On Yom Kippur in Neilah, in the final series of the prayers of compassion that we call the selihot, we utter the catalogue of God’s thirteen mainly emotional attributes over and over again, the familiar:
“Lord, Lord, God, Compassionate, with loving kindness, patient, with kindness and truth; keeper of mercy for thousands, forgiver of iniquity, transgression and sin; clearing us. Forgive our iniquity and sin and accept us.” (cf. Exodus 34:6-7)
Within this sequence of repeated meditations, the tenth century Italian payetan Rabbi Amitai ben Shepatiah presents in his prayer a direct appeal to the divine attribute of compassion to intercede for us:
Attribute of compassion, pour upon us
In the presence of your creator, cast our supplications
For the sake of your people, request compassion
For every heart has pain and every mind is ill
(Goldschmidt, YK, p. 778)
Our teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the noted Orthodox theologian, went out of his way in his monograph, Halakhic Man, to comment upon this line: “The Halakhah views this prayer and other similar prayers as a deviation from legitimate Halakhic prayer, which is fundamentally exoteric in nature (p. 44).”
The Rav says further, “Man needs no outside help or special agents to approach God…A person needs no advocates when he knocks at the gates of heaven (Yom Kippur Machzor, p. 818).”
We disagree with the Rav and would formulate matters differently. Ordinarily, it is true that we do not find an instance in the authorized rabbinic prayers in which we direct a prayer to a divine attribute as if it were an exoteric intercessor.
There is one exception to this pattern in the present piyyut, Ezkerah Elohim, which we recite at the very end of the Neilah, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. By this time we have spent so much effort to find God’s compassion, our compassion, and to embrace it within us.
Rabbi Amitai knew that nowhere else do we deem it prudent to turn to the attribute of compassion and project it as if it were an intercessor before God. But here at the close of Yom Kippur, we do, and we should, his piyyut prayer tells us. We have earned the right and the duty to address the compassion that through our strenuous efforts of twenty five hours we have brought into being.
And we may turn that compassion into our intercessor to God – just this one time. Theological principles must step aside, for in our actual synagogue, that is how the Halakhic prayer operates. Accordingly, we deem it preferable to ask those critics of the liturgy who are concerned here that you slightly modify your Halakhic principle if you must, but always to respect the integrity and insight of your liturgy.
So can a Jew pray directly to the Divine Attribute of Compassion? Yes, in this one prayer.
Liturgy and theology are two distinct and highly complementary domains of Judaic expression. In the rare instance when they do conflict, we opt to favor the great expression of Judaic emotion and drama, the liturgy.