Forgiveness – Yom Kippur 2012
Some weeks ago I received a letter from a congregant in which he explained the reasons why he plans to stay home instead of joining the congregation this Yom Kippur. This congregant was critical about how during Yom Kippur services, we admit that we are guilty of sins against God and ask for forgiveness, a practice which to him leads to the concept that God’s love is conditional. But this person thinks that God’s love is unconditional, a concept that puts him at odds with the idea of forgiveness. In his letter, I read a fair criticism of the common practice of teaching religion from a perspective affectionately called “carrot and stick.” I recognized in that letter the effect that this pedagogical model has had on many Jews — the abandonment of any religious practice.
The equation of religion with guilt, (Jews have become experts in this field) has led many – no doubt – to reject Judaism. But is this a fair conclusion? Can we only find forgiveness through a process of guilt, shame, fear? Does Love make no demands? The spiritual exercise of teshuvah, literally coming back to oneself and pondering our actions, is the main goal of Yom Kippur. Should this self-reflection lead us to humiliation? Or to exultation? Does Judaism condemn us to spiritual paralysis through fear? Or instead, does Judaism honor us by means of the tension between love and ethics?
It is necessary to open this reflection by acknowledging that Judaism has been associated with fear and guilt — and this is a negative. A literal reading of the biblical text could lead us to believe that we are to be punished if we misbehave, or blessed and rewarded if we behave properly. Reading the text literally can lead to the superstitious belief that we are worshiping a feared Divinity, a Divinity that is capable of bringing destruction. Certain religious authorities might have encouraged these childish beliefs within Judaism because they can use such simplified ideas to instill fear and thereby acquire power over other individuals.
Jews offended by these ideas react by throwing out the baby with the bath water. In the past we have heard “Everything is allowed” or “It is Forbidden to forbid.” Rules can beget frustration. But if we focus only on prohibitions, and these are lifted one after the other, the rejection of all rules leads inevitably to the question of how licit is anything. If we reject all guidelines, we would be functioning as Jews arbitrarily, which can lead to indifference. When all is permissible, there is only whim and, eventually, total paralysis.
By trying to escape rules, which some consider enslaving, we have created a new form of slavery in which the self replaces the Divinity. We reject fasting and penance. By freeing ourselves from all guilt, we were protected from feeling guilty.
The second half of the 20th century was a period that embraced the concept of relativism. People embraced a new psychology and claimed that neutrality was possible and that being judgmental was a bad thing. Everything could be reasoned, justifiable. All values were valid. Guilt was no longer laid out in prayer but on the couch of the analyst, who took the role of the expiatory goat who would carry all of our sins outside the encampment. For those who have advocated the theology of the self, the outcome has been erasing all points of reference. There is no confusion between cause and effect, between good and evil, between taking responsibility and lack of responsibility. Pardon becomes superfluous, needed no more, because there is no longer transgression, no more guilt. Goodness is in the self, and not in the transcendent. The death of God has moved what’s ideal from the outside into the inside. Our only focus of interest is ourselves, a despotic self / ego. As a result, people become egocentric.
Criticism of religion was necessary, but when we eliminated the idea of guilt, the idea of responsibility and fallibility also disappeared. Humility gave way to hubris, to pride. We no longer consider the consequences of our actions – a world in which asking pardon, or to be excused for certain behaviors, has no place is an egotistical world, a world where we no longer think about our fellow’s freedoms. It is a self-righteous world.
But asking for forgiveness opens the door for us to become better people. Asking for forgiveness is not about feeding guilt; rather it is acknowledging our capacity to recognize the consequences of our actions, their repercussions and our potential for improvement. This is the principle of teshuvah proposed by Judaism, an extraordinary feeling of optimism about the capacity of human nature and our ability to change for the better. Teshuvah is a voluntary action that moves individuals off of the defendant’s bench and leads them onto the rehab path. There is no automatic expiation by making null the very concepts of good and bad.
The responsible choice is within reach if we make the effort. Lo ba shamayim hi, says Devarim (Deuteronomy 30:11-14), “It is not in the heavens… the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” The choice is accessible to each one of us, and it gives us back our humanity…the realization that we are a mixture of fallibility and the intention to do what is good and right.
To ask for forgiveness is to place the Good in front of us, an ideal toward which we should walk. It is about acknowledging that we are not all-powerful, that we must continuously reassess the concepts of good and bad, even if today they are not very trendy. It is very interesting to see how speeches that reintroduce the nerdy concepts of good and bad are labeled negatively as “moralizing.” Maybe the challenge today is to moralize without instilling guilt. In other words, being able to convince with no threats, acknowledging our fellow as a being able to reflect.
If ideas of forgiveness and good and bad are reintroduced, do they render God’s love conditional? In matters of the heart, it is not relevant, but it is when dealing with ethics. It is a must. This tension between Love and Law is expressed wonderfully in a double divine attirbute middat ha-din andmiddat ha-rachamim. The attribute of justice and rigor and the attribute of compassion, rechem, which, by the way, means “womb”.
One of love’s manifestations is the ethical demand. It is because I love you that I want you to reach for the highest of my ethical demands. It is because I love you that I respect you. This embrace in love is not the blurring of limits. The midrash tells us in a very imaginative way that as we walk on the path of the Shechinah, the Divine presence, She steps back. She does not stop loving us, but she steps back. She keeps distance between Her and us. It is when there is too great a distance between Her and us that bad things happen. If we do good things, She gets closer to us. God, a guarantor of Ethics, cannot be indifferent to Good and Bad. Indifference is violence. Complacency is abandonment. Ethical demands are translated into law, mitzvah…they are not a straightjacket but a source of freedom and spirituality. Positive (Aase) and Negative commands (lo taase) are markers on our paths leading us towards the Good.
Midrash Pirke de Rabi Eliezer says: “The mitsvot are friends of humans.” Honoring parents, keeping shabbat, not worshiping idols, not stealing, not cursing the deaf and putting a stone block in front of the blind, not hating, not looking for revenge or bearing grudges against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself. This is what Vayikra (Leviticus 19:18) commands us to do. Loving your neighbor means knowing to ask for forgiveness, acknowledging her or his humanity.
Forgiveness is not then a source of guilt or despair. Forgiveness has in itself a liberating power. This is why Yom Kippur is a solemn but joyous festival, a joy that links together keva and kavanah, the rigor of the method with the spontaneity of the intention and that leads us to the hope of making a better world .