The ancient Kol Nidre prayer, which Jews recite at the beginning of Yom Kippur’s twenty-four hours of reflection and atonement, declares that all vows and obligations we have entered into shall not bind us nor have power over us. The prayerbook says that when efforts were made to drop this language, because it seemed so problematic morally, congregations resisted. Why? How can moral people embrace such a declaration?
One answer is that this is a prayer for the peace that passeth understanding. For people who are incapable of perfection – that would be all of us – only relief from the burden of seeking perfection can sustain us.
But perhaps we should understand it not as a plea but as a pathway. Like an amnesty after a war, Kol Nidre seeks a way to re-admit each of us to the community, when otherwise our past commitments and our past failures might overwhelm us. Yom Kippur calls on us to be better people in the year to come, but it does so in part by authorizing us to be merciful to ourselves.
This is no moral free pass. Actually (as one of my children pointed out to me) it must be a moral error to ask more of ourselves than we can do – as it is also a moral error to ask more of others than they can do. Instead this declaration is an assertion of our actually being moral persons, who can judge what is right and wrong, which duties are real and which are false, and who thus can freely live the most faithful and committed lives we can achieve.