What Now? Episode 9 podcast transcript
The following is a transcription of episode 9 of the podcast What Now?, “Restoring Balance” with Julia Andelman, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors.
Sara Beth Berman: Welcome to What Now?, a podcast from the Jewish Theological Seminary that asks how we respond when it all goes wrong. I’m Sara Beth Berman, your host, and a graduate of the Davidson School at JTS, and I’ve been searching for answers for a long time. Almost a decade ago, I had a crisis of faith when my fiancé Rafi, a fifth-year rabbinical student, died after a year of suffering and a month in a coma. Even all these years later, I’m still trying to find answers to the hard questions, specifically, why? Why do humans suffer, and what now? How does our tradition help us tackle this complicated and fundamentally human experience?
Tragedy and misfortune strike all of us just about every day. On a scale of one to 10, where one when you try to put a very smooth one-dollar bill into a vending machine and it just gets spit back at you over and over and over again, and 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding.
In my continued search to answer my big questions, why? and what now?, I’m meeting with professors and teachers from my beloved alma mater, JTS. Each professor and each person has had their own struggles. My professors have applied their wisdom and scholarship to finding answers. After years of banging my head against the wall while I whine loudly about tragedy, I’m hoping my professors can help me find answers.
In this episode, I sat down with Rabbi Julia Andelman, who heads the community engagement department at JTS. Rabbi Andelman and I spoke about atonement, more or less, and how that plays out in the more physical prayer moments in Jewish year. I’ll let her introduce herself.
Julia Andelman: I’m Rabbi Julia Andelman. I’m the Director of Community Engagement here at JTS, which means that I oversee our adult learning programs, in person and online, including podcasts, and our continuing rabbinic education programs also. And I am a proud alum of JTS.
SBB: So thank you for being here and thank you for me being here for being here, because we’re in your department right now, which is great. So what are we talking about today?
JA: We are talking about a concept called kapparah, which is not something that I knew about when I was a kid, even though I talked about it all the time, and we all do in the High Holiday prayers.
SBB: And how would you define that in English?
JA: In English we would say atonement. I think it sounds—I was going to say pareve. That’s not English. I don’t think it fully communicates what the word is about.
SBB: No, it contains multitudes. We’re going to talk about it, so don’t stress about it too much. I do have to say, when you start talking about the concept of kapparah, I think of kapparot, which is a practice that a small portion of Jewish people do before Yom Kippur, where they assign their sins to a chicken and then they wave the chicken around their head three times, and then the chicken is slaughtered. And so the chicken now has the sins and they’re washed away. So whenever you’re talking about that, I immediately think of this not-so-common practice that I find bizarre. So I’m wondering, when you started learning about kapparah, if you entered through the chicken lens, or how you got to this place?
JA: So the kapparot that you just talked about with the chicken is an example of kapparah. I was also sort of fascinated with kapparot. We did it with quarters in a plastic bag when I was a kid.
SBB: That’s less disgusting.
JA: But we always knew that it was instead of a chicken. I once went to see kapparot in Israel, and it stinks to high heaven. Chicken blood does not smell good.
SBB: Wait, really?
SBB: I did not know that. I mostly eat kale.
JA: Okay, so I mentioned that we refer to this concept in the High Holiday liturgy a lot. I think without even noticing it. So tell me if this line rings a bell. When we’re doing the confessions on Yom Kippur, we say “Ve’al kulam elohah selihot, selah lanu, mahal lanu, kaper lanu.”
SBB: Yes, I feel like I should punch myself in the chest right now.
JA: “For all of our sins, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” I never stopped to really think about what the difference was between those three things. Selah lanu, forgive us. Mahal lanu, pardon us. Kaper lanu, grant us atonement. I just sort of lumped them all together into some kind of repentance, forgiveness thing with God. And when I got tuned into kapparah was actually in a class here at JTS with Dr. Devora Steinmetz who was teaching at the time. And it was at the same time that I was really developing as a prayer leader, a shelihat tzibur, for the High Holidays.
So everything sort of dovetailed. I became very focused on the meaning of Yom Kippur. Of course, that’s the same root as kapparah. And then I had this amazing Talmud class on masekhet Makkot, tractate Makkot, that kapparah turned out to be a major theme there.
SBB: The stuff that we’re talking about today is different than a lot of the other episodes. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how different tragedies have affected us. Meaning me and other guests that have been on the podcast. This is really about the bad things that we’re doing to others. So how does all of this kapparah stuff fit in, when you’re really talking about ameliorating the complaints that you have created in the universe?
JA: I think what they have in common is that Judaism gives us frameworks for working through all different kinds of suffering. And the fact is, causing harm ends up being a form of suffering for yourself as well, in addition to the suffering that you’ve caused. I think when you’re going through a process like that, you actually have to make sure that your bad feeling doesn’t give you a pass. Like, oh, I feel so bad about this thing that I did. So the fact that I feel bad means I’m a good person and, check. Move on.
That’s just the beginning. But you have to really go through a process, not just of kapparah, of all the other things. Of teshuvah, repentance. But also asking forgiveness. And also praying for mehilah, for God to pardon you. I think all of those elements are part of the process and feeling bad about it is the prompt, not the end.
SBB: So kapparah and kapparot were a major theme in this class. What were some of the interesting things that you learned that you’ve brought into your teachings?
JA: What I learned from Professor Steinmetz is that kapparah is a rebalancing of the universe. That when we sin, when we do something wrong, there’s a rupture in the cosmic equilibrium, and it requires some kind of equal and opposite, as it were, physical, tangible, visible, thing to happen to restore balance. And that can take a lot of different forms. And it’s actually, if we look back at sources that we’re pretty familiar with, suddenly if you understand that that concept exists, you start to see it come out in all kinds of places.
Like if you think about Cain and Abel. You know, so after Cain kills Abel, he says to God he’s worried that someone’s going to kill him. Why is he worried that someone’s going to kill him? Why is it so obvious to him that someone’s going to kill him? Because of this concept, that because he shed blood, blood needs to be shed. This rebalancing is required. Cain and Abel is a story. But it actually becomes clearly manifested in laws later in the Torah, that when blood is shed, blood needs to be shed. Or something similar could also take the form of money, but even money is tangible, it’s visible. Something needs to be restored in some way. The sin can’t just be out there.
And in fact, just being forgiven, that doesn’t fix the universe. Something has to happen. Something has to actually happen. So even if your ox kills an animal—
SBB: Good thing I don’t have any oxen.
JA: —your ox needs to be killed. And it can’t be eaten, which is kind of big in the ancient world, if you think about it. You know, getting rid of all that meat. Because the ox is being killed not as a punishment to anyone, but to restore this imbalance that happened. It’s being killed just for the sake of killing, actually, to respond to the first killing that happened, and that puts things in balance. It sounds very different from how we think about it, but I think if we trace it through a few more texts, then I think it becomes even clearer and I would say more relatable.
SBB: Or for those of us that played Oregon Trail, those of us in the Oregon Trail generation, if you would kill an ox, right, you could go hunting. And you could kill a rabbit and it would be like three pounds, and you would get to take the whole rabbit home and eat it with your family. But if you killed an ox, it was always 99 pounds every time, which seems like maybe is an inaccurate representation of how big oxen really are. But you were only allowed to bring back like 10 pounds. And it’s wasteful. So when you’re talking about killing an ox for the sake of killing, all of this Code of Hammurabi business, an eye for an eye, it doesn’t really sound like it’s restoring cosmic order. So I’m wondering what other sources you have to maybe give me a little more information.
JA: Yeah. Okay, so here’s one that doesn’t involve killing, so that might feel better. So you might remember, from Parashat Masei, which is the very end of the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar. This strange thing. If you kill someone by accident, you’re supposed to go to an ir miklat, a city of refuge. Why do they have to flee? Because if they didn’t, the blood avenger, a relative of the person who was killed, would actually be completely within their rights to kill that person. The accidental killer. Because of this rebalancing thing that we talked about. So instead, because the person was not at fault, they are supposed to go to the ir miklat. They hang around in the ir miklat until, remember what happens that gets them out of the ir miklat? This city of refuge?
SBB: No, I do not remember. Jubilee?
JA: Because it’s so random. It’s the death of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.
SBB: Oh, really?
JA: So think about it. You could go to the ir miklat six months before the Kohen Gadol dies, or they just could have installed a new Kohen Gadol and you could be stuck in the ir miklat for 15 years.
SBB: That actually sounds a lot like some of the sentencing stuff that happens in the US criminal justice system.
JA: Well, here at least everyone does get the same sentence, but it plays out differently depending on this total external factor of this person, the Kohen Gadol. So it might seem really strange, but again, if you look at it through the lens of this balancing, rebalancing concept, it makes sense, because the death of the Kohen Gadol is the equal and opposite, so to speak, from the accidental killing that happened. So that is what allows these accidental killers, manslaughterers, I guess, to come out, and the blood avengers are no longer free to exact revenge because the rebalancing has already occurred through the death of the Kohen Gadol.
I think it’s worth adding, by the way, that we think of this as a Christian concept. The idea that one person dies and everyone’s sins are wiped away. The idea that Jesus died for people’s sins is actually totally rooted in our sources. That was a revelation to me, when I discovered it.
SBB: There’s still a lot of death in your non-death answer.
JA: I’ll give you a totally non-death one.
SBB: I dare you.
JA: There really are a lot of death ones, I have to admit. The chickens, sacrifices, but later on actually incense can atone. And later on, like in our time, when we don’t have sacrifices anymore and we certainly don’t effect this rebalancing through any kind of killing, we have the day of Yom Kippur. So Yom Kippur is really built up in the sources because we don’t have these other physical, tangible needs. We need this day to make it happen, and it’s part of why—I think it really is why—so much of the service on Yom Kippur actually focuses on these rituals. So we need the day itself to effect this rebalancing.
Admittedly, part of how we do that, I think, or at least how we make ourselves think about it in those terms, is that we do hearken back to these death-related things from the Torah. The Torah reading on Yom Kippur morning is the service of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, in the Holy of Holies, on Yom Kippur. It’s from Leviticus in the Torah, where he did sacrifices to effect this kapparah, this rebalancing for the whole people. We also read about the scapegoat, se’ir la’Azazel, that the sins of the people were confessed onto the goat and then it was sent out into the wilderness. In the Bible it doesn’t necessarily die. In the Talmud, of course, they push it off a cliff so it does die.
And then we also, in the Musaf service on Yom Kippur, we recount again the service of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest in the Temple, on Yom Kippur. I think we’re reading these things over and over to remind ourselves how important this day was, and how we need to really invest in it today, to create the possibility for it to have this transformational effect on us, and to do what the Talmud eventually ends up saying in Masekhet Yoma, the tractate about Yom Kippur, that we could have kapparat devarim, that we could achieve atonement through words. But we can only do that if we’re really meaning it and if it almost becomes a physical process that we’re going through.
I think that’s part of what those prostrations on Yom Kippur are about, that usually only the rabbi and the cantor are doing. But it’s great when everyone does it, because our religion has become so cerebral in many ways. If you get on the floor of the synagogue on Yom Kippur and really feel your sins and prostrate yourself physically and emotionally, I think that can have a real effect of letting go.
So I guess what I’m arguing is the contemporary relevance of this kapparah concept. You know, back then they had something tangible, which as you point out, often related to death. But I think the wisdom is, it’s not so easy to let go of sin. And maybe we would do well today to have those kinds of opportunities to do something, to go through something, to see something, to sacrifice something, to give something that really feels like a change has happened in response to the change that we created through behavior that we might not be proud of. That’s part of why the prostrating on Yom Kippur really means something to me.
SBB: So you talk about atonement through words. It’s what we have now. And it sounds like before, you were talking about kapparat devarim, atonement through things. Often the killing of things. And I was thinking about the transition from devarim meaning things to devarim meaning words. It’s interesting. You said that Judaism is really cerebral now. How do you bridge that gap for people that don’t spend a lot of time in that headspace, thinking about Judaism in this way and being throughtful about what it means to lie face-down on the floor in supplication for your sins?
JA: I think most people don’t think of Judaism as having the power within it, within the tradition, to help them move past behavior that they’re not proud of. And I think people generally look in other directions. I do think there’s one contemporary phenomenon that I think is great and that has kind of presented itself to people as a possibility for healing, both when wrong has been done to them, and when they have done wrong, is mikveh. The ritual bath, which used to be around for specific ritual purposes. But now, in the 20th and 21st century, we’ve really expanded the uses of mikveh to be for healing purposes and I think more than healing.
I think it really is, it’s like you go in, you immerse, you come out, and you have done something. Like you were just quoting me back to myself before. You didn’t just ask for forgiveness. You didn’t just repent. You didn’t just really meditate on what you did wrong. But you went through all of that and then you did something with your body to kind of cleanse, physically and metaphorically, and move on.
So I think that that’s one piece of Judaism that people have expanded and reclaimed to move past some of this cerebral elements, where it’s something more physical. But I don’t think that’s so accessible to so many people. I think in a lot of ways, this potential of Judaism goes untapped.
SBB: I’m an experiential educator, so I kind of want Yom Kippur to be a pool party now. I’m aware there are problems with this. But what an idea, right? That you could have a Yom Kippur pool party, wash away all of your sins. Wouldn’t that be wild? I’m a lifeguard, it’s fine. Actually I’m not current. By Yom Kippur I could recertify if it’s necessary. Just let me know.
JA: Well, a lot of people actually do have the tradition of going to the mikveh before the High Holidays. I did that before I had kids and was just too busy for that. But I think that some people have hung on to the spiritual value of that physical ritual to go into the High Holidays with.
SBB: Okay, so here on What Now? we have a question that we ask everyone, which is on a scale of one to 10, where one is you forgot your mittens and it’s zero degrees out, and 10 is the Book of Job. Right? So there’s some suffering that you’ll survive, you know, you can always stick your hands behind your neck inside of your jacket. It looks funny, but it’ll work. And the 10 is the Book of Job, it’s really terrible, right?
So on a scale of one to 10, do you have examples of experiences that you’ve had or sins that you think about, when we’re talking about atonement. You probably haven’t murdered anyone, right?
SBB: See, I had a feeling. I also have not murdered anyone. High five. But everybody has some sins. I could list a whole bunch for you. But do you have some experiences that you could think of on that scale from one to 10?
JA: I had an experience several years ago that involved me wronging someone else. I really, without setting out to, I really made a terrible mistake that really hurt someone else in a really significant way. And I would put it probably at at least an eight on your scale. And I felt really full of guilt over what I did, but also part of what was so difficult about it is that it kind of shattered my image of myself as a good person. I didn’t think that a good person like me could be capable of hurting someone else that much. And it took me a really long time and a lot of processing to recover my sense of myself as a good person. And there was just this interesting coincidence which is that when this was all going on in my personal life, happened to be the same time that I was learning about kapparah in rabbinical school, and that I was developing as a shelihat tzibur, as a prayer leader, and especially around the High Holidays.
So discovering this concept that allowed people to really move on from having done something wrong, and sort of allowed the world to move on from someone having done something wrong, it really started to speak to me. And I started to really funnel that into the training that I was doing to lead on Yom Kippur. And you know, when I was leading the parts of the service recounting those rituals, I really was bringing that personal weight to it, and I think I actually started to see Yom Kippur maybe in the way they saw it, a little of how they saw it in the Bible and the Talmud. A day of tremendous significance in terms of its potential to leave behind sin.
SBB: So while this was all going on, in your personal life you had the eight happening, and in your rabbinical school life you had the learning happening. How did you have that concept help you? Like you obviously didn’t take the, whatever the eight was, and assign it to a goat and send it uptown on Broadway. Right? So how did you transition from this learning experience inside JTS to what was happening outside of JTS?
JA: Well, it was really easy, and I can describe it in one minute flat.
SBB: I believe you.
JA: I think I was incredibly lucky that I was in this process of training to lead High Holiday services. It wasn’t my first time leading. I had been leading for several years. But I was training to do it at a much fuller service that actually did include all of these elements relating back to kapparah. And it gave me this tremendous opportunity to channel this heaviness that I was feeling and this pretty fundamental disillusionment with myself into a service that I could do for the community. And that I could do with a whole heck of a lot of kavvanah. You know, with real intention.
And I tried to use the seriousness with which I was taking the service and the spiritual potential of the service. I tried to bring that into my leadership so that it would function that way not only for me, but hopefully could create some real spiritual potential for other people to move forward from whatever they needed to move forward from also.
SBB: Did you get feedback from the participants in the service that year, that they felt it was meaningful or powerful for them? I know you don’t always get feedback, but I’m curious. Because there’s always like, that one person that’s like, [old Jewish woman voice:] “It was very meaningful for me this year. I could really feel you feeling the words.” (I’m from South Florida.)
JA: I feel self-conscious answering that, because yes, I got tremendous positive feedback.
SBB: Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with getting positive feedback.
JA: Look, everyone’s bringing something different into Yom Kippur services. It could really be things that they’ve messed up. Or could be harm that’s been done to them. But I think if you present High Holiday services as something that people can really take seriously, if you show that you’re taking it seriously, if people see that the person leading services is allowing themselves to really experience the liturgy and its meaning, I think that that gives other people permission to do the same. To really take the service and the day and the text and the Torah reading, to take all of it seriously and let it do something for them spiritually. Whether it’s, like I said, leaving behind or working through something that they’ve done, or something that has happened to them.
You know, I talked about the eight that I was dealing with at that time, but we’ve all screwed stuff up. You know, from saying something hurtful to someone that we love, or much bigger things. There’s stuff in our world, in the Jewish community, that we try to pretend isn’t there. There’s infidelity, there’s compulsive gambling, there’s domestic violence. There’s all kinds of stuff that happens a lot. People are coming into High Holiday services with real stuff that they’re struggling with that they’ve done.
SBB: When you were just listing all of those different things, I immediately thought of how I see speed limits as a nice suggestion that I almost never follow. So when I go into services, I’m not really thinking about my leaden foot when I’m driving. I’m thinking like, on a scale of one to 10, in terms of sins, the fact that I speed sometimes, I don’t even think about it. I’m really trying to think of more interpersonal stuff. But it’s all there.
JA: I think, Sara Beth, that’s actually a perfect example. Like speeding, everyone speeds. When you’re driving and there’s not traffic and you don’t see people around, it’s the kind of thing that we just, you know, forgive ourselves easily for and so quickly for that we say, oh, I know this is wrong and I’m just going to do it anyway. We forgive ourselves before we’ve even done it. And yet, all of those times that you were speeding, you were really lucky that there was no collision and that there was no fatality, and some people haven’t been that lucky.
My colleague Naomi Levy writes in her book about someone whose cell phone slipped out of her hand onto the floor of the passenger side as she was driving, and she quickly reached down to get it, and hit and killed someone. And then just went through hell. As, obviously, did the family of that person, for years, to move past just taking her eyes off the road for a moment, which we’ve all done. Every single one of us who’s been behind the wheel has done that many times. And all the times that nothing happened, we sure were lucky because we didn’t have to go through this process that this person did.
So not to be preachy at you, but I think it’s also part of what helped me kind of get out of the hole that I was in, just remembering, it’s just easy to make a mistake. And it’s almost like all the times that we make a mistake and it doesn’t have terrible consequences, it’s lucky. And going back to what I was saying about trying to restore my sense of self as a good person, that was part of it. It’s just a long process of accepting that good people make mistakes.
SBB: All right. So that was a long time ago. You were talking about when you were in school and you were first learning about kapparah. It’s been a couple of years since you were in school, and you’ve had practice. So what does it look like in your Yom Kippur practice now?
JA: Yeah. It’s been, I guess it’s been about 15 years since that particular time that I was telling you about. And I do think of myself as a good person now. I think that that time really put me in touch with the liturgy in an intense way. And I’m grateful for it, because that’s how I approach the experience of Yom Kippur each year. Both in terms of what I’m looking to get out of it spiritually, and what I might be able to help facilitate as a prayer leader. I’ve been set up to take it seriously, and I try to bring that to it every year. And I don’t often go back to that time, but, you know, I have stuff from every year that I can think about needing to improve, that I need to ask for forgiveness for, and that I could use help letting go of.
SBB: What else can we learn from this? What else does Judaism have for us in terms of how we’re dealing with stuff, regardless of what the stuff is?
JA: I think part of what I got out of this kapparah study and experience was a reminder that Judaism actually really is a physical religion, even though we don’t think of it that way so much. But you know, if you just zoom way out from the things we’ve done wrong and what we might need to move beyond them, we have a religion that’s full of ritual. We put up a mezuzah and we kiss it. And we build a sukkah and we shake a lulav and we kiss the Torah as it goes by and we put on kippah and tallit and tefillin, some of us, for prayer. We change all of our dishes for Pesach and we cleanse our homes and we burn chametz. So we actually, if we pay attention, have quite an embodied religion.
And I guess what I got out of this kapparah piece, and learning that, for example, the experience of prostrating on the floor, on the floor of the synagogue on Yom Kippur could be more than something embarrassing and actually something incredibly powerful. What I got out of that was realizing that there are many such moments in Judaism. It doesn’t have to be only turning to ritual when we need to move beyond something bad that we’ve done, but that physical ritual is all around us and that it has power and we have a lot of contexts in Judaism that create the possibility of transformation through physical means. Like physical structures and physical actions that really can help us with that.
I’ll share something that has nothing to do with sin at all, or not my own sin. The first Sukkot after 9/11, I experienced unlike any Sukkot before that. And you know, we built this flimsy structure around ourselves that strangely embodied both fragility and temporariness and also divine protection in the wilderness. And that was really, the Sukkah that year was both very painful because it was only a few weeks after 9/11, and also very helpful to me. It just, it made concrete those conflicting feelings. And to build a structure that represents fragility, and that that year actually strangely ended up representing the fragility of structures, of physical structures, and then we built a structure to sort of put that in our faces. That was helpful for me at a time of mass trauma.
SBB: You were mostly talking about sins and atonement, which held you out as different than a lot of the guests that we’ve had so far. Many of them talked about their own personal suffering or larger societal suffering, and then you mentioned 9/11 and being in New York. You were in New York?
SBB: Yeah. So you managed to directly connect dealing with sin and dealing with a nationally, internationally-felt trauma. By building a temporary hut.
JA: Like I said, we need ways of having closure and moving on.
SBB: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. I don’t think I’ll see you at my upcoming Yom Kippur pool party, but you never know.
JA: Thanks for having me, and thanks for hosting this podcast for JTS.
SBB: What now, Rabbi Andelman? All those tears that we make in the space-time continuum, Rabbi Andelman reminded me exactly why it’s important to try to repair the damage. To apologize, to pay back, to make amends. Not just verbally, but with something tangible. Like a goat. Each tear, and there are constant tears, like when you are trying to peel off some masking tape from a big roll and it just keeps splitting, it’s a whole new “why, tragedy, why?” moment. I can try to reset the balance, but I can never catch up. And since those moments don’t stop, neither will I.
What Now? is produced by Michal Richardson with editorial oversight by Rabbi Tim Bernard. Funding for this series is provided by JTS’s Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, and suffering is provided constantly by the human condition. What Now? is recorded by JTS’s delightful and vibrant new media staff, Larry Cameola and Brian Hart.
Hit subscribe, give us a review, help more people find answers to the big questions. This has been your host, Sara Beth Berman, JTS Davidson School class of 2009. It has been real banging my head against the wall with you.