D’var Torah, Yom Kippur, September 23, 2015, by Aaron Finestone, Minyan Masorti, Germantown Jewish Centre, Philadelphia.
In 1935, Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of the official Jewish community in Germany issued a prayer to be read at all synagogues at Kol Nidre. (*1)
The prayer began
“In this hour, all Israel stands before God, the judge and the forgiver
In his presence, let us examine our ways, our deeds, and what we have failed to do.
Where we transgressed, let us openly confess: “We have sinned!” and determined to return to God, let us pray: “Forgive us.”
We stand before our God.
Later in the prayer, Rabbi Baeck said
“All Israel stands before her God in this hour. In our prayers, in our hope, in our confession, we are one with all Jews on earth. We look upon each other and know who we are; we look up to our God and know what shall abide.”
Rabbi Leo Baeck
The prayer expressed the community’s “indignation,” “abhorrence,” and “contempt” for what had been going on in Germany.
The Nazis banned the prayer and arrested Rabbi Baeck.
Beyond the urgency of the prayer, I am impressed by its communal nature. In Judaism, confession is communal as well as personal.
In his book “This is My God,” novelist Herman Wouk describes the confession prayers as a “mask” to keep one’s wrongdoings a final secret between the individual and God. (*2) By saying the confession prayers, one acknowledges in one’s heart the wrongs that one has done.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik
Joseph Soloveitchik, revered in Orthodox circles as “The Rav” writes that the halachic interpretation of teshuvah differentiates between penitence—kapparah—and purification—taharah.
Rabbi Soloveitchik recounts that at Yavneh, on the first Yom Kippur in exile, the Jews were without the Temple and the ceremonial rites required for atonement—kapparah. (*3) They asked, “How could one obtain absolution and dispensation before God without the intercession and worship-forms of the High Priest?” It seemed as if the smoke of the destroyed Temple meant that the Jewish version of teshuvah, and Yom Kippur had also disappeared.
Then arose Rabbi Akiva. He said, there is no need for mournfulness and helplessness. Though we have lost the Temple, we have only lost kapparah—atonement and penitence. We still have taharah—purification.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that taharah is not about the removal of sin but its exploitation. Taharah is a psychological process in which one strives to convert sin into a spiritual springboard for increased inspiration and evaluation. Taharah awakens a creative force that shapes a new and loftier personality.
On page 326 of the machzor, Lev Shalom, is a quote from the play The Dybbuk. I will use the translation by Golda Werman, which is more vivid.
The author of The Dybbuk, S. Anski, lived multiple lives—as a revolutionary, an ethnographer and a writer. (*4) He used multiple names. From 1912 to 1914 he directed the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, which documented the lives, culture, texts and folklore of the Pale of Settlement.
He reported on Chassidic life and the world of traditional Jewry which was to be uprooted and destroyed by the German and Russian armies as they waged World War One in the Jewish heartland.
Scene from the 1938 film The Dybbuk
The Dybbuk was based on his research. The play debuted in Warsaw, just as Shloshim was concluded after his death in 1920.
The play is about a Dybbuk, a homeless soul of the dead who takes refuge in a living body. The play is set in a Chassidic town around 1860. A Dybbuk captures the body of a bride hours before her wedding. The leading rabbi of the Chassidic community attempts an exorcism to free her.
In 1938, the Dybbuk was made into a Yiddish language movie in Warsaw. It can be viewed on You Tube with limited English subtitles. I urge you view the movie, but first read the play.
The play is a rich presentation of Chassidic theology.
The question of what to do about the bride is referred to a Tzaddik, the Rebbe of Miropolye. As David Roskies, Professor of Jewish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary explains:
Upon entering, the Tzaddik, expounds on the ascending levels of holiness based on the Mishna (Kelim 1.6-9). The thrust of the Mishnah is to establish the absolute otherness of the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur day—something so awesome that only God alone can witness it. (*5) The Tzaddik, however, proceeds to allegorize each detail. The Tzaddik concludes:
Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the four holiest sanctities gather together precisely when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to pronounce the ineffable name of God. (*6) And at this immeasurably holy and awesome moment the High Priest and the people of Israel are in the utmost peril, for even a single sinful or wayward thought in the High Priest’s mind, at that instant might, God forbid, destroy the entire world.
Every piece of ground on which a person stands when he raises his eyes to Heaven is a Holy of Holies; everyone created in the image of God is a High Priest; every day in a person’s life is Yom Kippur; and every word which a person speaks from his heart is God’s name. Therefore, every sin and every wrong committed by man brings the world to destruction.
The reverse of the Tzaddik’s words raises a terrifying prospect. If every sin and every wrong committed by man brings the world to destruction, what happens when any member of Jewish people fails to repent?
The concept of Divine retribution for Israel’s sins, raised in the Dybbuk, was expanded by some Orthodox theologians in the wake of the Holocaust.
Rabbi Isaac Hutner, a leader in the United States of Agudat Yisrael and founder of the Mestiva R. Hayyim Berlin yeshiva, argued that the Holocaust was Divine punishment for Israel’s sins—especially assimilation, nonobservance and rebuilding the Jewish state through human effort. (*7)
At the other extreme is Rabbi Richard Rubenstein. Rejecting the concept of Divine punishment, Rabbi Rubenstein argues that no sin could justify the Holocaust. No tzidduk ha-din—no “vindication of the ways of Providence” can explain the death of the righteous and the innocent. Rabbi Rubinstein maintains, there is no God of History. He cites the rabbinic phrase for heresy—“leit din veleit dayan”—There is no justice and there is no judge. (*8)
Midway between Rabbi Hutner and Rabbi Rubenstein is the concept of “Hester Panim”—the hiding face of God. (*9) According to Steven T. Katz, chair of Holocaust studies at Boston University, modern theologians such as Martin Buber, Joseph Soloveitchik, Zvi Kolitz, and Eliezer Berkovitz, attempt to do three things:
- vindicate the Jewish people—the death camps are not the consequence of sin and do not represent Divine judgment
- remove God as the direct cause of evil. The Holocaust is something people did to other people.
- affirm the reality and saving nature of the Divine, despite empirical evidence to the contrary.
Zvi Kolitz lived an exciting life as a Zionist activist in Mandate Palestine, an official of the Israeli government, Zionist emissary, film maker and in the United States as professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University and co-producer of the play The Deputy, which criticized the Vatican’s silence during the Holocaust. (*10)
In 1946, a Yiddish newspaper in Argentina invited him to submit an article for a special edition for Yom Kippur. Kolitz wrote “Yossel Rakover Talks to God,” a testament by a fictitious fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Yossel was the last living member of his family, and the last member of his unit of 12 Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was down to three bottles of gasoline. He doused one bottle on himself, and saved the other two for German soldiers, after which he would set himself on fire. Yossel composed a testament, which he hoped would be found after the war.
Yossel wrote a prayer to God, some of which I quote and condense:
I believe in You, God of Israel, even though You have done everything to stop me from believing in You. I believe in Your laws even if I cannot excuse your actions. . . .
You say . . . that we have sinned, O Lord. It must surely be true. And therefore we are punished? I can understand that too! But, I should like You to tell me whether there is any sin . . . deserving of such a punishment as the punishment we have received?
You assert that You will yet repay our enemies! I am convinced of it!
. . . . I should like You to tell me, however—Is there any punishment in the world capable of compensating for the crimes that have been committed against us?
You say . . . that it is no longer a question of sin and punishment, but rather a situation in which Your countenance is veiled, in which humanity is abandoned to its evil instincts. But I should like to ask You, O Lord—and this question burns in me like a consuming fire—what more, O, what more must transpire before You unveil Your countenance again to the world?
I cannot extol You for the deeds that You tolerate. I bless You and extol You, however, for the very fact of Your existence, for Your awesome mightiness!
I wish all of you a successful process of teshuvah and taharah.
(*1) The Yom Kippur Anthology, Phillip Goodman, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971, pages 52-53.
(*2) The Yom Kippur Anthology, 137-139
(*3) The Yom Kippur Anthology, 142-146
(*4) The Dybbuk and Other Writins, S. Ansky, edited by David Roskies, Yale University Press, ebook from Open Road Integrated Media, 2014, locations 32-418 for biography of S. Ansky and analysis of The Dybbuk
(*5) The Dybbuk, locations 355-356
(*6) The Dybbuk, locations 1066-1071
(*7) Wrestling With God, Jewish Theological Responses During and After the Holocaust, edited by Steven T. Katz, Shlomo Biderman and Gershon Greenberg, Oxford University Press, 2002, 556-557
(*8) Wrestling with God, 668-669
(*9) Wrestling with God, 358
(*10) Wrestling with God, 394-400