It is, in the words of Jewish musicologist Herman Berlinski, "a fossilized text encased in the golden amber of an immortal melody."
It is sung or chanted in a language that virtually no worshippers in American synagogues understand. Moreover, it portrays a message that is in total contradiction to Jewish law.
Yet the Kol Nidre, heard at the outset of the Yom Kippur service, "has a meaning where there is no meaning, and moves even the most irreligious Jew into an attitude of prayerful intensity," said Berlinski.
"Ninety-nine percent of the Jews who come to worship don't know what it's all about," he said. "It's just an emotional thing."
Non-Jews are even more confused. Eerdman's "Handbook to the World's Religions" says the Kol Nidre "challenges Jews who have strayed from religion to return to faith." It does not, except through whatever emotional ties the backslider has invested in it.
Contrary to popular perception, the Kol Nidre is not a prayer. "It is a recitation of seven legalistic terms, in Aramaic with the exception of one single Hebrew phrase, used for the rescinding of vows," Berlinski explained.
The Kol Nidre comes at the outset of the first evening service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the Jewish year when the faithful gather in the synagogues to pray and reflect on their behavior in the year just past as well as the year ahead. The prayers for the day center on imploring God's forgiveness for misdeeds, petitions for courage and wisdom to undo wrongs.
The Kol Nidre, translated, offers a jarringly different theme:
"All vows, bonds, devotions, promises, obligations, penalties and oaths wherewith we have vowed, sworn, devoted and bound ourselves:
From this Day of Atonement unto the next Day of Atonement, may it come unto us for good, lo all these, we repent us in them.
They shall be absolved, released, annulled, made void and of none effect.
They shall not be binding nor shall they have any power.
Our vows shall not be vows;
Our bonds shall not be bonds,
And our oaths shall not be oaths."
It reads, Berlinski suggests, "almost like a black mass."
Jewish law, he points out, "declares that a vow or an oath, which was made to another person, cannot be annulled except in the presence of the persons concerned, and only with his consent, while an oath, which a man has taken in a court of justice, cannot be absolved by any other authority in the world."
In a world of religious freedom, this contradiction between the Kol Nidre and Jewish law makes no sense. But the Kol Nidre evolved in a world of forced conversions--scholars argue whether the text originated in 7th-century Spain or 8th-century Babylonia.
But whether the pressures came from Christians or from Moslems, Berlinski pointed out, "Jews found themselves exposed to relentess persecution. Entire communities were faced with physical extinction unless willing to forsake their ancestral faith."
For Jews threatened with torture and death if they did not abandon their religion, "a way had to be found," Berlinski explained, for them to remain Jews before God "and to return to the ancestral faith, once freedom was regained."
That is the function of the Kol Nidre.
In more recent times, the use of the Kol Nidre has been questioned by some as being, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, contributing to anti-Semitism. In 19th-century Germany, Jews considered themselves so acculturated in Germany that many rabbis dropped the Kol Nidre from their services.
But in the following century, Nazi Jew-haters cited the Kol Nidre as one of the "proofs" that Jews could not be trusted to keep their word.
So the Kol Nidre has prevailed. "The text born out of persecution has become the very symbol of persecution itself," said Berlinski. "There has not yet been a Jewish generation which has not witnessed the brunt of persecution. If we are free here, we are not free there. If we are not persecuted in one country, we are persecuted in another one."
The Kol Nidre has inspired numerous composers, from Palestrina to Schoenberg, from Halfman to Dessau. Even Beethoven wove traces of the melody into the sixth movement of his String Quartet No. 14.
Tomorrow afternoon, some of these versions--including a setting by Berlinski--will be performed in a special concert at the Washington Cathedral. The Shir Chadash Chorale, a half professional, half amateur interfaith musical group under Berlinski's direction, will present a concert of "Music of the High Holy Days" at 4 p.m.
Berlinski founded the singing group in 1977 when he retired as music director of Washington Hebrew Congregation and "couldn't stand the thought of being without a choir," he said.
But it is in the synagogue where the Kol Nidre wields its greatest power, not in the content of the words, but in its very survival.
Unlike the Passover Seder, with its recitation of trials suffered by the children of Israel, the Kol Nidre does not mention any persecution, because "in countries where Jews were persecuted, services were carefully supervised by ruling authorities," said Berlinski.
"However, the melody says what the text cannot say. It alone reveals the immense sadness in the Jewish soul which does not, and cannot, afford to forget history."
As a child, Berlinski said, he once asked his mother why the Kol Nidre was chanted.
She answered, "It is chanted so that we may be able to cry."