Saturday, September 30

Thoughts on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)

Every year it is the same ideas of fasting on Yom Kippur. The question I ask is whether fasting on that day and asking for forgiveness from one’s neighbours for the wrongs committed over the previous year is done in all sincerity. According to Jewish tradition, one may enter the synagogue on the Yom Kippur eve for worship and hear the Kol Nidre chant only after one has obtained forgiveness from one’s neighbours, friends and family for wrongs done to them. The question that crops up is “To how many people does this apply?”

Yom Kippur is meaningless to many of us. Its original meaning has become lost over the years as materialism, corruption, selfishness and greed has taken over. We need to look no further than the politicized, religious Orthodox institutions of Israel. Even the secular rulers are blemished as they form syndicates of self-interest at the taxpayers’ expense. The Orthodox establishment is concerned with wielding power in government, using their “authentic” interpretation of Halacha to coerce Jews into accepting their rulings. This may be fine with those who believe. What about those who do not? Tolerance towards those who are different is lacking. They will not accept pluralism in Jewish belief, delegitimizing Conservative and Progressive Jewish rights to worship and marry couples according to the way that they interpret Halacha. The orthodox Jewish argument is that there is one Halacha binding on all Jews, and the idea of Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist interpretation is taboo and unacceptable. They threaten religious, Jewish pluralistic freedom of worship.

In Israel, there is no Conservative and Reform Jewish Rabbinate with quasi-legal powers attending to the needs of the non-Orthodox streams in Judaism. These streams have to bow to the Orthodox rabbis when it comes to marriages, britot (circumcisions) and even burials with the Orthodox Chevra Kadisha (burial society) monopoly. Surely, this is greed! The Orthodox political parties manage to tag onto parliamentary coalitions, blackmailing the government in order to further their own religious and financial interests.

The lack of sensitivity that establishment orthodoxy in Israel exhibits towards those whose Jewishness is in question according to their monolithic Halacha is despicable. It even borders on plain racism. What about mixed marriages? So much suffering was because of this! Why is there no provision for civil marriage for those who wish to bypass Orthodox religious rituals that are meaningless to them? Here in Israel, those who do not wish to marry according to Orthodox traditions have no alternative but to marry overseas. Are we all so na├»ve as to believe that these facilities are not available in order to prevent assimilation? Perhaps it is because of establishment Orthodox greed that does not wish to lose out on financial income as a result of “competition” from non-Orthodox streams in Judaism. There are “hell and brimstone” Orthodox rabbis who are very vocal and have great influence amongst certain sectors of the population. They are scared of their “holy” curses. There is a well-known Sephardic ex chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who is an expert at cursing his political opponents. How does that fit in with Orthodox monolithic Halacha that is God’s word? I wonder if his fasting on Yom Kippur has any meaning in the eyes of the Almighty (assuming that he does exist)! His disciples have his portrait in their homes where he serves as a reminder of “holiness and goodness”.

Naturally, we should give some thought to the wellbeing of the Arab minorities in Israel. Are the authorities addressing their interests fairly?

Unfortunately, some Israeli soldiers in the territories abuse innocent Palestinians. Those who are caught are punished. However, it is questionable as to whether the punishment fits the crime. B’tzelem, the Israeli Information Centre on Human Rights in the Territories is doing an excellent job in exposing these abuses.

Fasting without purpose is pointless! It has become a mechanical once-a-year-tradition. Most people fast “in order to identify”. Identify with what? Many say that it makes one feel Jewish. Many sit at home and fast while they read or maybe watch TV. It is their choice but it is odd. I do not fast, as that is my choice out of personal conviction. Orthodox synagogue worship for many, is a once a year mechanical function of identity with one’s Jewishness without any depth or understanding. It is not a spiritually uplifting experience for many but a bind. It is a day whereby religious coercion reaches its climax. The absence of cars on the road for fear of stonings by religious hooligans is an outstanding example. This brings me to the haftarah of the Yom Kippur, which to me has much meaning. It really states the obvious. According to this haftarah, the ritual of fasting is pointless if one’s heart is not in the direction of self-improvement. This applies to most once-a-year-worshippers and many religious Orthodox politicos as well.
Isaiah 57:14-58:14: Fasting Is Not Enough
The haftarah for Yom Kippur morning

57:14. [The Lord] says:
Build up, build up a highway!
Clear a road!
Remove all obstacles
From the road of My people!
57:15. For thus said He who high aloft
Forever dwells, whose name is holy:
I dwell on high, in holiness;
Yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit-
Reviving the spirits of the lowly,
Reviving the hearts of the contrite.
57:16. For I will not always contend,
I will not be angry forever:
Nay, I who make spirits flag,"
Also create the breath of life.
57:17. For their sinful greed I was angry;
I struck them and turned away in My wrath.
Though stubborn, they follow the way of their hearts,
57:18. I note how they fare and will heal them:
I will guide them and mete out solace to them,
And to the mourners among them
57:19. heartening, comforting words:
It shall be well,
Well with the far and the near
-said the LORD-
And I will heal them.
57:20. But the wicked are like the troubled sea
Which cannot rest,
Whose waters toss up mire and mud.
57:21. There is no safety
-said my God-
For the wicked.

58:1. Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram's horn! Declare to My people their transgression,
To the House of Jacob their sin.

58:2. To be sure, they seek Me daily,
Eager to learn My ways.
Like a nation that does what is right,
That has not abandoned the laws of its God,
They ask Me for the right way,
They are eager for the nearness of God:
58:3. "Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?"
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
58:4. Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
Your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
58:5. Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the LORD is favorable?
58:6. No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
58:7. It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

58:8. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your Vindicator shall march before you,
The Presence of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
58:9. Then, when you call, the LORD will answer;
When you cry, He will say: Here I am.
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
The menacing hand, and evil speech,
58:10. And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature-
Then shall your light shine in darkness,
And your gloom shall be like noonday.
58:11. The LORD will guide you always;
He will slake your thirst in parched places
And give strength to your bones.
You shall be like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters do not fail.
58:12. Men from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins,
You shall restore foundations laid long ago.
And you shall be called
"Repairer of fallen walls,
Restorer of lanes for habitation."
58:13. If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
From pursuing your affairs on My holy day;
If you call the sabbath "delight,"
The LORD'S holy day "honored";
And if you honor it and go not your ways
Nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains-
58:14. Then you can seek the favor of the LORD
I will set you astride the heights of the earth,
And let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob-
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.



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