Like two million other American Jews, I will be in synagogue next week in observance of Yom Kippur, seeking forgiveness from God and loved ones for the sins I have committed over the past year and resolving to do better in the months ahead. Many of my fellow Jews will wonder during the long day of fasting and prayer, as I do virtually every year, just why we are there. Do we really believe the words we are reciting, literally or metaphorically? Can we convincingly reconcile a theology formulated many hundreds of years ago with notions of self and obligation, divinity and providence?
For me the answer is: Yes, I believe that we can, and we do. I love Yom Kippur, and my love for its rhythms of repentance and return seems to increase with each passing year. The holiday has a lot to say to all Americans, of any religion or no religion, and this year the message of the day is especially urgent.
The heart of the liturgy is arguably the long confessionals recited 10 times in the course of the holiday. Silently, and then together, the congregation chants, “We are guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed … lied. For all these sins, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”
It is not easy to explain to friends and relatives who do not come to synagogue or church why I find meaning in the recital of these words, and even a large measure of truth. Thirty years later, I still remember the academic colleague who asked me one day, “Why is a smart guy like you wasting your time studying religion?” I recall too, in much different spirit, the words of a distinguished physician at a major university medical center who reported that none of his colleagues can understand why he goes to church on a regular basis. “I go,” he explained, “because I find there a kind of discourse and community available nowhere else — certainly not at the hospital.”
I suspect that many Jews would say the same about their synagogue attendance, particularly on the High Holidays. So much of what we hear on the news every day conspires to rob us of the sense that life matters, that individuals like you and I matter. Truly adult conversations are rare in most social circles. A steady diet of punditry, talk radio and reality TV can leave one feeling cheapened, lowered, even sullied. I treasure a liturgy — words said year after year, the very same words that Jews have been reciting for two millennia, close cousins to language that has been chanted with comparable devotion in churches and mosques — that treats human beings seriously enough to call us to account, remind us of our mortality and demand responsibility.
America could do with a bit more confessing, individually and collectively … of how woefully we have sinned.
Of course, autonomy and freedom are to be respected. There is no moral action without them. But none of us is free of obligations and responsibilities that must be taken on whether we like it or not. They come with adulthood, with love. As the great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel memorably put it, precisely capturing the spirit of the Yom Kippur liturgy, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
The fact that we share that responsibility with other members of our communities, our societies and our world — even as each of us must undertake it individually and be judged accordingly — explains why the Yom Kippur confessionals are couched in the plural. Chances are good that some of the people whom I have hurt most gravely over the past year are the family members sitting beside me in the pew. We all need to make things right with one another before we move on to larger circles of responsibility, and to God. The liturgy insists that we must ask and receive forgiveness from one another before we can hope to receive it from God. Our collective admission of responsibility and guilt, joined to our common resolve to work together for a better world, welds the congregation — and the communities of which it is a part — into a “we” that has dignity and weight.
It pains me that so many Americans, well-educated and otherwise tolerant, have no patience for believers like me and even subject our faith in God to ridicule. It bothers me no less that some of my fellow-believers give faith a bad name by vilifying non-believers and justifying the lowest deed they do in the name of the Highest that they know.
America could do with a bit more confessing, individually and collectively, of how much we do not know, and how woefully we have sinned. Mutual forgiveness might go a long way toward healing what ails us.
Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.