Yom Kippur Dvar For the sins that we have committed: Collective Responsibility Kol Nidre Rabbi Zari M. Weiss October 11, 2016 10 Tishri 5777
I did not know. I did not know the people whom we refer to as Black or African American could not get legitimate mortgages in this country until as recently as the 1960s—in my lifetime. I did not know about contract sales, in which the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full, and that those paying toward that mortgage— poor black families–acquired no equity during the whole time they made their monthly payments, and if they missed one month’s payment, they could lose not only their down payment and all previous monthly payments, but also the property itself. I had heard of redlining, but I really did not know the extent to which redlining prevented those whom we refer to as black or African American from being considered eligible for Federal Housing Administration backing, a practice that in turn affected which businesses would or wouldn’t invest in those neighborhoods, causing the property value to be less than the property value of those who lived in all white neighborhoods. I did not know that in 1968, those whom we refer to as Black or African American were still being lynched in this country. I did not know that the gap between the household income of those whom we refer to as Black or African American and those whom we refer to as white is roughly the same today in 2016 as it was in 1970. I kind of knew, but I did not really know, how much of the economic basis of this country was built on the backs of those people who were brought over from Africa and enslaved simply because the color of their skin made some think that they were less than human; that our nation’s Capitol and the White House were built by slave labor, and that slaves were actually traded from the Oval Office.1
1 Coates, T-Nehesi, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
I kind of knew, but did not really know, how 250 years of enslavement continues to keep the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those slaves, and even those who did not descend from slaves, subjugated–seen somehow as dangerous, threatening, because of the color of their skin. I did not really know how generations of internalized racism and generations of internalized fear are present, simmering under the surface, ready to erupt, when a white or even a black police officer pulls over a black motorist. I did not understand how that subtle and not-so-subtle racism also shows up in our prison system, where those whom we refer to as Black or African American are incarcerated at six times the rate of those who are referred to as white. I did not know, I mean really know, that I wasn’t white, that those whom we refer to as Black or African American are not really black, that the categories of race are a modern invention, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes,2 that racial categories are not a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world, as I and so many of us were taught to believe that they were, that putting people into groups that correspond to the color of their skin really has nothing to do with their genealogy and physiognomy, but rather, is a result of the imposition of power of some over others, simply because—by chance of birth and the particular genes that determine the amount of melanin with which any of us is born—their skin color is darker than mine.
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha, b’zadon u’vishgagah: For the sin we have committed against You, intentionally and unintentionally.
Perhaps some of you knew. I did not. Not really. But now I do.
Averot she’beyn adam la’makom, yom ha’kippurim m’chaper. Averot she’beyn adam l’chavero, ein yom hapkippurim m’chaper, ad she’yiratzeh et chavero.
2 Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2015; p. 7.
For transgressions against G-d, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another. (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).
Over these last few years, I—perhaps like some of you—have been waking up: waking up to the truth of the harm that has been done and is being done in this country to others, particularly those who are referred to as black or African American. As I have continued to awaken, I have grappled with questions of my own responsibility toward those who have been wronged, those who are being wronged. Even if I did not directly perpetrate those wrongs in the past, or do not participate in them in the present, do I have a responsibility to right them? These questions are hard ones to ask, and even harder ones to answer. They could be applied not only to those who were brought to this country against their will in the bowels of ships and sold as slaves, but also to many other people, and many other situations: To the native peoples who lived on this land before anyone else arrived, who had their land taken by others who staked claim to what was not theirs to own; to those on the other side of the world, in a land that has meaning to both our peoples—both of us descendants of Avraham; Palestinians, whose dignity has been diminished by members of our own tribe; to those who live in poverty or in the crosshairs of war or oppressive regimes or . . .you fill in the blank—simply because they happen to have born in those places, and I—by chance or luck or by the grace of G-d—was not. What is my responsibility to those who have been affected by the actions of our shared society? What is our collective responsibility? It is questions that underlie the practice of the Viddui, the communal confession that we engage in on Yom Kippur.
Over the course of this one long day, considered the holiest day of the year, we repeat the two prayers of confession—the Ashamnu, and the Al Chet—ten times. It is at the heart of Yom Kippur. According to Jewish Tradition, the purpose of Yom Kippur is our reconciliation with G-d. The previous 40 days, from the beginning of the month of Elul and through the first nine days of teshuvah, our focus is on reconciliation with others.3 We do what is necessary to make amends with those who may have hurt us, or whom we may have hurt. Together we do what we can to repair any damage that was done, and heal any wounds that might still linger. But on Yom Kippur we focus on our relationship with G-d. And on ways we may have violated that relationship. From a traditional perspective, those violations are referred to as sins. Many in our post-modern, post-enlightenment world bristle at the mention of the word sin. It’s a charged word, associated with the Christian concept of original sin—the idea that human beings are born in sin, and need to be saved or redeemed from their sinfulness. To make the word sin more palatable to our modern ears, we often point out that the Hebrew word for sin, chet, really means “to miss the mark”—as if we’ve shot an arrow but somehow missed the bull’s-eye. From a traditional perspective, though, sins are not just issues of misjudgment or misguided planning; rather, they are actions that human beings engage in that run counter to the will of G-d. Now I know that not all people today believe that G-d has a will. And so we struggle to speak of this idea in ways that make sense to our modern thinking. Some, for example, believe that the divine is infused in the world and in the laws of nature. Living an ethical life, then, might be understood as living in harmony with the divine that is present in the world and nature. From this perspective, a chet or sin might be explained as not living in harmony with the divine.4
3 Teutsch, Rabbi David A., PhD, “Our Sins? They’re Not All Mine!” We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, p. 134. 4 Teutsch, Rabbi David A., PhD, “Our Sins? They’re Not All Mine!” We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, p. 137.
Either way, with G-d or without, sins—from a Jewish perspective–are those actions that do not cohere with how human beings are supposed to behave. In each of the ten times that we confess to our wrongdoings throughout Yom Kippur, we recite both a short confession, the Viddui Zuta, or Ashamnu, and a long confession, The Viddui Rabbah, or Al Chet she’chatanu lifanecha: for the sins which we have committed against You. The confessions are all phrased in the plural. We have betrayed, we have acted perversely. For the sins which we have committed. Why do we confess to things that we ourselves have not done? One traditional explanation is that every member of the community or society shares culpability for the transgressions of every other member. The culture of our society shapes our values and behavior; therefore, we share responsibility for one another’s transgressions unless and until we work to change the culture.5 As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once noted, in 1967 when he spoke out against the Vietnam war, “In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.”6 Jewish tradition tells us that one way to change the culture is to be a social critic when we see society or individuals making terrible mistakes; to call out in reproof when society or individuals do things that do not cohere with how human beings are supposed to behave. “Hocheach tochiach et amitecha” it says in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall surely reprove your neighbor” (Lev. 19:17). The tradition also says that if we don’t offer reproof when we see wrongdoing, we share culpability for those wrongs with those who committed the offense. Our silence can be taken for consent and permission to commit further transgressions. “Whoever can stop others within one’s own community from sinning but does not, is held responsible for what others do,” it says in the Talmud (Shabbat 54b).7
5 Teutsch, Rabbi David A., PhD, “Our Sins? They’re Not All Mine!” We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, p. 135. 6 Umansky, Ellen, Dr., “Some Are Guilty, All Are Responsible,” We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, p. 233. 7 Teutsch, p. 135.
But … what if we did not know? What if—for whatever reason—we were busy with our own lives, we were focused on other problems in society, we weren’t listening when other people were trying to tell us, we just didn’t think deeply about what was happening, because we just couldn’t think deeply about one more thing, or because we knew that if we did, we might somehow then be responsible to do something about it? Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, one of the Editors of our new Machzor, quotes the late author M. Scott Peck, who argued in his book The People of the Lie that most evil in our world is committed through lack of awareness. People hurt each other because they are not aware of the damage they are doing. Of all of the wrongdoings listed in the Al Chet, Rabbi Goldberg suggests, the most important may be the wrong b’li’da’at–we do “through lack of knowledge”—the sin of thoughtlessness. This applies not only to what we’ve specifically done wrong, but also to sins of omission—the things that we didn’t do because we failed to act.8 Okay, so now I know. We know. Or at least we know more. In relationship to so many of these issues, we’re waking up. Then what? What is it that is expected of us, if and when we acknowledge the transgressions that we, or our society, have done? Wouldn’t it be hypocritical of us to confess them and return to our lives as they were before? What then, would be the point? I recall a question I posed in my High Holy Day message before we entered into these High Holy Days: How might the world be different as a result of our gathering together over these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe? How might the world be different if we do the important work our tradition asks us to do? Rabbi David Teutsch, Director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, writes: “If the Yom Kippur process works, the worshippers will acknowledge their transgressions, experience contrition, and make a commitment not to repeat their wrongdoings. By the end of the concluding
8 Goldberg, For the Sin of “Unattempted Loveliness,” We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, Ashamnu and Al Chet, Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD., Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2012; p. 119
confession of the last Ashamnu in N’ilah [the final service on Yom Kippur], the community has also reinforced its norms . . .”9 It, we, have reinforced what matters to us. By confessing what we as a society have not done well, we also remind ourselves what we here, as a spiritual community, stand for. Fundamental beliefs such as b’tzelem elohim—the idea that every single person is created in the image of G-d, regardless of the color of his or her skin, the religion he or she practices, the gender of the person he or she loves; or another core idea–adam yachid—a teaching from the rabbis of old that says metaphorically we all descended from one common ancestor, so no one person can say to another, “My parent was greater than your parent.” Reminding ourselves, reaffirming what we stand for, and what we won’t stand for, is powerful, and empowering. It allows us to not hide behind our guilt or our shame at what part we may have played— b’zadon u’vishgagah—intentionally or unintentionally. It allows us to accept that we are human, and our society is comprised of flawed human beings who are ever evolving. It avoids blaming, but rather, opens the way to a more honest appraisal of what has happened, what is happening, what needs to be done in order to move forward toward reconciliation with G-d, toward bringing the world into greater harmony with that divine presence that is present in all reality. It allows us, as Ta-Nehesi Coates writes, to engage in a national reckoning that could lead to spiritual renewal—which we, as a nation so desperately need. “Wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced,” Coates says. “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.”10 As his words are true for our society’s relationship and responsibility toward those whom we refer to as Black or African American, so too is it true for all the others we as a society and/or a People may have wronged. Wrongs perpetrated
9 Teutsch, Rabbi David A., PhD, “Our Sins? They’re Not All Mine!” p. 138. 10 Coates, T-Nehesi, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
against African Americans is only one example—one of the most current and pressing issues in our country today. Yom Kippur is the Jewish People’s chance to wrestle deeply with these questions. But our wrestling should not stop when the symbolic gates close at the end of Neilah. Hahefech—the opposite: our wrestling should continue as we head into this new year, and strive to be a better, more humane, and more compassionate community, in relationship to the world around us. Friends, to wrestle with these questions is part of who we are called to be as Jews; that is why we were named the children of Yisrael—the one who wrestles with G-d. Our wrestling with these difficult questions is holy; that is why we are obligated to do it, over and over again, on this, the holiest day of the year. Divine Mystery that is present in all the world and nature, may our wrestling help us discern our responsibility—individual as well as collective—to bring about greater harmony in our country, and in this world. May the world indeed be a different place because we have gathered here during these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, and done the hard and holy work that we are challenged to do. Ken Y’hi Ratzon; May it be so.