Elchanan Poupko

Yom Kippur and the Assault on Jewish Peoplehood

The greatest challenge facing the Jewish people today is the assault on our peoplehood. Sure, everyone is happy for Judaism to exist as a religion, a personal choice, or a denomination, but when it comes to peoplehood things somehow get ugly. Whether it is the British Labour Party’s assault on the definition of antisemitism, the claim the Jews are not a people, or internally, young Jews not identifying as Jewish, the concept of Jewish peoplehood has never been so challenged. And yet, Yom Kippur sends a strong message of comfort: Jewish peoplehood will come out victorious. How so? Just look at Kol Nidreh.

Despite being a cold, legal annulment of regretted vows, Kol Nidreh has emerged as the most powerful Jewish prayer of the year. It is the prayer that shakes the heart of anyone that listens to it. So sacred is this prayer that when the legendary Cantor Yosef Rosenblatt was offered to perform it in the opera house of Vienna for the equivalent of more than $50,000, he declined. It was too special to just be performed as music. Why? Why is this simple legal annulment of vows so important? In fact, to the technically minded rabbis, it seemed senseless to say this prayer Yom Kippur night that they tried to exclude it from the prayers—to no avail. Jews love saying Kol Nidreh. Jews have a deep connection to Kol Nidreh. Because the Jewish people knew the deeper meaning of this prayer. This prayer was an annulment of vows known most for its use for the Converso Jews—the Maranos. Jews who lived in Spain post-1492. Jews who had to swear by their own lives that they are Christian, or else they would be put to death by the Spanish Inquisition.

Later, when they joined their Jewish brothers and sisters, they said the prayer of Kol Nidreh and annulled any vows they made to the Church. It was their ticket to reenter the community. To avoid embarrassing them the whole community says it. It doesn’t matter if you live in the least religious community in the world, or if you live in the heart of Jerusalem with the most pious ones—we all say “Anu Matirin Le’hitpalel im Ha’avaryanim, we permit to pray with the transgressors.” We are all one people.

And so, no matter what the legally minded rabbis thought, or where the course of history took us, Kol Nidreh was always at the epicenter of Yom Kippur. Reminding us that no matter what, we are all one people. We are all in this together. What happened here or there doesn’t matter. It is the big picture that really matters and that is we are all a family. We are one people.

As the assault of antisemitism continues to mount from outside, and the threat of indifference and disaffiliation hits us on the inside, Kol Nidreh offers profound solace. It reminds us that no matter how many generations go undercover as Jews, no matter how many empires threaten to annihilate us, we will always stand shoulder to shoulder. It doesn’t matter what our neighbor did in the past. What ties us together will never be undone. Even if we lived as Jews in the proudest and strongest way possible, we would all say Kol Nidreh; we will all say: “Anu Matirin Le’hitpalel im Ha’avaryanim, we permit to pray with the transgressors.” We are one people, we always have, and will continue to be. Am Yisrael Chai. Gmar Chatima Tova.


About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.