, we pray for Moshiach ben David and techiyat hametim, Messiah and resurrection, but do we actually believe the words we’re saying? Should we believe the words we’re saying?

Currently, we are one of several Reconstructionist communities that have held onto the original texts of Conservative Jewish liturgy. This year, we’ll be going through a democratic Values Based Decision Making process to determine if we should stay that way. We’re going to examine our own beliefs as a community and see how those beliefs align with the words we pray. If it turns out that none of us are anticipating a future resurrection in the Land of Israel, then we’ll think about changing our prayers to reflect that. Instead appreciating G-d as “reviver of the dead,” we could instead appreciate G-d as “the Source of All Life.”

What about chosenness? I know that many people in this sanctuary were raised with the belief that Jews are G-d’s treasure, an am segulah, G-d’s chosen people. We’ll examine that belief starting with what the Torah and Judaism have to say about it, what science and history have to say about it, and what values are at stake. If, in the end, we keep the prayers the way they are, that’s truly ok with me, because it will be an informed decision based on the needs and desires of this community. My role as rabbi is not to change your beliefs or your practices – it is to support this community in doing what you want to do.

When Kaplan removed the Kol Nidre prayer, his community demanded that it be put back in, and it was. When his Haggadah was panned because it removed the 10 plagues, he put them back into his next edition. But Kaplan’s Shabbat prayer book proved to have staying power because it helped reduce people’s cognitive dissonance around prayer. This year, we’ll embark on this process together and make sure that our prayers and our rituals – what we do in this building – carries the greatest amount of meaning, relevance, and inspiration for the greatest number of people.