October 2, 2023 -
A Yom Kippur Disputation: A shared sermon in 3 parts by Rabbi Andi Berlin and Rabbi Joshua Caruso
Kol Nidre 5776
PART I – Rabbi Caruso
Tonight, the Universe conspires to bring Jews together from the proverbial four corners of the earth to join together in the most confounding of rituals: to bring our physical selves to a common space, and pray/hope/wish that our better selves will follow along. In the introduction to his book, “The Untethered Soul”, Michael A. Singer quotes none other than the bard himself, Shakespeare, to illuminate the perplexities of examining the self. “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Shakespeare’s age-honored words, spoken by Polonius to his son Laertes in Act I of Hamlet, sound so clear and unambiguous. They tell us that to maintain honest relations with others we must first be true to ourselves. Yet if Laertes were to be totally honest with himself, he would realize that his father may as well have told him to catch the wind. After all, to which “self” are we to be true? Is it the one that shows up when we’re in a bad mood, or the one that is present when we feel humbled by our mistakes? Is it the one who speaks from the dark recesses of the heart when we’re depressed or upset, or the one that appears during those fleeting moments when life seems so fanciful and light?
It is precisely the “self” to which these next 24 hours or so are devoted. And it is the magnitude of this day – and the many ways in which it can be understood – that inspired Rabbi Berlin and I to introduce a shared sermon once again this year. This time, however, we will not be talking to each other – we will be talking to you. As it happens, Rabbi Berlin and I think differently about the inherent value of this day. In fact, we each feel so strongly that we decided to share our distinct views with you. I will speak first, sharing with you my personal outlook on this day, and then later on in the service, Rabbi Berlin with share her own views. Finally, in the traditional sermon spot, I will attempt to reconcile our views. So…without further ado, I begin.
What if all we had was today? What if we had only this day to consider the enormity of our life? What if we reduced it all into the next 24 hours or so? That’s what the rabbis had intended for us – to suspend all reality and live – REALLY LIVE – in this day that serves as a rehearsal for our last day on earth. In this fictional reality, the past is gone; the future is in question. And with this urgency comes a knowing – a knowing that strips bare all of the allusions of the self, and reveals the Truth of the self. The logic has it that when pressed in a moment of sheer mortality, the morality of the self will emerge.
In his book, “The Jewish Way”, Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes, “Jews experience what a death sentence would mean by living as if dead for a day, giving up the fundamentals of dignified life: eating, drinking, washing, using cosmetic lotions, having sex…on the Day of Atonement, denial is an act of strength. The individual asserts control over the body and voluntarily undergoes death in order to be reborn into life…playing dead gives one a perspective on the vanity of conventional life” (Page 208).
There is something deliciously desperate about Yom Kippur. It’s like we are being held captive in a 24-hour time-bubble – even McGyver can’t break us out! Have you ever been on an airplane and the flight experiences heavy turbulence? Do you remember the dire thoughts that entered into your mind? We shudder to think that this may really be “IT”. Today, we are supposed to have all the “feels” that come with acknowledging the finitude of life.
That is what today should feel like. A rehearsal for our final performance. And Kol Nidre is the start of it all. The desperation of the music, the gravity of the words that remind us that we are human and fallible and prone to make the very same mistakes over and over again. But Kol Nidre eve, this once a year ritual where Jews gather together and circle the wagons, illuminates the complexity of the self; we come here desperately wanting to improve on the product that is “Us”, and we can feel hopeless in this venture. Even so, for one day every year, we aspire to see a glimpse of the possible, the “me” we are yet to be, and every so often, we are awakened and we GET IT… we get what “To thine own self be true” really means.
And, for all those who assert that fasting is “old time religion” and outdated, I say that these traditional modes of affliction still work. By physically challenging our bodies on this one day (if we are medically permitted to do so), our souls can be awakened to the plight of the hungry and the hardships of the needy. For one day we can really “feel” what affliction means as it specifies in the Book of Leviticus to “afflict our souls” (Leviticus 16:29). There is a reason why we still have these rituals…They Work! And by doing it in community (there is no other day that we are all on the same page, as it were), we feel a spiritual solidarity with those sitting to the left and right of us.
By subscribing to the rituals of Yom Kippur, we are desperately holding on to something that we cannot understand but is viscerally compelling. We come back every year not because we can explain it, but we know in our innermost being that there is value in exploring the self in ways that do not seem entirely comfortable. We buck our dependable and rational minds to do something entirely outside of the boundaries.
PART II – Rabbi Berlin
“Yom Kippur is overrated.”
I do think Yom Kippur is important. In fact, I find tremendous meaning in ignoring my animal self and concentrating on that which is divine within me; I fast and I do not wear leather, make-up, or jewelry. The problem with Yom Kippur is that its inflation causes a deflation or devaluing of other holidays and daily rituals that I believe are far more important than Yom Kippur.
When I served as a congregational rabbi, I had the incredible privilege of welcoming back members of our faith. These are people who talked to me in the street, online, at family simchas, in the market. Approaching me was a tentative toe in the water. To the person, I heard a theme. They rejected a Judaism I do not believe in. They rejected a Judaism of guilt, of victimization, of fear. Many of these people were exposed to organized Judaism mostly on the High Holidays. As a result, after a while, I began to resent the emphasis we place on Yom Kippur. Taken in a vacuum, the traditions we follow on Yom Kippur are easy to reject. I would reject them if I was predominately exposed to Yom Kippur.
Before you decide I am just some radical from California, please humor me through three reasons why I believe Yom Kippur is overrated.
In our community, Yom Kippur is seen as the paramount Jewish day. When seen this way, it takes away from what really is the most important holiday we are given: Shabbat. Shabbat is the foundation of our covenant with God. It is the very first gift we were given as Jews:
While Yom Kippur concentrates entirely on our relationship with God as individuals (one-to-one, us to God, God to us), Shabbat, on the other hand, highlights our connection to everything we touch. Shabbat concentrates on our connection with God, our connection to our families, our connection to our friends, our connection to the natural world around us, and our connection to ourselves.
In this connection, we also have the weekly opportunity to do teshuvah, returning, with those closes to us. Shabbat is about spending time in relation to others, in connection. It gives us the opportunity to remind ourselves what we want our relationships with others to be. Shabbat gives us a “castle in time” when we can remind ourselves who we want to be.
I do not mind my children’s memories of family and meaning being intertwined with the pain and guilt and pressure of Yom Kippur, as long as it is overwhelmed by the weight of their memories of Shabbat with us; peace, gentleness, kindness, love, joy.
Take a moment to recall a powerful positive memory you have from childhood. Is it attached to something? Is it pinned to an event, a holiday, or an important celebration? When we raise the next generation, I want their family memories to swirl with the joy of Judaism. This is guaranteed to happen with a consistent and overwhelming Shabbat experience. When children experience the love and singular attention of their parents, they remember this. When it happens in a Jewish context, they remember Judaism with the powerful fondness one has for one’s parents. Shabbat provides this platform every week.
In fact, research has shown that people who observed Shabbat consistently as children are more likely to have a strong and positive Jewish identity as adults. Ahad Ha’am (an early 20th Century Jewish essayist) taught, “more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” It is so true.
Another issue I have with Yom Kippur’s over inflation is the impression we get that repentance and repair is something we do yearly. It is not that at all. In fact, if we pray shacharit daily (the morning service), we end up saying the most crucial Yom Kippur prayers about three times a week. Avinu malkenu, tachanun ashamnu, and al chet are all prayers of atonement in the weekday morning service.
We have strong motivation to do these rituals. Since we can only seek repentance from God after we have received (or tried to receive it) from our fellows, we are unable to fulfill the prayers I mentioned above if we have failed to repair our relations with others. We show up to shacharit service and during a portion of it, must be silent.
We all know how much more effective it is to apologize quickly for mistakes we have made, and how detrimental it can be if we let them fester.
After a particularly stressful encounter with a colleague, I wrote an email my sister, my best friend, seeking her advice. I did not mince words and shared the depths of my anger and anxiety. I was writing about this colleague and was so flustered, I typed her name in send line and thus sent her the email I had written to my sister. I realized what I did immediately. My heart dropped to my toes and my breath caught at the base of my throat. I texted my colleague and told her I needed to talk to her as soon as possible. We spoke at length and in depth. I apologized and tried to make amends as best I knew how. I did not wait for a magic day during which to repair our relationship. Judaism is not the only way we learn to repent quickly, but because both she and I had a shared understanding of what our faith demanded of us, the conversation was easier and quite powerful. As a result, she and I became closer. Much closer. That conversation was a turning point for us. By opening up to each other, sharing our vulnerabilities, and learning each other’s needs, we built a stronger foundation of trust and became good friends. Imagine if she and I did not speak quickly after she read the email. Imagine what would have happened if we let this fester. Yom Kippur would never be powerful enough to heal this relationship.
I am uncomfortable with Yom Kippur’s theology, and even more so, with the impression this is mainstream Jewish theology since it is when most Jews attend shul.
First of all, the main prayer of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, is not theology true anymore. It is beautiful and important because it means something about where we come from, but is not relevant now. During the medieval period, when forced conversion was a daily threat to Jews, we needed a legal formula to let God know that if we were forced to convert between this Yom Kippur and next, we did not really mean it. Kol Nidre only applies to forced conversion. It is neither theologically nor legally necessary anymore.
Second, aside from the High Holidays, every other Jewish holiday we have is observed mostly at home. Jewishness is not a separate experience from the rest of our lives, especially not from the place at which we should feel most comfortable: our home. This is the reason I have never preached during the High Holidays a lament that Jews do not come to services more the rest of the year. It matters more to me that they observe home rituals highlighted the wealth and abundance of our tradition.
Third, the High Holiday liturgy (prayers) and the theology they portray represent an aberration from mainstream Jewish theology. They are entirely different from every other Jewish holiday. The meaning behind our High Holiday prayers, the awe, fear, and guilt the words provoke are not good examples of how Jews should generally posture themselves. They play up an angry, fatherly, fearsome, vengeful God. This is not the God of Shabbat or Shavuot or the bedtime Shemah. The heavy handed theology of a removed Divine King is entirely at odds with a Divine Force that is ever present in our lives; shadowing us, caring for us, cradling us.
I can tolerate these theological metaphors meant to shock us out of our rut once a year. But, it drives me to distraction that these metaphors end up coloring what many Jews believe is the God they are rejecting. When attending shul primarily during the High Holidays, many Jews end up rejecting a Judaism I do not believe in. They end up rejecting a God I do not believe in. And worse yet, they never meet the Judaism of kindness, of joy, of love, of meaning, of depth, of comfort. They never meet the God of 1,000 names; the God Who could be understood simply as the wind as it brushes our cheek.
Memories of familial love, softness, and fullness often cement in our mind because they are attached to significant events. I want my children’s memories of how cherished they are to be attached with the glue of Shabbos, of shema, of the holy language of Hebrew. There are prayers that stir skeptical hearts and heal invisible wounds; we find these prayers year round, waiting for us as we light candles, daven morning rituals. There are blessings that raise mundane moments to extraordinary heights and mark the awesome with grace and gratitude. There are rituals that provide us easier ways to reconnect and repair hurt relationships.
I would actually rather someone skip the High Holidays entirely and participate in Judaism, immersive Judaism, the rest of the year.
May it be God’s will that we find within Judaism and within ourselves profound meaning and joy – meaning and joy which lifts us up to the greatest heights of our souls.
PART III – Rabbi Caruso
Our tradition raises up the concept of the balancing scale of justice and our deeds. The sages were quite brilliant in this regard. They understood that every day is a renewed test for each one of us to challenge ourselves and to know oneself. As our tradition suggests, we have a chance to tip the scales in favor of goodness and truth, but the temptation to tip those scales in the other direction are just as viable. The decision-making process for this is dependent on how we view the self.
Each day we trot out different characters of our personality to fit the moment. As it is said, “All the world is a stage”. The curious thing is that the actors we present to the world – each one of them – is authentically us. To deny this truth is disingenuous. And the same can be said about the actors that we privately groom. In the words of Billy Joel, “we all have a face that we hide away forever and we take them out and show ourselves when everyone is gone”. There is the public and the private, but how do we reconcile these many faces? And do these characters we portray serve us and serve the world? Can these character traits be refined and honed and polished so that we get better every year, so we don’t trip on that same obstacle over and over again?
Judaism says that there is always an open door. As Rabbi Alan Lew so eloquently put it:
The gate between heaven and earth is always creaking open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are open every day, and our name is written in one or the other of them at every moment, and then erased and written again the moment after that. We are constantly becoming, constantly redefining ourselves. This doesn’t just happen on Rosh Hashanah…And every day of our life is fraught with meaning and dread, not just the Ten Days of Teshuvah… And there is always a trial going on, not just the heavenly court that convenes at Kol Nidre on the eve of Yom Kippur…And our heart is always breaking, and the gate is always clanging shut…
If we do it right, we can tip the scales, and we can get a little bit better every year that we go through this ritual. Rabbi Berlin suggests that this should happen with more regularity – every Shabbat. I agree! Let’s do it! But I fear that we may fall into the same habits and forget our purpose. Tradition says that Shabbat is a day for God, but Yom Kippur is a day for US. 364 days of the year we exist in the land of the living – we embrace life. For one day, we are charged to embrace death. As the Torah is removed from the ark, we see an empty space where the coffin might fit. Looking in that coffin – our coffin – we see our inevitability, and that frightful vision should shake us and awaken us like the sound of the shofar, to renew our days, to pursue acts of loving-kindness, to review the cast-list in the biographical play we are all starring in – every matinee and evening. Who will we be? And will that person we trot out onto the public or private stage be someone of great worth? Someone we can be proud of?
Ultimately, whether we choose to examine our deeds every Shabbat – once or year, or on a random Thursday in the dead of winter, let us consider making it a habit to review, recall, recount – and RENEW. For God’s sake, our lives depend on it.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Sabbath”