Friday, October 7, 2011

Bronislaw Huberman: Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei

In this 1922 recording, Bronislaw Huberman plays Max Bruch's "Kol Nidrei," Op 47.
One of the most moving classical works, employing Jewish liturgical elements, is Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei, which the German composer performed in Berlin in 1881.On the background to Max Bruch's beautiful piece, Kol Nidrei, it is said:
Max Bruch himself wrote the following on Kol Nidrei, in a letter to cantor and musicologist Eduard Birnbaum (4 December 1889): "...I became acquainted with Kol Nidre and a few other songs (among others, 'Arabian Camel') in Berlin through the Lichtenstein family, who befriended me. Even though I am a Protestant, as an artist I deeply felt the outstanding beauty of these melodies and therefore I gladly spread them through my arrangement.
Now, Bruch was a Christian, and, even so, he saw beauty in this melody. That makes him open to other ideas and other cultures, at least when it comes to seeking beautiful forms. But not everyone thinks as Bruch does. Some are more suspicious and hostile, looking for reasons to validate their hate.

For example, in the past (or perhaps even today), some view the "Kol Nidre" prayer as a valid reason to distrust Jews, ostensibly because such traditions make promises or vows null and void. But there's always a reason for an action, and a bit of history can clarify matters. The "Kol Nidrei' was inserted by the rabbis in the Middle Ages for a valid reason, when relations between Christians and Jews were strained and not as amiable as it generally is today.

Accordingly, it gave the Jews who were forced, by compulsion, to convert to Christianity, an ability to remain Jewish, and more than likely in secret. The vow they made, often under torture and certainly under duress, was no longer valid, at least privately and inwardly. Contrary to the assertion of fickleness, such actually shows how serious Jews historically took vows.

Even so, this distrust of the Jews in business persisted well into the 20th century, which is shown in a excerpt, about the views of Jews in New York City at the turn of the century, in an excerpt taken from Irving Howe's World Of Our Fathers (1976):
In an 1898 letter to Jacob Schiff—written, as he himself said, “with great unreserved”—Bishop Potter could say, “I am told that [‘the Hebrew race’] is the only race in Wall Street whose word is not as good as bond . . . the contention is made among the people whom I have again and again approached that the hostility to the Hebrew is because, in ordinary business and personal transactions, he is tricky and untrustworthy.” Bishop Potter hastened to append this understanding that “such characteristics” . . . have largely been begotten by the persecutions of the Christian people”; but what mattered was that even so decent a man should still find it possible to indulge this weariest of stereotypes. (p. 399)
Today, we live in a different world, many of us in democracies, each with a body of legal traditions and civil laws that supersede any religious edicts. And thankfully so. As understood today, the vows in question are personal vows between man and his conscience or between man and the Heavenly Judge. As the Jewish Encyclopedia points out: "No vow, promise, or oath, however, which concerns another person, a court of justice, or a community is implied in the 'Kol Nidre.' "

Thus, in the context of Yom Kippur in general and "Kol Nidre" in particular, it's about the need to seek forgiveness for wrongs committed, a traditional act of contrition and humility. In the self-aware and self-reflective, the conscience is enlivened. Thus, "Kol Nidre," though misunderstood by many, forms part of that human desire to clear the conscience of feelings of wrong-doing. That makes "Kol Nidre" an important tradition, and nothing more.

As for sentiments of distrust and cynicism, there is an old saying, I think it is attributed to a Roman philosopher, I have forgotten whom, that if you don't like someone you attribute all sources of evil to him. And, likewise, if you do feel an affinity to someone, you can easily forgive all faults, ascribing no evil to him. That kind of thinking can apply to an individual or a whole class of people—Jews or others.

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