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    Being at one: The challenge of Yom Kippur

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 8 October 2019.

    This evening the Jewish people — even their least involved and most estranged elements — will mark the holy day of Yom Kippur.

    Non-Jews tend to say, “This is your black fast, isn’t it?” Actually, it is the Jewish white fast, since the dominant colour in the synagogue on Yom Kippur is white and it recalls the teaching of the prophet Isaiah: “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall become white as snow.”

    In English, Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement” — a name that (perhaps surprisingly) does not mean expiating guilt, but comes from the Middle English onement (that is, harmony). In Hebrew, it is from a root that means to cover. The English and Hebrew are thus not entirely equivalent. The idea of at-one-ment invests the day with three aspects: being at one with Jewish identity; being at one with God; and being at one with other people. Each element is both a confirmation and a challenge.

    Yom Kippur is a Jew’s annual confirmation of his or her Jewishness. During the rest of the year, the Jewish dimension of one’s being is sometimes glossed over, weak and irrelevant, but on Yom Kippur it comes out of the woodwork.

    But it doesn’t come unchallenged. Some Jews get nothing out of the day. The publisher Victor Gollancz says in his autobiography, My Dear Timothy, that he could only cope with the Bayswater Synagogue in London by frequently going out to the toilet. On the other hand, there are countless stories of great Jewish figures who found that the day renewed their Jewishness.

    So, in the early twentieth century, the young Jew who became the great existentialist philosopher Franz Rosenzweig attended a small synagogue on Yom Kippur and decided that the idea of moving into Christianity was not for him. He never fully spelt out what happened to him that Yom Kippur, but he concluded that abandoning Judaism was neither desirable nor possible.

    When Golda Meir was Israel’s representative in Moscow shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, she attended a Yom Kippur service and said that, though she was not an inherently religious person, she found that her place on Yom Kippur was in the synagogue with the other Jews.

    Ewen Montagu, the World War II naval officer who thought up the idea of “The Man That Never Was,” said: “There is no Jew to whom the Day of Atonement does not mean something; to many of us it means more than we can put into words, but even to those whose attachment to Judaism is most tenuous and who, basically, are uncertain what their religion is all about, there is something different about that one day in the year.”

    What wields immense fascination on Yom Kippur is the cantorial chant, especially the poignant introductory Kol Nidrei and the congregational singing; the age-old liturgical phraseology; the sheer feeling that one has come home.

    There is something in the atmosphere which overcomes the intellectual difficulties and literary complexities of the prayers. For many people the music matters more than the meaning; the setting supersedes the sentences. There is something in the air which moved many a gentile to see in Yom Kippur a form of spirituality that was neither stilted nor stereotyped. The great example is the Protestant Rudolph Otto who saw in the synagogue the awesome phenomenon that came to be known as the numinous.

    The great challenge of Yom Kippur is the constant harping on sin and forgiveness. Judaism does not share Christianity’s obsession with sinfulness. It is well aware of the sin of Adam and Eve, but it refuses to base on it a doctrine of “original” or “native” sin that can only be overcome by faith.

    For Judaism sin is not an inevitability, but an accident of human history. Man sins, not because he is a sinner but because he is not careful enough to choose the path of goodness. When a Jew says the Yom Kippur prayers for forgiveness, he says: “It’s not a perfect world. There are failures and failings all around us. Our way out is to work harder to eradicate the errors and to repair the world.”

    With the psychological revolution at the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began the notion that sin was an outmoded concept. It said that people don’t sin. They’re not to blame. Their environment, education and outside influences are responsible for the evils of society.

    In contrast the Jewish magnum opus, the Talmud, tells the story of Elazar ben Durdaya, who blamed everyone and everything — especially the sun, moon and stars — but re-thought the subject and realised that he personally was not free from blame. Not that he was a bad man, but he had not always chosen the right course.

    Here lies the relevance of the term atonement. It is not limited to becoming at-one with one’s community, with God, with other people. It extends to the world, to the determination to be at-one with the utopian vision of the Creation. The vision comes from God, like the encouragement to obey His will and the patience to keep trying to do the right thing. For those who have a feeling for God, it’s easier to speak to Him. For others, the word “God” is a symbol.

    (I am reminded that, when Australia debated whether the preamble to the constitution should mention “God,” I said that better than a nation that pays lip service to God but doesn’t really mean it, is a nation that lives by His moral law. I said that if God’s name mattered, His word mattered even more. The Talmud ascribes to God the words, “Let them forget Me but live by My Torah.”)

    How does this justify the “covering up” aspect of the Hebrew title Yom Kippur?

    The biblical book of Leviticus is studded with references to this word, which has several meanings. One is to cleanse by covering or eradicating the evidence of wrong-doing. The Yom Kippur procedures in the ancient Temple cleansed the Israelite people of the sins which disfigured their society. Part of the old Yom Kippur ritual is the banishment of a scapegoat, which symbolically carries away the sins of the people. The goat is a metaphor for the nation’s determination that any misdeeds will be removed as fast and as far as possible. Cleansing requires removal, remorse and commitment never to repeat the sin.

    There are ups and downs in the Yom Kippur service. One of its great points is its moments for meditation. As a preacher I used to tell my congregation, “Don’t fret if you miss out a few pages. If a thought catches hold of you, let yourself daydream about it. Tease what you can out of the words, the ideas, the moment. Don’t resort to chatting with your neighbour; chat to yourself, chat to the Almighty.” After all, silence is speech.

    Martin Buber used to say that companionable silence is a form of “I-Thou” dialogue between spouses. It is also a means of communication with God and man’s small inner voice.

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