Exploring Yom Kippur's communal connection

Professor Jonathan Sarna reflects on the Jewish holidays in his new book

A Time to Every Purpose coverIn his new book, "A Time To Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew," Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History Jonathan Sarna reflects on the modern-day themes and issues that are expressed in the Jewish holidays. In the following letter to his daughter, Sarna writes about the significance of Yom Kippur.

Dear Leah,

Always a great joy to hear from you. I am thrilled to learn that you made it to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, and sorry to hear that the rabbi's sermon proved so uninspiring. Poor rabbis! Some of them work all summer composing their high holiday sermons, the most important sermons that they deliver all year. The pressure to say not only the right thing, but everything that congregants need to hear can be overwhelming. Personally, I prefer the less formal talks our rabbi delivers later in the year, when all the pressure subsides.

This evening there will be another huge crowd at the synagogue. The fast day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starts at dusk with the service known as Kol Nidrei, named for a prayer that retracts hastily-made vows. You probably remember the haunting tune to which the Kol Nidrei prayer is sung. It is among the most moving (as well as the most ancient) pieces of music in our entire liturgy. I try never to miss it, for it sets a tone for the whole of Yom Kippur.

Your mother and I will rush over to Kol Nidrei straight from a big meal. The key, I have learned, is to drink a great deal of water at this "last meal," for we can neither eat nor drink again until the fast ends tomorrow at nightfall. Some will spend the bulk of the intervening hours in the synagogue itself. There they renew ties with the Jewish community, seek atonement for sins, and vow to improve.

Taking time off in the middle of the week to observe Yom Kippur is, I know, not easy - especially for those with demanding schedules. Back when I was growing up, we all were impressed by pitcher Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers who sat out the opening game of the World Series game in 1965, rather than pitch on Yom Kippur. Some folks, though, never forgave him - especially when the Dodgers lost the game! They believed that his first loyalty should have been to his team.

The same debate took place in 2004, you'll remember, involving slugger Shawn Green. With his Los Angeles Dodgers team in a tight pennant race, two critical games coincided with Yom Kippur. Green played in the evening game and sat out the afternoon game. What would you have done in his place?

Balancing work with the rest of life is never easy - not for those who observe Yom Kippur, or other Jewish holidays, or the Sabbath, or the laws of keeping kosher, or indeed, for those with any serious commitment outside of work. Even balancing family and work, I can tell you, is often a supreme challenge. Nevertheless, conflicts, painful as they may be, help us to clarify our priorities in life. Yom Kippur is as good a day as any to figure out what those priorities should be. In the end, only you can decide whether Yom Kippur is one of them.

What I can tell you is that Yom Kippur has been, for thousands of years, the holiest, most solemn day in the entire Jewish calendar. "On this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you," the Bible declares [Lev 16:30]. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest dramatically entered the "holy of holies" in the ancient temple. There he invoked God's secret name and confessed the sins of himself, his family, his fellow priests, and of all the community of Israel. Hearing God's name, the people fell on their faces crying "Blessed be God's glorious kingdom forever and ever."

The high priest is no more, and God's secret name has been lost, but Yom Kippur remains all about atonement. The high priest's ritual, evocatively described in some of the prayers, may today be only a distant memory, but the drumbeat of wrongs in need of righting could have been written yesterday. Two different confessional prayers are repeated over and over on Yom Kippur. Both are alphabetical, conveying the sense that we need to atone, literally, for every misdeed from A-Z. Here are some excerpts, loosely translated from the original Hebrew:

We abuse, we betray, we are cruel.
We destroy, we embitter, we falsify.
We gossip, we hate, we insult.
We jeer, we kill, we lie.
We mock, we neglect, we oppress.
We pervert, we quarrel, we rebel.
We steal, we transgress, we are unkind.
We are violent, we are wicked, we are xenophobic
We yield to evil, we are zealots for bad causes. [Jules Harlow, ed, Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (NY: RA, 1972), 403]

For all of these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. [Bokser]

What never ceases to impress me about these prayers is their focus on "we" and "us," rather than "I" and "me." What Yom Kippur defines as sins - even crimes like robbery, violence, and licentiousness - are seen as the responsibility of the entire community. For this reason, rather than just confessing individually and in solitude, we confess together and in public. However much individuals are responsible for their own transgressions, the rest of us, the prayer suggests, are not wholly blameless.

This idea nicely meshes with Judaism's whole communitarian ethos. Being Jewish, for most of Jewish history, meant living in a community and making oneself subservient to communal discipline. "Separate not yourself from the community," the rabbis taught. From birth and naming rites to funeral rites, the defining moments that mark a Jew's life are experienced in a communal setting. Prayer too takes on special sanctity when performed in a group. Communal prayer with a minyan (prayer quorum) has a higher religious status in Judaism than the solitary prayer of an individual. Celebrating Yom Kippur on one's own is almost unthinkable.

Some Jews today have a great deal of trouble with Judaism's focus on the community. They celebrate individualism, the great American "lone ranger" ideal. The claim that they should hold themselves responsible for the sins of other Jews; that they should conform to the norms of the Jewish community; that they should consider Jews everywhere part of their extended family, take pride in their achievements, feel abashed at their misdeeds, and assist them in times of need - all of this repels them. They prefer being Jewish at home to going to synagogue. And they hate the idea that all Jews everywhere are their relatives. "We are no longer a tribe," they complain.. They consider Jewish peoplehood a concept that has outlived its time.

"I don't regard the Jewish people as my family," [www.jewcy.com] one young Jewish activist has provocatively written. About half of American Jews, according to a poll, agree. Even fewer feel that "I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world." A great many Jews still pray with other Jews on Yom Kippur, but Jewish peoplehood, mutual responsibility, and the related ideas that Jews subsume under the rubric of klal yisrael (the community of Israel) are, it seems, endangered Jewish values. [American Judaism, 363-4]

This greatly saddens me. I love the idea that Judaism privileges the group over the individual. It helps to combat selfishness and self-centeredness. Moreover, the traditional precept that "all Jews are responsible for one another," whether they know them or not, like them or not, agree with them or not, simply because all Jews are family is, to me, an amazing concept. It is without parallel in Christianity or Islam.

Millions of Jews around the world are alive today because other Jews - who never had set eyes upon them but felt a sense of kinship toward them as fellow Jews - reached out to save them, or their ancestors, during times of persecution. Even in my lifetime, the successful movements to save Soviet Jews and Ethiopian Jews relied on this deeply felt feeling of mutual responsibility. It has saved more lives than any other Jewish value I can think of.

Do you remember when we were on vacation in Denmark and met an Israeli at the hotel who was all alone with nowhere to eat on Saturday? We had never set eyes on him before, but remembering that "all Jews are responsible for one another," we invited him to join us for lunch. I still recall how happy he was to share lunch in our room - and then it turned out that we even had friends in common! All of us had a much more enjoyable and memorable Sabbath meal thanks to that act of Jewish connection. It illustrates what Jewish peoplehood is all about.

A man I know was convicted of a "white collar" financial crime and served a short term in a prison camp of about 120 people, about 25 percent of whom were Jews. "The non-Jews were all jealous," he reported. "We were a community that supported one another, ate together, took care of each other - regardless of level of observance, party affiliation or other potentially divisive factors." "I needed to go to jail," he confessed, "to properly understand the concept that 'all Jews are responsible for one another.'"

So far from being outmoded, a sense of shared peoplehood seems to me to be something that others might want to learn from our example. What do you think? Wouldn't our world be much better off if everyone felt and acted the same way toward all members of their respective faiths?

"But why not treat all human beings as family?" you may protest. "Why privilege people who have nothing more in common with us than religion and ethnicity?"

As an ideal, I too consider universalism to be wonderfully noble. That is what Jews pray for at every service: "the day when the world will be perfected under the dominion of the Almighty." Practically speaking, though, just expanding people's sense of family to embrace members of their entire faith community would be a great achievement. Surely we need to consider our own people as family before we can reasonably advance to embrace other peoples around the world!

So I consider the communitarian emphasis of Yom Kippur to be a wonderful feature of Judaism, especially in a country like ours where rugged individualism is so commonly celebrated. By reinforcing communal ideals and focusing upon Jews as a group, Yom Kippur reinforces the basis of Jewish life as a whole.

I can hear you giggling. Wasn't I the person who recommended that you read a book called Jew vs. Jew? Surely I, of all people, know that Jews are deeply divided and have been for millennia. Today the disputes tend to pit different Jewish religious movements against one another, or religious Jews against secular Jews. Over the past few centuries, Jewish communities have divided over false messiahs, over the pietistic movement known as Hasidism, over approaches to the enlightenment, over Communism, over Zionism. The ideal of communal unity clashes with self-evident reality.

You may also not be fully persuaded by the claim that, no matter how divided, all Jews are family. Even I know that this raises as many questions as it answers. Does the Jewish community include members of all Jewish movements? Gay, lesbian, and transgendered Jews? Intermarried Jews? Children of Jewish fathers but not Jewish mothers? Non-Orthodox converts to Judaism? When it comes right down to it, how inclusive is the Jewish community?

Like most difficult questions, these admit of no easy answer. Barrels of ink have been spilt on the subject of "who is a Jew," but for all that Jewish law has to say about the subject, no consensus has been reached. Perhaps this is not surprising. Large groups almost inevitably include some percentage of people whose status is uncertain. There are those who consider themselves members but are not so regarded by others. There are those whom others consider to be members but do not so regard themselves. Even our country has many "undocumented citizens" who view their relationship to the government differently than the government views its relationship to them. For most Jews, nevertheless, "self-identity" and "ascribed identity" amount to the same thing. But I agree with you that there are far too many people for whom, unfortunately, this is not the case.

Nevertheless, the theory of Yom Kippur is that on this day we put aside our differences and disputes, and embrace the entire community. Even a heinous sinner (however that may be defined) is explicitly included in the day's prayers. In fact, the very first sentence in the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy declares that "we sanction prayer with the transgressors" -- their presence among us does not invalidate our prayers. The great Orthodox Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, went even further. "The communal atonement effected by the very day of Yom Kippur," he declared, "is compromised if any members of the Jewish people are excluded." [Yom Kippur Machzor, p.66 italics added] Admittedly, this does not answer the question of who is a member of the Jewish people, but given this admonition one would surely want to err on the side of caution and be as inclusive as possible!

So no matter how divided Jews are the rest of the year, and notwithstanding the many disagreements concerning "who is a Jew," Yom Kippur encourages us to focus on the ideal of an all-embracing Jewish community, one from which no member is excluded. Difficult problems remain, but maybe if we push hard enough on that ideal during Yom Kippur, we can make progress turning it into reality during the year ahead.

A psychologist friend of mine views Yom Kippur in less ideal terms. Indeed, he is deeply critical of some of the holiday's central assumptions. He thinks that religion should liberate human beings, rather than making them feel guilty. He also insists that individuals should assume responsibility for their own actions, rather than blaming them on the community. Where Yom Kippur starkly differentiates right from wrong, he believes that most human actions are much more complicated. "Where is it written," he asks, "that my morality is the same as yours?"

These arguments, I admit, contain much merit, but to my mind Yom Kippur is less the problem than the solution. The whole point of Yom Kippur, after all, is atonement, not guilt. The day is described by one traditional source as one of "forgiveness and expiation for Israel" [Lev R 33=YKAnthology, 23] We may enter the day feeling guilty, but Yom Kippur itself is supposed to leave us feeling purged and cleansed, a newly made creature," as one ancient rabbi put it. [Pesita Rabb 40:511 in YK Anth,25] In that sense, the day is just what my psychologist friend thinks it should be: liberating. At least for those who take it seriously.

As for individual responsibility, the tradition is more in agreement with contemporary psychology than my friend realizes. "For transgressions that are between a man and his fellow," the Talmud teaches, "the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow." [Yoma] We may confess our sins as a group, but that does not free us from the need to beg the pardon of those we have wronged, and to make restitution if required. Even private sins between man and God, according to tradition, require personal repentance for atonement to be effective.

Where my friend and I strongly disagree is in his defense of moral relativism. Philosophers may argue as to whether people everywhere share a common morality and whether it is legitimate to judge other peoples by our moral standards. Some dispute the very idea of "universal human rights." But do we really want to live in a community where moral judgments are forbidden since my morality may not be the same as yours? Must we give up on the whole idea of moral improvement? Can't some of us, at least, agree among ourselves to uphold a set of standards that we think right?

When I stand with my fellow congregants tonight and tomorrow, I uphold the proposition that we Jews, at least, do share common standards of morality. That is why we pray together and atone together for evils ranging, as we have seen, from abuse to zealotry. We read together two long lists of evils that we condemn as sins, and collectively seek forgiveness for the damage they have wrought on our community.

I understand perfectly well that agreement on ethical and moral questions is not easy to achieve. Consensus concerning a whole range of issues, from what constitutes life to how to define the moment of death, still eludes us. "Truth," the president of Harvard University recently observed, "is an aspiration, not a possession." [http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/faust/071012_installation.html]

Nevertheless, on Yom Kippur I affirm my fervent hope that Jews - and someday all human beings - will reach consensus. We will learn to distinguish right from wrong. We will find truth and discard falsehood. We will ultimately become one in the values that we espouse and in the moral teachings that we uphold.

Do I sound too confident? Strangely, Yom Kippur inspires such confidence. That is why we dress in white rather than black on the holiday, and why much of the music of the day is uplifting. In antiquity, Yom Kippur was actually a joyous holiday, compared by one ancient source to the holiday of Tu Be-Av that I wrote you about. The reason is that those who atone for their sins feel purged and purified. An ancient rabbinic homily actually quotes God as promising that "whenever Israel gather in My presence and stand before Me as one band, crying out in My presence the order of prayers for forgiveness, I shall answer. . . " [Tanne Deve Eliahu Zuta, ed. Braude & Kapstein, 516] God, in Jewish tradition, is much more magnanimous than punitive. If only more people were like that too!

Over and over, therefore, Jews recite the attributes of God, set forth in the Book of Exodus (34:7), stressing that God forgives "iniquity, transgression and sin." Some repeat this as many as 12 or 20 times during the day; one rabbi insisted that it should be repeated 65 times! The idea is not only to ensure God's affirmative response to our petition for forgiveness, but also to encourage emulation of God's moral qualities: compassion, graciousness, forbearance, kindness, faithfulness, and forgiveness. By becoming more God-like, Judaism believes, we will all become better human beings.

So confident are we Jews in God's moral qualities, mercy in particular, that by the conclusion of Yom Kippur we are ready to breathe a sigh of relief. When you were young, this is the theatrical moment you waited for. You watched the sun setting and counted down until, at last, the shofar sounded. "Next Year in Jerusalem," you cried out, along with the congregation. Then you joined those who, despite a day of fasting, gathered their strength to break out spontaneously in song and dance.

Confidence, of course, is more than just the secret of Yom Kippur. It is the secret of the Jewish people as a whole. Absent confidence, we Jews would long ago have succumbed to the many persecutors who sought to destroy us. Confidence, even in the darkest days of the Holocaust, kept Jews going.

Of course, there is also such a thing as overconfidence. That is why I worry so much about your generation. Some of your friends, I fear, worry much less than they should about the survival of Judaism, the survival of the State of Israel, and the continuity of the Jewish people as a whole. Complacency, I have told you before, is a luxury that no Jew can afford.

Nevertheless, the message of Yom Kippur and the lessons of Jewish history give me great cause for confidence. So long as Jews sound the shofar, so long as they cry "Next Year in Jerusalem," so long as they learn from the past and work to shape the future, so long as they juggle Judaism among their priorities, so long as they maintain a strong sense of family and community, and so long as they aspire to uphold common values and teachings, I am confident that the people of Israel will live on.



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