A propos de Kol Nidré
« All these vows » (Tous les vœux) vient de paraître aux USA, aux éditions Jewish Lights. Il s’agit d’un livre (en anglais) consacré à Kol Nidré edité par le rabbin Lawrence Hoffman, éminent spécialiste de liturgie juive, auquel le rabbin Delphine Horvilleur a contribué.
Découvrez ci-dessous le passage «Lifting the curtain : the theatrical Kol Nidre" écrit par le rabbin Delphine Horvilleur. (en anglais)
Lifting the Curtain - The theatrical Kol Nidré
Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur
The very first words of the Kol Nidre announce the greatest liturgical show of the Jewish year, the sacred and collective choreography of the Day of Atonement. It reruns annually to packed houses that gather to begin each new Jewish year on the stage of our synagogues. As such, it is helpful to think of it as a Jewish example of classical dramaturgy, the study of dramatic art that goes back to ancient Greece. Dramaturgy is a heavily codified genre—that is, it follows a set of well-known conventions that were laid down in antiquity and repeated all the way to the eighteenth century. By now, we have a significant body of literature listing the traditional features of a classical play, the ones that make it kehilkhatah, “as it should be.”
Some of these features are quite universal: the curtain is lifted and the choir starts singing, for example. Others have been subject to emendation and change. Overall, however, the liturgy of Yom Kippur can indeed be seen as a classical play, with Kol Nidre as its beginning, the raising, as it were, of the curtain.
In France, every classical play is heralded with the so-called “three strokes.” A wooden stick is pounded on the stage floor three times in a row, announcing that the show is about to begin. This custom supposedly dates back to the times when the troupe played before the royal court. It was then the custom to make three strokes as a symbolic salute to the queen, the king, and then the rest of the audience.
Eventually, the three strokes were separated from their court origins but remained as the symbolic opening to the drama anyway. They introduced the changeover in time and place from the everyday environment from which the audience had come to the dramatic time and place in which the drama was being set. These three strokes are echoed in the threefold repetition of Kol Nidre, which transports the audience from the everyday to the sacred world of Yom Kippur.
The threefold repetition of Kol Nidre is more than just a memory of the court where the three strokes were once invented. The liturgical lines that lead up to the Kol Nidre moment return us to the actual court itself: the convergence of two courts, actually, the human court of the justice down below and the godly one, on high, above.
As Kol Nidre is sung, the godly court of justice gathers. God is “king” and “judge.” Down below, meanwhile, another court is readied to sit in judgment. It is the human bet din, symbolized by the Torah scrolls being held aloft. The human court mirrors the divine one, where God is king: appropriately, our tradition calls the Torah a “crown.”
The judges then speak and declare: Biy’shivah shel ma’alah uviy’shivah shel matah—in effect, “Before the higher and the lower jurisdiction, before the godly court of justice and before the court down below of the Rabbis, the trial can officially begin.” The very first words of the Kol Nidre ritual, even before the Kol Nidre chant itself, is, therefore, a choreographed announcement of a show trial. It suddenly dawns on us that we are both the audience and the accused, facing the divine judge above and a jury of our peers down here below.
“Qu’en un jour, qu’en un lieu, un seul fait accompli / Tienne jusqu’à la fin le théâtre rempli”: “Let a single complete action, in one place and one day, keep the theater packed to the last.” With these words, the eighteenth- century playwright Boileau defined the constraints of classical drama. According to the canon that the French represents, the plot of a classical play must not exceed a day’s time. The entire story, from start to Kol Nidre and Interpretations for Today end, must take place in no more than twenty-four hours, in a single location, and with a common theme.
Yom Kippur obeys these rules of Greek and classical drama. It unfolds over twenty-four hours with a finale at N’ilah. The theme of judgment occurs throughout. And it takes place in the single and singular location of the heavenly and earthly courts, their meeting place, actually, the crowded synagogue.
The décor is there as well—who can doubt that this is a play? The costumes are traditional (we wear the clothes of the high priest). And the curtain falls and rises several times, as we open and close the holy ark throughout the day.
As in classical drama, the audience knows that what is happening on the stage is not a story passively observed but the telling of our most sacred experience in a way that draws us in because it is so obviously our very lives that are being portrayed. Playing out before us from sunset to sunset is the drama of human destiny and the coming to terms with our mortality. This is precisely what theatrical catharsis is all about.
But Yom Kippur theater differs in one important respect from the Greek ideal: Yom Kippur is not a tragedy. The essence of Greek tragedy is the unchangeable fate of the hero. Take Oedipus, for example. There is nothing Oedipus can do to escape the oracle’s prediction. His fate is sealed by an irrevocable fatality. In Greek tragedy, the gods call all the shots. With Yom Kippur, however, the fate of the players is not sealed at all, the end has not been written in advance. Yom Kippur reverses the Greek scenario. Every moment of the day reminds us of the absence of fatality in our destinies. That is, in essence, the message of the holiday, made clear at the very outset, in Kol Nidre’s very words. Nidrana la nidrei … ush’vu’atana la sh’vu’ot: “Our vows are not vows … our oaths are not oaths.” All the oaths, the promises, the affirmations that we might pronounce can be canceled. All of our declarations, past or future, may well never take place.
How astonishing that conclusion should be to us. We enter the holiday assuming that our oaths and promises must be certainties, that we must have made them presumptuously, not realizing that once made, these promises are set in stone, as definitive and inevitable as an oracle. Kol Nidre tells us otherwise. We realize that our words may be called off; there is no more determinism in our words than in our destinies.
The service of Yom Kippur that takes place in front of the divine and the human courts of justice is a celebration of uncertainty and indeterminism. The most sacred day in the Jewish calendar is the opposite of an oracle—what the classical codes of drama would have called an “antitragedy.”
The etymology of the Greek word for “tragedy” provides a troubling meaning. It is generally believed that the Greek word tragoidía derives from the combination of trágos, “goat,” and áidô, “song.” In literal terms, “tragedy” is the “song of the goat,” the litany that the goat sings as it is about to be sacrificed.
Surprisingly, the same animal plays a key role on Yom Kippur. It is one of the leading actors of the play, as it happens, the goat that was sacrificed in the Temple on that day to atone for the sins of the people. It is the goat that symbolically embodies the human condition, but the goat is the only player that day who won’t be able to escape its destiny. We will.
The Yom Kippur drama is no human tragedy but a bestial one, because the oaths, the vows, and the promises that we make are no oaths, vows, and promises (nidrana la nidrei). The humility of uncertainty is a protection against the infallibility of the tragic oracle. The judgments and the decrees that we utter are not irrevocable, the ones that we utter no more than the ones that are pronounced against us.
At the heart of our sacred play and in the words of Kol Nidre, it is written that … nothing is written.