Why I Don’t Seek Forgiveness on Yom Kippur

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Yom Kippur Painting

On second thought, I think Herman Schalmaan had it right. Four years ago, the noted nonagenarian Rabbi Emeritus of my previous synagogue told Yom Kippur to go to hell. From the bimah. On Yom Kippur. Standing before several hundred startled congregants, he said Jews have suffered enough for millennia. Why should we continue that trend by doing our best to make ourselves suffer even more on our highest, holiest day? Schalmaan instead called for using Yom Kippur and the High Holy Days as a time to celebrate humanity.

I agree. As I wrote three years ago, the group-think in which we Reform Jews engage surrounding this one day of the Jewish calendar doesn’t befit our denomination’s foundational principle of making individual, informed choices regarding our religious observance. Any other day of the year, and with almost any other religious tenet, we Reform Jews steadfastly guard our right to our individual Jewish journeys and the very diverse points along the x and y axes of the great grid of observance where each of us find our comfort zones.

Yet on Yom Kippur, our allegedly modern, liberal denomination engages in a wholesale manner in almost completely unexamined ritual, and effectively creates a culture of bullying by marking the public discussion of alternative perspectives as off-limits.

Here’s why I think we do that.

First, because the majority of Reform Jews only show their faces at synagogue during the High Holy Days since, unlike the rest of the year, they’re frankly afraid not to. There’s a clear hypocrisy there, but since Reform Judaism is about welcoming everyone at any point in their Jewish journeys, our denomination tent is wide enough to embrace it. But the upshot is synagogues full of “just-in-case” congregants engaging in traditional ritual almost as if to apologize to God for being part of a denomination that doesn’t demand stringent observance the rest of the year.

That’s bananas.

Second, because the High Holy Days are Judaism’s biggest pledge drive—especially among those “just-in-case” hordes of Reform Jews who show up only at this time of year. Synagogue membership across all denominations has been declining for years. The last thing most shuls want to do is knock the fear-centered, lock-step legs out from under Yom Kippur, since the Day of Atonement and High Holy Days are among the very few remaining reliable levers—along with lifecycle events such as birth, b’nei mitzvah, marriage, and death—with any power left to bring dues-paying members in the door. If casual Reform Jews no longer feared not being in synagogue on Yom Kippur, synagogues would no longer be able to withhold High Holy Day tickets as a stick to coerce paid membership.

So Schalmaan Yom Kippur sermon was an outlier. In reality, you’ll almost never here a perspective shared by clergy from the bimah—during the High Holy Days or at any other day of the Hebrew calendar—that might suggest Reform Jews use our own denominational principles to examine the Day of Atonement and our experience of it. Whatever wiggle room we do give ourselves (for example, the added emphasis of Reform’s new High Holy Day prayerbook, Mishkan HaNefesh, on the good that we do all year instead of just doting on our faults and failures) never falls very far from the traditional practices of a wider Judaism that we would might engage in during the rest of the year, and even do so with elan, but also only with forethought.

Those choosing not to fast—not for medical reasons but because their religious ethics led them to such a choice—feel afraid to share that they eat on Yom Kippur, much less to share why they choose to do so. Those choosing forms of t’shuvah (repentance) other than labeling themselves as sinners, prostrating themselves to the judgment of others, and begging for forgiveness keep their alternative voices to themselves. In Reform Judaism of all Jewish schools of thought, the real sin is that this should be so.

In my post of three years ago, I explained in detail why I choose not to fast as a form of t’shuvah on Yom Kippur. To complete that though, I’ll share here what else choose to do—and to refrain from—on the Day of Atonement.

I don’t especially seek anyone’s forgiveness. I believe in living by my Jewish principles all year long. Anyone who think’s I’m an asshole has already called me out on it by this point in the year—or more than likely I’ve called myself out on it with them. I don’t see the worth in saving it all up—or worse, dredging it all back up—for one excruciating repentance-fest. If that’s how blind we really are all year, I hardly think ten days of action is going to fundamentally change us for the following 353 to 385 days of the Hebrew calendar.

I don’t seek to identify with the pain of the world. Again, we are bound as Jews to do that all year long. My recognition of and engagement in the battles for social, racial, environmental, and economic justice is with me every day that the High Holy Days are not. I believe seeking to “afflict our souls”—whether by fasting or any other physical or emotional practice—is aimed at waking us up from sleepwalking the rest of the year. I acknowledge that these devices work for many other fellow Jews. They do not work for all of us, and in no way especially connect me with my spiritual journey of return during this time of year.

I do spend the High Holy Days examing my beliefs, thoughts, emotions, expectations, and actions. I believe that the way I treat and interact with others and the faith I have in God and the magical process of life is based intimately in what think, feel, and expect about myself—and that I am not at their mercy. Fundamentally, I hold that my beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and expectations are mine to examine, and embrace or reject and replace as necessary.

My personal t’shuvah is to endeavor to know who I am as deeply as I can, to identify and accept the not-pretty parts that lead directly into my not-pretty interactions with others, and to replace the beliefs, thoughts emotions, and expectations that lead me down negative roads with ones aimed more squarely at trust, faith, love, joy, kindness, and compassion. As a lifelong, hard-core Sethian (as in Jane Roberts, not the Apocryphon of John), I engage in that process all year. At Yom Kippur, however, I recognize that my accounts with God and others depend on—and can only be impacted by—my accounting of myself.

If you’re a fellow Reform Jew reading this, know that nothing whatsoever about the High Holy Days—including Yom Kippur—somehow magically negates the denominational principles that undergird your Jewish journey every other day of the year. We don’t believe in “spiritual excision” any more than we believe anything literal about the Torah. Your journey of t’shuvah—at this time of year or any other—is between you and God as you may or may not conceive of God. Equally importantly, however you choose to move forward, your journey is also a cause for celebration and sharing. There is far more than one way to do t’shuvah. The more we all discuss that, the more I believe we as Reform Jews will bring our observance of Yom Kippur more squarely into consonance with our our denominations principles.

Where it should be.

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