Rethinking Rabbi Schaalman’s Yom Kippur

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Several years ago at our old-old synagogue, the rabbi emeritus, Herman Schaalman, Z”l, had some choice things to say about Yom Kippur that at the time I didn’t agree with. But as it turns out, for the past couple of years I have observed Yom Kippur the same way Rabbi Schaalman suggested—by essentially not observing Yom Kippur at all.

In one of his last appearances on the Emanuel Congregation bimah for the High Holy Days in 2013, Schaalman, already in his mid-90s, essentially dumped all over Yom Kippur. Never a rabbi to back away from being extraordinarily critical of the God concept—as of course it is every Jew’s birthright to struggle with God—Schaalman surprised the High Holy Days crowd by suggesting that we Jews jettison the traditional observance of our most holy day, the Day of Atonement. A day predicated on digging in the last depths of your soul to find where you’ve gone wrong not just with God but, more importantly, with other people—and then reaching out to ask forgiveness over, and over, and over. Schaalman said since our history has already been one of millennia of disaster, catastrophe, religious subjugation, genocide, and bigotry directed towards us, why on earth do we want to make our highest holy day a day on which we make ourselves intentionally feel as bad as humanly possible? Not just emotionally, but physically, too, as we fast for 25 hours while beating ourselves up inside—25 hours that are the culmination of 10 days of internal self-flagellation?

At the time, I was still attempting to observe a traditional Yom Kippur, and I chalked up Schaalman’s comments to him continuing to slowly but obviously slip away. (The next year hearing him intentionally remove Jewish converts from the story of Jewish continuity also from a High Holy Day bimah only cemented by feelings—and motivated me to found the Ruth Roundtable in response.)

But living Judaism is nothing if not fluid. Over the years has my Judaism has developed and I’ve I’ve settled into my own Jewish comfort zone, I’ve become similarly disenchanted with Yom Kippur. As I wrote in 2013 when I finally came out as a non-faster—originally chronicling Schaalman’s comments about Yom Kippur in the process—the concept and the doing of fasting for an entire day does nothing to connect me with any sort of a religious sense of anything, much less of penance—as it similarly doesn’t for many Jews. Nor does the obsequious practice of debasing ourselves before each other once a year like clockwork. It didn’t work for me before when I was Catholic and it was called confession. It doesn’t work for me any better now that I’m Jewish and it’s called t’shuvah. And again, among my fellow Jews, I know I’m far from alone in that experience, too.

But Yom Kippur is the one holiday that Jews are terrified to question. Especially for Reform Jews it’s a ridiculous position—we spend our lives professing that God is not unquestionable and the commandments are not unyielding. But come Yom Kippur and we’re all suddenly afraid that if we step out of line, before the next year is over God will spitefully drop us dead and send us to the hell that doesn’t actually exist anywhere in Judaism. So we give ourselves splitting headaches from lack of caffeine, daylong weakness and awful breath from lack of food, and 10 days of punishing embarrassment by making half-hearted apologies to people we’ve otherwise consistently treated like shit for the entire rest of the year.

As the famous Haftarah reading from Isaiah (58:14) on Yom Kippur morning goes, that’s the not really the fast God wants. Or me either—as I shared in 2013. (If you’re on the fence about the fast, read that blog post—many have told me it gave then the courage to make the decision they’d been yearning to make for years.) Since then, I have happily eaten my way through Yom Kippur, and it hasn’t changed a thing about my sense of self-reflection one way or the other. That’s what most people tell you who don’t observe the fast…and who haven’t, you know, been struck down by a lightning bolt and sent straight to that non-existent Jewish hell.

And lately, I’ve softened to the rest of Rabbi Schaalman’s suggestion about giving up the rest of it. If you never bother to go out of your way throughout the year to make amends with friends and family, what good does it do to go on a marathon apology session once a year—especially one done out of fear, or worse, inertia? If you’re saving all your opportunities for “I’m sorry” up for the High Holy Days, why bother? Do you really think begrudging apologies made in Tishrei will stick—or that you’ll stand behind them—come Cheshvan? Do they ever?

Instead of our annual self-flagellation fest, Schaalman suggested instead making Yom Kippur an uplifting day of knowledge, and learning, and teaching, and celebrating Jewish history and culture. Because we all know we’ll be back to treating ourselves and others like crap because we’re on autopilot, and having the world treat us like crap because we’re Jewish, soon enough. I agree with him. I don’t believe in a God of spite. To me, Shechinah is everything, Shaddai has no meaning. I believe in an All That Is made out of love. And I think the ephemeral is more interested in me living thoughtfully and with compassion all of my days, rather than in threatening me with impending doom if I don’t make the “If I have wronged you” rounds once a year.

If in my heart I know I’ve wrong to you, I’ve reached out to you already. If it’s Yom Kippur again and you haven’t heard from me, it’s probably just because you’re a total asshole and I’m not going to bother. And I don’t think God has any problem with that.

It’s the ultimate Reform Jewish choice. If all the commandments are open to reflection over whether their practice actually has any meaning on your personal Jewish journey, the mitzvot surrounding Yom Kippur cannot be separated out. They certainly shouldn’t be separated out based on doubts and fears that we swear we don’t harbor the entire rest of the year.

Rosh Hashanah has incredible meaning for me. But Yom Kippur no longer does and probably never will again. And since I’m not a member of a hyper-biblically literal stream of Judaism that believes in batshit crazy concepts like spiritual excision for avoiding the fast, that’s just fine—with me and with God.

May there be an easy fast for those about to observe a traditional Yom Kippur. And a thoughtful day of meaning—and eating—for those choosing to set it aside.

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