With the consent of the Almighty and with the consent of the congregation, in the assembly of the Heavenly Court and the assembly of the earthly court, we sanction prayer in the company of the delinquent.
I always took comfort in that line, the opening line of the prayers of Yom Kippur night. Despite my shortcomings — which seem to persist over time — the liturgy welcomed me to Yom Kippur. I was one of those “delinquents” with whom those around me could legitimately pray.
But this Yom Kippur eve, I’m experiencing that opening line of our liturgy in a more profound way. Friday night, I’ll be leading Kol Nidre services in my synagogue. Ask anyone who leads prayer services over the High Holidays what it’s like to prepare and they will report the same experience: When you rehearse the lines and the melodies in the days leading up to the service you commune with the rabbis, cantors and teachers who instructed or inspired you in the art of leading the service. You aren’t merely recalling a tune; you recall their voice, their passion, their expression. As you reach mid-age, these days of preparation can be more powerful than the actual synagogue service itself. Recalling the passion and personality of beloved teachers who have since passed on, you cherish the days of preparation as an opportunity to revel in their melodic presence in collective service of the Almighty.
In my mind’s choir I sing along with Rabbi Yehoshua Kreiser and Rabbi Avraham Weiser of blessed memory, the European born rabbis of the small congregation in which I grew up. And I sing along with my beloved Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Amital of blessed memory, also of European birth. I sing and tear-up in disbelief that my children will probably never experience an old shtetl Jew leading the High Holiday services.
I also sing along with the cantor who prepared several hours of tapes for me when I first led services as a college student 30 years ago. Let’s call him Shlomo. Shlomo taught at the yeshiva day school I attended as a youngster. We were members of the same small congregation. Shlomo had a beautiful voice and everyone in the community felt it a treat when he lead the services.
As I communed this week with all the wonderful rabbis and teachers of my mind’s choir, I paused as I came to a particular bar of Kol Nidre that I identify as a “Shlomo” bar in my repertoire. I recalled the link an acquaintance sent me a few years back documenting that Shlomo had years later served time for sexually abusing young boys.
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra boycotts the music of Wagner because of the role of his music in the rise of the Nazi regime. Should I now “boycott” the music, nay the high-holiday melodies, of a pedophile?
For me, Shlomo was a beloved teacher. In fact, the first time I ever experienced a full traditional Shabbat setting was in his home when I was 11. He had a bunch of boys over for Shabbat. Perhaps with today’s sensitivities such a gathering might never take place. But forty years ago, not much was thought of it. I still remember the chicken fricassee he prepared and the songs around the Shabbat table. But above all I remember his love for liturgy and his generosity in preparing hours of liturgy on tape cassette for me .
I have had no contact with Shlomo in several decades. I can’t imagine what such a meeting would feel like. Of course, I am sickened by the actions for which he has served time, and cannot begin to imagine the justified loathing felt toward him by his victims or by their parents. They were the victims of his darkest impulses. I was the fortunate recipient of his brightest. Shlomo gave me an exposure to Shabbat and a melodic path with which to relate to the Almighty on the High Holidays.
Thinking of Shlomo, the darkness of his personal struggles and the melodies he has passed on to me lead me to new insight into that opening line of the Yom Kippur evening service – “we sanction prayer in the company of the delinquent.” The liturgy does not say, “We sanction prayer in the company of sinners — chot’im. In Hebrew the word I’ve translated as “delinquent” is avaryanim, which is much stronger than just “sinners” — chot’im. Even in medieval rabbinic Hebrew, avaryanim comes much closer to its modern Hebrew meaning of “criminal.” And the term is even stronger, as it is paired here with the definite article, “the avaryanim, implying not merely those many who are imperfect, but those few guilty of the worst deeds.
On Yom Kippur there is no easy ethos of “forgive and forget.” The opening line of the liturgy affirms the functioning of a heavenly court and an earthly one. Each shall mute out justice in its respective realm. But that opening line speaks of a third body – that of the congregation. On Yom Kippur the congregation must find a way to include in its midst not only mere “sinners”, but indeed “the avaryanim.”
And it is in that spirit that through the inspiration of all my teachers I shall lead the services, confident in the knowledge that I ”have sanction to pray with the delinquent.”