Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of Shalom Hartman Institute, writes a biweekly blog that is published on the Institute’s website. Click here for a full and regularly updated queue of his blog posts.
A Marathon Testing Strength, Wisdom
Israel will prevail when government listens not merely in dangerous times
Israel’s New Normalcy
Tomorrow has come, and the challenge and opportunity now is whether we will be an aspirational and values nation
Are We a Nation That Dwells Apart?
When we lead with ideas and base our policies on values instead of self-righteousness, we are a country with which others are willing to align
Judaism is Not a Twitter-able Religion
The journey of a meaningful Jewish life needs a wide bandwidth. It requires knowledge, time, and commitment
Jonathan Pollard: The Duties of Compassion
A call for compassion in no way undermines the balance required by our dual loyalties, and that a sense of duty to that which is beyond the requirements of the law is not a sign of disrespect for the law itself
Reflections on the Evil at Our Doorstep
In Syria today, we have moved far beyond the conflict between dictatorship and democracy and the rights of a country to conduct its own internal affairs
A Moment to Breathe – and Act
Netanyahu created awareness of conflict’s complexities but Israel must use the time wisely
J Street and AIPAC: Unite
We need tools of thought, innovation, compassion, and tolerance which inspire and enable ever greater numbers to move from the camp of indifference to the community of the committed. We cannot afford the casualty list which the self-righteous seek to inflict upon us
By DONNIEL HARTMAN
Judaism is an aspirational religion which, while accepting the reality of failure, believes in the human capacity to transcend and achieve levels of excellence in our everyday lives. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) These are but two of the more potent examples of the aspirational quality of our tradition and its immense respect for the capacity inherent within the human being. As beings defined as being created in the image of God, there is nothing that we cannot do, a factor which created a tradition defined by commandment and expectation.
A significant manifestation of this future is the commandment of tshuva. We expect people to honestly assess the content and the quality of their lives, regret and admit their failures, and commit to embarking on a new direction. This expectation is brought to a climax during Yom Kippur, where the vidui (confession) which lies at the nucleus of the Yom Kippur liturgy places before us the realities of our sins and challenges us to honestly confront what we have done with our lives.
It is therefore deeply troubling to recognize the profound failure of Yom Kippur as a force for change. The passion, seriousness, and devotion which accompany many of us throughout Yom Kippur, peters out into a form of amnesia during the break-fast meal as we return to our behavior of yesterday.
Yom Kippur is a synagogue success story. More people show up than on any other day, pounding their hearts with great devotion as they cry out, “Ashamnu.” (“We have sinned.”) However, beyond its impact on Daylight Savings Time in Israel, Yom Kippur’s impact on Jewish life seems to be marginal.
This is not a new phenomenon. It may be the meaning behind Isaiah’s critique of the Jewish people and their fast days: The people indeed fast, “starve their bodies,” and “lie in sackcloth and ashes,” but this is not the fast day that God desires, but rather a day in which we “unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke and let the oppressed go free.” (Ch. 58) To paraphrase Isaiah, the quality of repentance is not judged by what one does on Yom Kippur, but by what one does afterwards.
The problem with Yom Kippur in the synagogue is that it is too complete and comprehensive. It creates the myth of putting all of one’s life and behavior up for judgment, where we confront every one of our failings and repent for them all. The list of sins in the vidui is too extensive to have any impact on the life of a real person. For a prayer, and within the isolated environment of the synagogue, it is fine. As a force for facilitating change in real life, the comprehensive nature of our service makes it impossible to be a significant factor in everyday life.
Change, growth, and improvement, are rarely radical epiphanies, but are rather slow and gradual processes. As Maimonides in his “Guide for the Perplexed” teaches us, radical transformation away from that to which one is accustomed is impossible. (3:32) According to Maimonides, God and the Jewish tradition had immense patience with the idolatrous, slave mentality of the people who came out of Egypt and did not require them to accept or adopt either beliefs or practices which were too radically different from that to which they had grown accustomed. We must do the same both with ourselves and with others.
If Yom Kippur is to be the force that our tradition aspires it to be, it must cease to be the end and culmination of the process, and instead serve as its beginning. The purpose of the all-inclusive lists cannot be to ask an individual to review all of his life, but to create a menu from within which every individual can find one dimension, one quality that they can commit to working on.
Yom Kippur must cease to be a forum for New Year’s declarations and instead become a catalyst for a new culture amongst the Jewish community, a culture which fosters individual responsibility, reflection, and a commitment to being a tshuva person. As a tshuva person one commits to the ongoing and difficult path of constantly aspiring more from oneself. As a tshuva person one neither views oneself as an ideal, nor fools oneself into believing in overnight conversions.
Our tradition teaches us that, “It is not for you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.” Nowhere is this saying from “The Ethics of the Fathers” more relevant than in the task of building a life of value. This year, let us take tshuva out of the synagogue, disconnect Yom Kippur from its myriad of rituals, and place it at the foundation of our everyday lives.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are not primarily about atonement, about being forgiven for our sins and indiscretions. While originally in the Bible this was the primary intent, the revolution of the rabbinic tradition was to shift the focus from attaining atonement from God to the human responsibility to repent and change our behavior. It is not about God’s love and acceptance of the sinner, but rather God’s expectation that humankind overcome sin and live up to our tradition’s expectation.
The refocus of our High Holidays on the human responsibility to change is founded on a number of essential principles which are of great significance, especially this year. The first is the belief that change is possible. Our tradition is not naive about human beings. It knows that in general perfection is impossible and failure is endemic to the human condition. At the same time the deepest meaning of our belief in free choice is that no particular failure is inevitable, and at the same time that no particular failure is incapable of being overturned.
Placing the focus on repentance is founded on a noble and ennobling vision of humankind as agents who are both responsible and at the same time always capable of self-transformation and that the future is not preset and determined. To be commanded to repent entails the belief in its possibility. (more…)
I had the pleasure of spending a week with a remarkable group of Christian leaders. They came to Jerusalem under the joint auspices of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the American Jewish Committee to learn about Judaism and the Jewish people. The program was not about dialogue, nor about sensitivity and awareness. These Christian leaders, presidents and leaders of universities, divinity schools, important organizations, major churches, and individuals of significant influence in their communities, accepted an invitation to work on overcoming a deficiency in their intellectual lives.
As Christians, while seeing themselves as part of a Judeo-Christian tradition and living in close proximity to and partnership with the Jewish community, they know a lot about Judaism in the time of Jesus, but know very little about the central ideas, values, and beliefs that the living Jewish people have created and which shape the reality of Jewish life today.
Socrates teaches us that the wisest of persons is the one who knows that they do not know. I had the privilege of meeting a group of individuals whose faith, belief, and extensive achievements did not create the hubris of all-knowingness, but rather the piety to admit what they do not know, and a hunger to learn and a willingness to hear the testimony of another. Hearing does not imply agreeing; hearing does not imply a commitment to change. Hearing implies a recognition that I have what to learn, that I have what to learn from others, that if I am going to live with others I must know them as they understand themselves, and that if I know the other I can also deepen my understanding of myself. (more…)
For world Jewry, the key question is not whether they are willing to take a leap of faith and support every policy decision, legislation, or action taken by the Israeli government, Knesset, or society.