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A Reflection on the Yom Kippur Liturgy -- Repentance Through Acts of Righteousness

09/10/2013 01:37 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013
  • Ron Kronish Founding Director, Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel
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As we approach the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which comes at the end of ten very special days called "the days of Awe," I am mindful of how much the liturgy of our special High Holiday prayer book is not simply particularistic. It is not intended for the Jewish People alone -- it is also universalistic, with implications for all human beings, and for us, as Jews, for our relationship with all humanity, not just our own tribe. Moreover, it is also clear that the theme of justice pervades our worship, implying that our concern for fair treatment for all human beings flows directly from the prayers that we recite. In other words, our liturgy requires that we behave as a people whose destiny is inextricably woven with the destiny of all humanity and whose ideal of justice is not merely for ourselves but for everyone.

In the special Yom Kippur additions to the set of traditional prayers known as "The Amidah" -- the 18 benedictions that we say silently and aloud during every Jewish worship service -- the interweaving of the dual themes of universalism and particularism is very loud and clear.

First, we ask God to instill His awe in all human beings and in all creatures that He has created, and we recognize that all of us are bound up in the human family. This is first and foremost. We are all part of the human family. It was fascinating for me to hear my friend Kadi Abdulhakeem Samara , one of Israel's leading Muslim judges, make the same point about his understanding of Islam, when he spoke at a special iftar seminar for ICCI in Jerusalem in July.

The second paragraph of this special set of prayers asks God to give honor and hope to His people, joy to their land, and gladness to their city, the city of Jerusalem. At the same time that Jews are part of humanity, we are also a people, with a very special attachment to our land, the land of Israel, and its religious capital, Jerusalem.

In the third paragraph, it all comes together:

The righteous, beholding this (that we are both part of humanity and committed to our people), will rejoice, the upright will be glad, the pious will celebrate with song, evil will be silenced, and all wickedness will disappear like smoke, when You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth.

Together with all other human beings who care about the earth, we must cooperate to banish evil and wickedness, whether it is the scourges of war or the wanton destruction of the environment which we all share.

At the end of the same set of additional prayers that we repeat in every worship service during these holidays, the framers of our liturgy refer to the prophet Isaiah who said "The Lord of hosts will be exalted through justice and the holy God will be sanctified through righteousness." This is a two-part deal -- prayer alone will not suffice. Genuine atonement can only happen "through righteousness," when we act kindly and justly to our fellow human beings.

These liturgical ideas, which are so central to the Jewish Tradition, are also foundational for the work of peace-building in Israel and Palestine that I have been engaged in for the past 22 years. One of my Muslim colleagues put it succinctly many years ago when he told me that "Dialogue is not enough!" Just as prayer without acts of loving-kindness is insufficient, dialogue without action too is incomplete.

This is why I believe strongly that in all educational programs that I continue to promote through the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (www.icci.org.il), we say that peaceful coexistence is our goal and that dialogue, education and actions are our methods.

Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of good deeds, of tikkun olam or "repairing the world." Without doing our part to "repair the world," even in small ways, we have not fulfilled our responsibility; our prayers and our discussions are meant to be the beginning of the process, not an end in themselves. This is why I am putting more emphasis in our educational work on action projects in recent years, and for the future. This is not accidental or coincidental; rather, it flows from basic religious concepts which I hold dear.

On Yom Kippur, our misdeeds against fellow human beings are not forgiven by prayer. We are enjoined to ask the person whom we may have wronged during the past year for forgiveness. Repentance will not come from an outside source but through our human actions to make the world a better place to live.

Similarly for peace. Peace will not come if we only pray for it. Rather, praying for peace should be a catalyst for acting for peace in concrete and substantive ways.

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