The Tone of Our Atonement: A Meditation for Yom Kippur

11/25/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On a quest for more honesty, whenever we question the key assumptions of our lives, religion and the visceral ties of tradition as well as the significance of believing (or not) come into play.

For Jews -- religious and secular alike -- there is a need to consider Yom Kippur the most holy and, in a sense the most ominous, day of the Jewish calendar. This consideration is vital no matter how frightening it is for the superstitions we hold deep inside that are often immune to reason or which are, at the very least, resistant.

Spiced with the good meal before the holiday, the haunting sounds of the Kol Nidre (the original prayer of forgiveness by Spanish Jews for conversion during the Inquisition), Yom Kippur is the Day of Repentance, of affliction and of communal confession that comes with shuddering before God's power to seal the fates of all as to whether they will be written into the "Book of Life" for the next year. When it comes to sins against other people, amends or requests for forgiveness are required along with the attempt to make amends to those persons without intervention by God.

These annual rituals, replete with the flutterings of safety and fear, comfort, belonging, awe and physical hunger, keep the harshness of our simplistic and moralistic views cycling. During the insistent confessions of sins against God, there is the self-loathing for what is human. We learn hatred for imperfections and the promises that make us feel superior to those imperfections for the day or for the season.

On the whole, religion is sacred, personal and private, but how can that be when it is one of the tools for inculcating values and fear along with righteous teachings of exclusivity? And, if we promise our sins away, do we continue to despise anything not glorious? In this process we fail to get closer to understanding our enemies because we shut out the baser emotions from our world view. We leave out a more humanistic ecology that connects us all to every thing and every being -- and for me, to every part of ourselves.

One could suggest that Yom Kippur should include a time for reflection on our methods of discipline, our ways of loving and teaching the regulation of emotions by modeling rather than by threatening. However this goes against the intestinal tracts and consciences of most who observe this day "religiously." This is, after all, the time to take out our religious insurance policies, and so it is beyond chutzpah to suggest the use of reflection in a manner that might change our ways instead of maintaining the status quo.

If you think making such suggestions is easy for me, it is not. My memories are infused with the melodies and rhythms of this High Holy Day that for me were a form of emotional regulation and spiritual reliability. It is just that at age sixteen when I read the English transliteration of the Hebrew text that I realized I could no longer abide by the repetition the whole day long about sins with which I did not identify.

Again, don't get me wrong. At this point in my life, I can identify with and relate to just about every sin, barring a few which at the end of the day I recognize at least as part of human potential. But, I feel we need a gentler tone that helps us find the common ground with enemies and friends alike. If we promise away our capacity to inflict torture or to ignore torture, to enable racism and colonialism with hate or lethargy, then we remain isolated in a world that needs a broader belonging.

With the admission of dread from my own layers of indoctrination, I want to dare to pose the notion of making Yom Kippur a time for softer and longer reflections, about how to make things better, truer, safer for our insides and freer from inner terrors, freer from the perfectionism which is strangling so many of us.

How appropriate it seems that this year Yom Kippur immediately follows a historic U.N. General Assembly. In terms of evolution and the salvation of our planet, we need to broaden the field of wonder, of curiosity, to both ask and hear the questions and cravings we experience.

I will be Jewish no matter what, but perhaps even as a good Jew still as I get more connected to my heart, to others, to the earth and all that we have in common.