Jews begin the observance of Yom Kippur tonight at Kol Nidre services. Last year a Christian friend asked to join us at our service. She pointed out to me in our prayer book an adaptation of the prayer composed by the progressive German Rabbi Leo Baeck for delivery in German synagogues during the Kol Nidre service on October 10, 1935. It is a prayer that, to say the least, remains timely tonight:
At this hour the whole House of Israel stands before its God, the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. We shall examine our ways before Him. We shall examine what we have done and what we have failed to do; we shall examine where we have gone and where we have failed to go. Wherever we have sinned we will confess it: We will say “we have sinned” and we will pray with the will to repentance before the Lord and we will pray: “Lord forgive us!”
We stand before our God and with the same courage with which we have acknowledged our sins, the sins of the individual and the sins of the community, shall we express our abhorrence of the lie directed against us, and the slander of our faith and its expressions: this slander is far below us. We believe in our faith and our future. Who brought the world the secret of the Lord Everlasting, of the Lord Who is One? Who brought the world understanding for a life of purity, for the purity of the family? Who brought the world respect for Man made in the image of God? Who brought the world the commandment of justice, of social thought? In all these the spirit of the Prophets of Israel, the Revelation of God to the Jewish People had a part.
It sprang from our Judaism, and continues to grow in it. All the slander drops away when it is cast against these facts.
We stand before our God: Our strength is in Him. In Him is the truth and the dignity of our history. In Him is the source of our survival through every change, our firm stand in all our trials. Our history is the history of spiritual greatness, spiritual dignity.
We turn to it when attack and insult are directed against us, when need and suffering press in upon us. The Lord led our fathers from generation to generation. He will continue to lead us and our children through our days.
We stand before our God; we draw strength from His Commandments, which we obey. We bow down before Him, and we stand upright before Men. Him we serve, and remain steadfast in all the changes around us. We put our faith in Him in humility and our way ahead is clear, we see our future….
At the time the prayer was written and disseminated, Baeck was president of the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland, the official representative body of the Jews in Germany. The Gestapo discovered the text of the prayer and arrested Baeck. In Days of Sorrow and Pain, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Baeck, Leonard Baker writes that Gestapo officials showed up at some Yom Kippur services, especially in Berlin: “No count was ever made of how many rabbis read the prayer at the service; many did, so many that it was almost an act of collective defiance on the part of the German rabbinate.” (First posted last year.)