On the one hand it is a day of self-affliction, on the other a festival. Each aspect has a Ya’aleh – “May it arise”: one says Ya’aleh tachanunenu, “May our supplications arise”, the other Ya’aleh VeYavo, “May our joyous prayer arise”.
The same dichotomy comes in the confession of sins – awe and solemnity at the admission of our guilt, brightness and joy in the tune in which we sing the words.
The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that though it is morbid to enumerate sins, it is also a joy to cleanse our souls. The palace cleaner hums a happy tune because she is making the royal premises spick and span.
For quite different reasons some Jews cannot make up their minds about the Day of Atonement.
They come in two categories. There are the true believers who sincerely invest all they have in the prayers and piety of the day. They yearn for a good kvittel – but they don’t always work hard enough to earn it. They sometimes forget that even the true believer is not exempt from the duty of self-improvement and can do with more humility, more compassion, more self-control, more mastery over the tongue.
If we do not emerge from Yom Kippur as better people we have missed the great opportunity. God will not wave a magic wand over us; it is we who need to work on ourselves.
The not-yet-believers know what the day meant to pious ancestors, but they themselves can barely endure the long hours of liturgy and fasting.
“Well over the fast” is code for the resigned acceptance that the day will eventually end and the antiquated jargon of iniquities and transgressions can be locked up again in the prayer book.
The not-yet-believers talk about sin but don’t identify with their own words. They list the sins and sing them with gusto – but the whole concept is foreign to real life.
Sin implies that there is a God, that our lives are responsible to Him, that He expects certain things from us, and when we let Him down we have committed a sin. All this, they say, assumes an unreal level of religiosity.
They don’t claim to be paragons of virtue. They admit they fall short of ideal standards of behaviour and fail to live up to their own self-expectations. In an atmosphere of belief their lapses would be defined as sins, but for so many people belief is not only difficult but more or less unnecessary, and human failures cannot be called sins.
Shall we adapt the old saying about a rose by any other name and say that focussing on sin by whatever name is still worth the effort?
People could then say, “God that we don’t believe in, we have fallen short of the goal; God who doesn’t exist, help us to handle our lapses and to find the way to a new beginning!”
But this idea doesn’t seem honest. It is like the man who agreed to go to synagogue so long as he could commence his “prayers” by saying, “God that my wife believes in…” It is also a version of the formula, “To whom it may concern”.
It would have a value if one followed Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist philosophy and saw God not as Person but Process. But Kaplan has few followers and the God many people don’t believe in is a traditional God who is a Being more than an energy or an idea.
It might be worth while to wonder how God Himself would react to being addressed as “God we don’t believe in” and “God who doesn’t exist”. We have no reason to imagine that He is such an egotist that He wants to remain in the loop come what may, that even if His greatness is diminished He will go along with it so long as He remains on the agenda.
Actually the Jewish sages thought of Him in similar terms when they imagined Him saying, “Even if they forget Me let them at least keep My commandments”. They have another saying, “From acting from an ulterior motive one comes to act from the right motive”.
Both statements are saying that one has to begin somewhere. A person who addresses God without fully believing in Him may yet be on the path towards belief.
What then if the belief never comes? Is there still a point in speaking to a God whom one will not or can not bring into one’s life?
The answer is probably yes. Someone who says, “God we don’t believe in” or “God who doesn’t exist”, is in dialogue with Him even if they think they are talking to themselves.
What they are really doing is saying, “There is something I have to get off my chest. Leaving it unsaid is not enough. If someone is listening, fair and good: if not, I still need to say it.”
Whatever way we say it, there are standards we fail to meet, whether coming from above or below, from God, from society, from tradition, from conscience. So what if our “confession” is addressed “To whom it may concern”?
To me as a believer, it would still be better to say, “My God and God of my fathers”, and I hope that finally everyone will use these words. But even if that day never arrives, confession is good for the soul. And if you think the word “soul” is too religious, use whatever option you find meaningful.