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Jewish World Review
Sept. 29, 2009 / 11 Tishrei 5770
Who Needs Religion?
Well, that's one way to look at it. Writing in Haaretz, Orna
Coussin praised Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement that began Sunday
night and ended Monday night) as the ultimate green holiday. Coussin is a
secular Israeli and was expressing her appreciation for the fact that
everyone is obliged to travel by foot on Yom Kippur. All traffic stops in
Israel. No cars, busses, trains, or taxis clog the streets on that day. The
shops and offices are closed and the city is given over to pedestrians.
"Last year, on Yom Kippur," she exults, "carbon monoxide levels fell from
205 parts per billion, on the day prior to the holiday, to just 2 parts per
billion at its height a phenomenon unmatched anywhere in the world."
That's nice. But for millions of Jews worldwide the Day of
Atonement continues to exert its traditional power. Coussin may see it as a
day for walking the city; religious Jews are trying to walk with G-d. But
even non-religious Jews can find uplift in the Yom Kippur service.
Fierce secularists like Christopher Hitchens deny that religion
is necessary for morality. In any particular case, this is impossible to
deny. Many highly moral people are non-religious (though, I would venture,
less often anti-religious). But people being the way they are
rationalizing, lazy, self-satisfied, absent-minded, and evasive (to list
only some of our milder shortcomings) the religious tradition, with its
weekly (or in some cases only yearly) kicks in the backside, prods us toward
virtue, or perhaps even righteousness.
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and repentance. This is well
known. But the fast though severe (it lasts 25 hours and requires
abstention from food and water) is not the substance of repentance, only
a symbol. The whole High Holiday season, which begins with Rosh Hashana, is
a period of prayer, self-examination, and repentance. This is a time to give
generously to charity both for its own sake (the Hebrew word for charity
is "justice") and to demonstrate our sincere repentance. We are encouraged
to pay our debts during this time, and to ask forgiveness from those we have
wronged. If we are rebuffed, we're expected to ask again … twice. Offenses
against our fellow human beings are not forgiven on Yom Kippur unless the
wronged party has extended forgiveness. As for offenses against G-d,
worshippers are reminded that G-d is not interested in fasting alone, only
in genuine repentance. The measure of sincerity is altered behavior.
The confession of sin is communal and quite exhaustive. For
those who might have thought they had a pretty good year, the Al Cheyt prayer
makes them think again. The offenses listed include, as one might expect,
lust, gluttony, envy, cruelty, gossip, and dishonesty. But the liturgy also
requires confession of impertinence, foul language, being stiff-necked, and
"haughty looks." We ask forgiveness for sins of commission and sins of
omission, and for sins committed knowingly and unknowingly. Come to think of
it, considering its breadth and comprehensiveness, the Al Cheyt could have
been drafted by a lawyer. In any case, it stands in stark contrast to the
narcissistic spirit of our age.
The concept of communal confession may seem odd to Christians
whose traditions tend to stress individual repentance and reconciliation
with G-d. One explanation frequently advanced for this practice is that the
entire Jewish community is expected to take responsibility for the sins of
all of its members. Peoplehood and nation remain key features of the Jewish
faith. But it is also the case, I think, that when reciting that long list
of offenses, only the most self-deluded sinner could fail to recognize that
he had committed more sins that he cared to acknowledge during the preceding
period of self-examination. The ancient catalogue of wrongdoing remains as
fresh today as ever because however much the outward world has changed,
the human soul remains what it has always been.
Even with the best will in the world, we are inclined to
backsliding. If we haven't been reminded lately to give generously to those
in need, or to visit the sick or bereaved, or to extend ourselves to the
handicapped, or to thank a member of the armed services, or in other ways to
try to please G-d, we will fall short.
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