Sunday, September 23, 2012

Yom Kippur, the Humanist way

Today I taught my students a little bit about Yom Kippur. We went over some of the common practices (fasting, repenting, wearing white) and wrote our own Ashamnu* (alphabetical listing of sins) which is a hard exercise if you ever want to try it. Because I teach in a Reform Congregation, I taught my students that Yom Kippur is the day we repent for sins against God. (We should repent for sins against other people, and make amends for them, before Yom Kippur begins.)

After school, I was wondering how I can apply this practice now that I don't believe in God, and I realized that the other purpose of Yom Kippur is to repent for sins against myself. I spend all year making mistakes and apologizing for them, but I never really apologize to myself for the sins I commit against myself. Perhaps this is the real purpose of Yom Kippur. Because honestly, why would God care if I say a prayer without my heart being in it, or if I don't observe Shabbat fully? It doesn't hurt God any, but it hurts me if I waste my time. God, in theory, is eternal, after all.

Now, I'm not being sappy about this. Some people say we should forgive ourselves and pledge to be easier on ourselves at this time of year. Forgive ourselves for the times we judged ourselves harshly, for the times we only saw the bad in ourselves and didn't acknowledge the good, and that sort of thing. And I suppose that's part of it, sure. But that's easy. I mean that we should do the hard work Yom Kippur was intended to support, but do it without imagining a judgmental anthropomorph looking over our shoulders.

Which is hard.

And it's why I think religion helps. It's not easy to honestly take account of oneself. But Yom Kippur is structured to help us do just that. When we recite the Al Chet, we think about the sins that are so common in our community that we probably did them ourselves, or will do them. When we chant the Ashamnu we do the same. And honestly, I think it's also useful to think about the sins of our community. If we live in a community where adultery is rampant, we are less likely to keep our own promises. If we live in a community where vanity is the norm, how can we, as individuals, hope to escape it completely? If our community does not do enough for others, what can we do to change that?

All of this is part of Yom Kippur, and it's one of the things that's useful about religion. Because after all, Judaism was created by human beings. We can be accountable to ourselves and one another at this time of year and work to be better, individually and as a community. And we don't need God to do it.

*I couldn't find a translation I loved of the Ashamnu. If anyone can recommend one, let me know. This one is usable for anyone who isn't familiar with the prayer at all.

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