Friday, October 02, 2009

Yom Kippur (Zohar)

Three Short Postscripts

1. In my Shabbat Shuvah essay, I referred to the tension between Din and Rahamim—which I defined, respectively, as Law, as normative ethical and behavioral expectations of human beings, and of their being judged accordingly; as against the principle of compassion, of forgiveness, ultimately rooted in awareness of human weakness and fallibility—as a central motif in Judaism’s treatment of these subjects. Reflecting on these further, I realized that this is the essential line of demarcation between Judaism and Christianity, at least in its classical Pauline form. Christianity despaired of human beings meeting the severe and demanding standards of the Law. Hence, the whole motif in Paul’s epistles of the Law bringing death; without the law, we would supposedly be free of sin. Hence, the need for Christology as an alternative path towards “salvation”—Jesus serving as an intercessor, the whole mystery of the Incarnation and Passion as a means of saving sinful humanity from itself, so to speak.

In Judaism, the tension between these two elements is maintained: on the one hand, the demands of the Torah, of the halakhah, are fundamental. Teshuvah is defined as real personal change; it may be a “simple” thing in the sense that it is an inner act that it can occur in a moment (as in the story of Eleazar ben Durdai), but it requires total authenticity and honesty with oneself. On the other hand, Yom Kippur is a day of atonement: a day when we receive forgiveness as a free gift from God, in recognition of our human weakness and vulnerability—acquired, inter alia, through the Yom Kippur ritual in Temple, the goat sent into the wilderness, as well as, today, by our fasting, confession of sins, etc. This is felt strongly, for example, in the Zohar passage we brought for Rosh Hashana speaking about the duality of Din Kasheh and Din Rafeh. But, as we have no doctrine of total and ineradicable sinfulness, like the Christian concept of original sin, we are able to maintain the delicate balance between the demands of justice and mercy.

Of course, there is also a moralistic strain in Christianity—especially in certain strains of Protestantism. Richard Rubenstein, in his essay on the Yom Kippur ritual (in his After Auschwitz, 93-111), speaks of two types of religion: one that is demanding, moralistic, uncompromising in standards, and censorious to those that don’t “make the grade.” On the other hand, there is a type (e.g., Roman Catholicism) that emphasizes collective ritual, which provides the possibility for purification, forgiveness, and acceptance of people as they are even without true repentance reform. Rubenstein sees Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim as representing the second moment—but surely Judaism as a whole walks a tightrope between what some call the “prophetic” and the “priestly” moment.

2. Someone asked the question: why is there no mitzvah of teshuvah among the 613 commandments? While Rambam devotes a whole section to the subject, it is clear upon closer reading that the actual mitzvah is Viddui, the act of verbal confession to be performed when a person does teshuvah, but not the act of teshuvah itself.

The truth is that teshuvah cannot be commanded as such, because it is not a volitional act, in the sense that the Torah can command one to do teshuvah and one knows what to do. The three classical stages of teshuvah—recognition of one’s sin; regret or shame over one’s sin; and accepting upon oneself not to repeat it in the future—are all in a sense spontaneous acts of the soul. One day I look at myself and think about a certain aspect of my life and say: what I did was not OK; I’m really fed up, even disgusted with myself for doing such things; I don’t want to live my life that way any more. It is a holistic decision of the soul; there is no preliminary stage at which one says to oneself, “I will now do teshuvah about X”; once one is there, one is already doing teshuvah. It is not even similar to the other hovot halevavot, the inner mitzvot of the soul, such as knowing God, loving God, knowing that He is one, etc., because here, the very context and nature of teshuvah is such that one doesn’t know it until one knows it. In brief: teshuvah is the most utterly personal mitzvah imaginable.

The most the Torah can command us is: a) to set aside time for heshbon nefesh, to examine one’s actions and habits and attitudes, in the hope that this may elicit awareness of one’s lacks. This is perhaps the real function of the Ten Days; b) to command us to say Viddui, to articulate our inchoate feelings of wrongdoing in words (this is so because man is a speaking being; the pre-verbal stage of human life, as we understand it, is one in which thought is not properly developed, because the small infant does not yet have the tool of language); c) to solidify the decision to do teshuvah by establishing new habits, new ways of behaving, etc.

I should mention here that teshuvah includes the failure to perform positive mitzvot: sins of omission as well as of commission. Translated into ordinary language: teshuvah for wasting time, for missed opportunities, for frittering away one’s time on trivial things when one could have been engaged in ennobling, serious pursuits.

3. Why do the blessings of Kiddush and Amidah on Rosh Hashana have a special conclusion? Why do we say מקדש ישראל ויום הזכרון (“He who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance”) rather than מקדש ישראל והזמנים (“He who sanctifies Israel and the seasons”)? After all, in terms of its halakhic character, Rosh Hashana is like any other Yom Tov, festival day, in terms of the forms of labor that are permitted or forbidden—unlike Shabbat, on the one hand, and Yom Kippur, on the other.

I have no clearcut answer to this question. All I can suggest is that Hazal, or more precisely the rishonim or kadmonim who formulated these blessings, had a sense that, formal halakhic categories notwithstanding, Rosh Hashana has a special spiritual character—it is the Day of Judgment, the day of renewing the world, a day of high solemnity and intensity—and as such deserving of this liturgical distinction.


Post a Comment

<< Home