Yom Kippur 2017: Atoning Before God, Together

Posted on Oct 02, 2017

Kol Nidrei Sermon 2017

The subject of my remarks this evening is the passage in the mahzor—especially meaningful to me, and in some ways quite problematic—that we will recite no fewer than ten times on this tenth day of Tishrei, five times individually and five times as a group. I refer of course to the vidui, or confessional. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, we will say, all the way through the Hebrew alphabet to shihatnu, and—for good measure—three sins beginning with the letter tav

The rabbis who put the Yom Kippur liturgy together centuries ago obviously wanted us to pay serious attention to these words. But they also did several things that seem to work in the opposite direction—starting with the construction of a list of sins that is entirely a function of the alphabet. The ABCs of sin, presented in no discernible order of priority, are in many cases not the sins that would likely have been chosen if the first letters of the Hebrew words had been different. They are certainly not the ones that I would have chosen if I were trying to be honest with myself about my own shortcomings, or to be precise in naming the sins that I think affect our society, our community, or the Jewish people in 2017. What is more, the music to which we intone the Ashamnu together—in major key and straightforward, reliable rhythm—seems designed to make our souls comfortable far more than to afflict us. The repetition of the words over and over again as we symbolically beat our breasts works to the same effect.

What should we make of this liturgy? What does it mean? What can it mean to you or to me, here today?

I begin with the puzzling fact that, even when we say the confessional to ourselves, we say it in the plural: “We abuse, we betray, we are cruel.” The Al Het is likewise in plural voice: “For the sin that we have sinned.” I confess that this confessional “we” is incredibly comforting to me. I don’t have to confront my particular failings even during silent prayer, need not announce them to myself or pronounce them “before God.” (I will return to those two words, a problem in their own right, in a moment.) When the congregation chants the Ashamnu aloud, always in plural voice, I never need vocalize the words “I have betrayed, I have been cruel.” I get to hide behind the group voice as much as I did during the silent recitation of my sins. If I recognize personal failings at various points during the congregation’s chanting of the Ashamnu litany, and perhaps secretly cringe a bit, I have the comfort of knowing that it’s not just me who is in that situation. I’m not the only one around here who has been violent or unkind this year. Guilt, like misery, loves company. So does repentance.

My meditation on the blending of individual and community in the Ashamnu confessional got me thinking about the move that Socrates makes in Book One of Plato’s Republic, which I had the pleasure of teaching to Columbia freshmen years ago as part of the Contemporary Civilization course. Socrates surprises his readers by shifting focus from the meaning and achievement of justice in the polis to the meaning and achievement of justice inside the individual self of every citizen. We can’t get society or the state right, Plato teaches—or even think correctly about what that would entail—until we get ourselves right. If you and I are ruled by desire, say; if the voice of conscience is drowned out by incessant “I want”s, often disguised as “I need,” we will not think properly about the good of society, and the polis too will be driven by base desires—for wealth or power or reputation, say—rather than by pursuit of the good. 

This seems intuitively correct to me, and somewhat depressing. Most of us would much rather focus on the failings of society or the state than on our own failings—but if the latter are inseparable from the former,  does that mean we are trapped in a vicious circle? Do we “get the government we deserve,” as the saying goes? Do the sins of society reflect personal shortcomings, and then reinforce those shortcomings, thereby dooming society to slide down further toward tyranny and oppression, a development which will in turn push individuals to sin? This question, in 2017, in the United States of America, could not be more relevant.

It was certainly so in the 1930s. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wondered in one of his best-known books, Moral Man and Immoral Society (published in 1932, the year before Hitler’s ascent to power), why individual human beings, despite being born in original sin, seem in general to be more virtuous than the societies and states they comprise. A few years later many people asked how so many “good Germans” installed the Nazis in power and then cooperated in the unspeakable evil that they perpetrated. Niebuhr suggested at one point, even before Hitler, that society is often so bad because its members are not so good after all. “The egoistic impulses of individuals . . . achieve a more vivid expression and a more cumulative effect when they are united in a common impulse.”

Plato and Niebuhr provide valuable insight into one possible strategy behind the Ashamnu’s personal confession in plural voice. The liturgy wants to prod us to recognize our shared responsibility for what is wrong. We have sinned, we have betrayed. You and I have done this individually. You and I have done this together.

For the great Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, whose magnum opus Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism was published in Germany a century ago, this very formulation, this joining of individual responsibility to collective responsibility, is the heart of Yom Kippur and the prerequisite to human beings becoming truly human and therefore able to stand before God. Chapters on “Atonement” and the “Day of Atonement” are the literal and conceptual center of Cohen’s book. The work that you and I are gathered in this room to do is for him the essential work of humanness. We must do the work one by one, side by side, each of us individually, in full consciousness of, and full responsibility for, what is at stake in each other’s atonement. 

Cohen starts by noting that “in accordance with Deuteronomy, all the prophets up to Ezekiel made social morality the main point of monotheism.” Think of the reading from Isaiah that is tomorrow’s haftarah. God does not want our fast and self-denial. God wants us to feed the poor and free the oppressed. Isaiah seems to be saying that the children of Israel succeed or fail in God’s eyes as a society, as a people, and are rewarded or punished accordingly. That tradition, still a major strand of Judaism, surely stands behind the plural form of the Yom Kippur confessional. But for Cohen there is something patently unfair in Deuteronomy’s notion of collective reward and punishment. Judaism and humanity took a giant step forward when Ezekiel declared that henceforth no children would be punished for the sins of their parents —or, by extension, the sins of their neighbors. “Call every single man who participates in the affairs of the state, or in the press, or in the other countless administrative organs, call him as an individual before the tribunal of his conscience. Only the individual himself can be called to responsibility for the sin of the peoples.” 

Each of us becomes a human being when we answer that call, accept our share of responsibility, say the words “I have sinned” and mean them. The “I” is earned by the “we have sinned.” Until then, we might say, your “I,” like mine, is merely the voice of intentions and desires, struggling within us and competing for attention. When I take responsibility for my sin, do not avoid it, attain honesty with myself and with my neighbor, my self attains gravity, weight, personhood.  And when you say it too, when you say it beside me, our assemblage becomes more than a random collection of individuals. At that moment every one of you becomes my neighbor, joined to me in mutual responsibility, and we together become a community.

That’s the point of the famous Mishnah at the end of Tractate Yoma,  where the rabbis two thousand years ago put an end to any hocus pocus notion of atonement—kill the animal properly, cut this part on the altar and burn that one, say the prescribed words correctly, and God will forgive you. “Sins between one person and his fellow—Yom Kippur does not atone for them, until he has won forgiveness from his fellow.” Chances are good that the family and friends sitting beside you this evening are among those from whom you are in most need of forgiveness. But we have also hurt the people down the row, and down the street, knowingly and unknowingly, even without knowing them personally—as we have benefited from all these people, knowingly and unknowingly—and this too is a reason for us to confess sin together, in the plural, both to ourselves and aloud. The Mishna tells us that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah understood the verse “from all your sins you shall be cleansed before the Lord” to signify that very process of winning forgiveness from one another. Rabbi Akiva rejoiced in the fact that we are cleansed from sin before God as well as by God, whom Akiva here names “mikveh Yisrael”—the purifying water of Israel (Yoma 7:9).

As promised, I want to spend a few moments thinking with you about the words “before the Lord,” which for many 21st-century Americans might well be the most problematic of all in the confessional. A Kol Nidrei address is not the moment for sustained theological investigation. We have work to accomplish this evening, depths to plumb, much-anticipated words and melodies to encounter. The very last thing I would want to do is get in the way of anyone’s teshuvah or interpose my theology, which may or may not speak to you, between you and the liturgy. It is enormously meaningful to me that the rabbis who gave us the Yom Kippur liturgy disagreed profoundly about what the words “before the Lord” mean in verses like “for the sin that we have sinned before You” and “from all your sins you shall be cleansed before the Lord.” Such disagreement has of course continued down to our own day.

I believe that diversity of conviction when it comes to ultimate matters like these cannot but continue—not just because human understanding of the way things are continues to evolve, but because the ultimate truth of things—what God is, or how God operates in the world—will always, in this world anyway, remain beyond our mortal power to comprehend. Some skeptics conclude that there is nothing to comprehend, no God in any sense: not Mordecai Kaplan’s God, a set of “creative forces” at work in the universe and in us; not Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God, a “being in and beyond all beings” who calls us to help with the work of creation; not Hermann Cohen’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or Plato’s God. If you are such a skeptic, and are here anyway for Kol Nidrei, know that you are not alone; the same holds true if you believe in a God who hears every word we shall utter this evening, knows everything each of us has done this past year, and will judge us accordingly in this world or the next. Scholars of religion assure us that beliefs about God are a different matter than relation to God. Prayer often goes where systematic theology fears to tread.     

Let me say briefly, in the hope that by doing so I may help someone here find more meaning in the liturgy, that I myself believe on the basis of tradition and experience, as Heschel did, that among God’s infinite attributes is one that we, with our limited vocabulary of understanding, call “personhood” or “consciousness.” I believe that we human beings share the realm of being with a Being above, beyond, and pervading all of being; that the Holy One hears and answers prayer in a manner that you and I will never ever understand; and that one of the ways in which the Lord of Being operates in the world is through the love that we give one another, the righteousness and lovingkindness we perform, the forgiveness we grant and request. It is in that sense that we sin and purify ourselves “before God.”

I don’t much care for the translation of the Al Het in our Lev Shalem mahzor as “the sins that we have sinned against You, God.” The underlying theology might be that sins against God’s creatures are sins against the Creator, or that violations of God’s commandments must be counted sins against the Commander. This seems harsh to me. It induces a degree of terror that is not helpful to the work of teshuvah. I am profoundly grateful for the assurance captured in the original Hebrew, that we have sinned in the presence of God, hatanu lefanekha. God’s presence in the world, in our lives, however hidden and unfathomable, is a precious gift. Heschel wrote that the great question facing each of us every day, certainly on this day of Yom Kippur, is how we should live in the world we share with God, how we should stand upright before God. That is where I want to be, always. I want you there with me.

When all is said and done, theology is probably not the best vehicle for capturing the truth of these matters. Devotional poetry is far better at putting into words the fact of our deep and mysterious connection to one another and to the forces or Force, the Being, beyond ourselves.  Poetry better conveys how that connection, as our liturgy maintains, exists even across the generations—and how it is founded in part davka on the sins we have committed against one another.

The poem that does this best, of any I know, is Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: a meditation on all that connects us human beings to one another and to the Fount of all being, and a rendition of the Ashamnu and Al Het prayers, that is truly remarkable.

Here are just a few verses of Whitman’s poem:

“It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not.
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d  . . .”

And now Whitman’s version of the Ashamnu / Al Het:

“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? 
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot in contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest . . .”

Whitman speaks for me, and perhaps for you; he helps me to understand viscerally how deeply the Ashamnu prayer connects us, speaks for us, and speaks to us. Seen through Whitman’s eyes, the confessional, and all of Yom Kippur, are a spur to being the selves we are meant to be, and making our society what it is meant to be. We are one, in profound ways we do not normally realize, and we are connected to The One in ways we do not comprehend. I have hope that we can do better. Personal teshuvah is achievable. I therefore have hope for our society and our world. Yom Kippur, as the rabbis taught, is not only a Day of Awe but an occasion for profound rejoicing. “And now,” Cohen writes, “sin is entirely overshadowed by the bright light which longing for God radiates.”

Hayom te’amtzenu. “May You strengthen us today, bless us today, enlarge us today . . . sustain us today with the power of Your righteousness.”

I wish us all an easy fast.