Confessing our sins


Few prayers are as well known to Jews as Ashamnu (“We have sinned …”) and Al Chet (“For the sin …”), the twin confessions of Yom Kippur. Belief in human sinfulness is more central to Judaism than we think. Sin may not be “original,” as it is in Christianity — inherited from Adam, that is, as a sort of genetic endowment ever after. But it is at least primal: It is there, patent, indelible and unavoidable. We may not be utterly depraved — the teaching with which American Protestantism grew up — but we are indeed sinners.

Talmudic practice, therefore, was to say a confession every single day, a precedent that continued into the Middle Ages and still survives in Sephardi synagogues. Ashkenazi Jews also announce that sinfulness daily in a part of the service called Tachanun (“supplications”), which includes a line from Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King, be gracious and answer us, for we have no deeds.” 

That translation misses the theological point, however. Classical Christianity believed that we are too sinful to be of any merit on our own. We depend, therefore, on God’s “grace,” the love God gives even though we do not deserve it. Jews, by contrast, preach the value of good deeds, the mitzvot. But Avinu Malkeinu hedges that bet. At least in Tachanun, and certainly from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we proclaim “we have no deeds” and rely on God’s “gracious” love instead.

Our two Yom Kippur confessions appeared in “Seder Rav Amram,” the first comprehensive Jewish prayer book (circa 860), and became standard thereafter.

But do Jews really believe we are as sinful as the confessions imply? Nineteenth century Jews, recently emancipated from medieval ghettos, doubted it. For well more than a century, philosophers had preached the primacy of reason as the cognitive capacity that makes all human beings equal. These two influences, political equality and the fresh air of reason, paved the way for a century when all things seemed possible. And indeed, scientific advances and the industrial revolution did seem to promise an end to human suffering just around the corner.

It wasn’t just Jews who felt that way. For Europeans in general, the notion of human sin, whether original (for Christians) or primal (for Jews), lost plausibility. Far from bemoaning human depravity, it seemed, religion should celebrate human nobility. Enlightenment rabbis began paring away Yom Kippur’s heavy accent on sin.

From then until now, new liturgies (usually Reform and Reconstructionist) have shortened the confessions, translated them to lessen their overall impact and created new ones that addressed more obvious shortcomings of human society. But traditionalist liturgies also tried to underscore human promise and explain away the aspects of the confessions that no one believed anymore. Al Chet “is an enumeration of all the sins and errors known to mankind,” said Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. It is not as if we, personally, have done them, but some Jew somewhere has, and as the Talmud says, “All Israelites are responsible for one another.”

Some would say today that as much as the 19th century revealed the human capacity for progress, the 20th and 21st centuries have demonstrated the very opposite. Perhaps we really are as sinful as the traditional liturgy says. Religious “progressives” respond by saying that we suffer only from a failure of nerve and that more than ever, Yom Kippur should reaffirm the liberal faith in human dignity, nobility and virtue. At stake on Yom Kippur this year is not just one confession rather than another, but our faith in humankind and the kind of world we think we are still capable of building.

I am not yet ready to throw in the Enlightenment towel. Back in 1824, Rabbi Gotthold Salomon of Hamburg gave a sermon in which he said, “All of us feel, to one extent or other, that, in spirit and soul, we belong to a higher order than the ephemeral. We feel that we are human in the most noble sense of the word, that we are closely connected to the Father of all existence, and that we could have no higher purpose than to show ourselves worthy of this relationship.”

Those words ring true for us today. We have something to gain from the Enlightenment’s belief that acting for human betterment is the noble thing to do, and that acting nobly is still possible.


Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is the author most recently of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism — Ashamnu and Al Chet” (Jewish Lights).

The sin of slander


V’al chet she-hatanu l’fanekha bil’shon ha-ra, “And for the sin we have committed before You through slander” — over the course of Yom Kippur we say these words over and over again as we recite the Viddui (Confessional) quietly to ourselves and then aloud communally. As we say them, we beat our breasts to physically hammer home the meaning of the words we say.  In fact, sins of the tongue represent the most common single category of transgression in the Al Chet confessional.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, along with most of their political operatives and the funders and staffs of the super PACs who support them, will not be sitting in shul all day on Yom Kippur and will not hear or say these words and allow their meaning to seep into their brains and souls. And so, I fear that over the course of the campaigning of the coming weeks, the slandering that has become a hallmark of the political process in the 21st century will continue unabated. I believe that, given the immediate and wide-ranging impact of today’s electronic media, the political divisiveness that we are witnessing today is, to a considerable degree, a result of the vitriolic defamation of character and proffering of half-truths that have come to dominate the rhetoric of our political process. 

Some will say that the ends justify the means, and, in order to get the right people into office so as to develop the correct public policy, almost any tactic is “kosher.” I disagree strongly with this approach. For a democracy to work, it must be based on the principle of respect for one’s political opponent and the understanding that in a democracy there will be many opinions expressed — otherwise it becomes a tyranny. In a democracy, respect, negotiation and compromise are the only way the needs of the people can be served in the long run. If we demean a person with whom we disagree, then we lose respect for that person and we can become more than political opponents — we can become enemies. Enemies harm one another. Enemies do not work together to solve problems — indeed, their enmity creates more problems.

Our rabbis teach us that Jerusalem fell to the Romans because of baseless hatred within the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. Slander leads to hatred.  Hatred leads to weakness. Weakness results in defeat. What America needs now, more than ever, is not a fractured polity, but a polity that can unite and work together for the greater good. The sin of slander, lashon harah, prevents that from happening and must be excised from our political campaigns. Please convey this message to the leaders of the political party you support, and remind them of the words of Torah (Deuteronomy 16:20) with which we are all familiar: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” — the means must be in agreement with the end, and the pursuit of justice must be accomplished justly, not with lies (R. Simcha Bunim).


Rabbi Joel Rembaum is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am.

Yom Kippur Dilemma


Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?

I feel like I’ve barely had time to recover from one when the next one’s announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like “oh no, not again,” in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.

The few friends in whom I confide — I’m sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don’t want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I’ve been to the water’s edge and found I’m unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance — always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that’s not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.

None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think — that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can’t feel the spirit of this one day because I’m not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.

It’s true that I don’t go to temple every week, don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).

But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I’ve failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I’ve made, the countless ways in which I’ve let the world down. I don’t need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no “off” switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there’s something different about Yom Kippur — an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day’s activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.

Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn’t read Hebrew and we didn’t have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons’ academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that’s in vogue in the West. We were told — by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 — that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.

In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple’s day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple’s gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn’t see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.

This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we’re being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple’s day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi — and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter “I” every time they looked you in the eyes.

The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn’t have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She’s an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn’t going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.

The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you’re a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.

We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran — a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.

And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

The very best Tashlich custom is a toss-up


On paper, the Rosh Hashanah ritual of Tashlich is about doffing one’s sins to start the new year with a clean slate. For Jason Mauro, 16, it’s also about beach football.

Every year since he was 8, Mauro and his friends at Temple Israel of Hollywood have marked the afternoon ceremony, which the synagogue holds at a beach in Santa Monica, with a sand-logged scrimmage.

“It’s a routine now,” said Mauro of Studio City. “We bring a couple of footballs and give some to the younger kids. The games used to be kids vs. parents, but since we’ve gotten bigger and stronger, they kind of back off.”

Family ball games, picnics and drum circles are revitalizing Tashlich as a booming social event, local rabbis say. Built on the traditional casting of sins — often symbolized by breadcrumbs, rocks or lint — into the ocean, the ritual now draws throngs of participants eager to celebrate community, revel in the great outdoors and cut loose.

“People are really gung-ho about Tashlich,” said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “After spending the morning in synagogue, they get to take off their stockings and shoes and suits and ties and dresses and put on shorts and T-shirts and bathing suits and sun block. They take picnics and blankets, and we all meet at the beach.”

Maybe that’s why the ceremony, which Missaghieh brought to the Reform congregation when she joined its staff 13 years ago, has been steadily gaining in popularity. Starting with about 100 participants the first year, Temple Israel’s Tashlich event now draws a gathering so large — more than 450 people, Missaghieh said — that they have to obtain a permit from the city of Santa Monica to accommodate the crowd. The city also assigns lifeguards to watch over the waterside festivities.

“It’s a great service for people with families,” said Temple Israel member Bruce Miller, who has taken part in Tashlich for the past six years with his wife, Tracy, and their three young children. “You’re not sitting in one place in a big room where you have to be quiet and sit still. Three-year-olds don’t do that so well. Here, they can run around. Tashlich is more connected to things kids can relate to.”

Miller, a television writer based in Hancock Park, also enjoys the chance to experience Judaism amid nature’s majesty.

“It’s wonderful to hear the shofar outside at the beach,” he said. “Near the water, under the sky, it seems more spiritually relevant to what the holiday is about.”

A few blocks south on Venice Beach, Nashuva encourages Jews of all ages — including total strangers catching rays nearby — to tap into their spiritual sides by taking part in a drum circle. With more than 1,000 participants, Rabbi Naomi Levy said she’s been told Nashuva’s Tashlich ritual is the largest Jewish drum circle in the world.

“We’ve been doing this for four years, and it’s been growing exponentially,” Levy said. “We blow the shofar at the beach as a call for all Jews to come. You’d be surprised how many times we get an Israeli jogger passing by, or a couple of sunbathers who happen to be Jewish. You see people coming from all different parts to join in.”

Members of the Nashuva community, which during the rest of the year holds Friday night Shabbat services at Brentwood Presbyterian Church the first week of each month, gathers for Tashlich at the beach off Venice Boulevard at 4:30 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Organizers hand out percussion instruments, but attendees are also urged to bring their own. Drums, tambourines and even spoons are welcomed.

The first time Brentwood resident Carol Taubman took part in Nashuva’s Tashlich ceremony in 2004, “it took my breath away,” she recalled. “There were so many people, all dressed in white, and this fabulous drumming circle. There was a great sense of community, and it was very powerful.”

Taubman has attended Tashlich ever since, drawn back by the inclusive spirit of the event.

“It’s such a welcoming experience,” she said. “Some people can be intimidated by all the prayers at a synagogue service, but anybody can hit a drum or bang two spoons together. It’s like sharing a communal language.”

But the point of Tashlich — to cleanse oneself of the past year’s sins — shouldn’t be undermined by the ritual’s festive atmosphere or the ease of tossing breadcrumbs into the ocean, said Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

“The notion that we can dispose of our sins in such a casual manner is problematic,” said Shevitz, whose Conservative beachfront service gathers 200 to 400 people each year. “You can’t just empty your pockets and be rid of your sins. It takes more work than that.”

Shevitz has put together a reading reflecting the idea that sins can never be truly cast off, but they can be “purified, as we treat sewage.”

The ceremony, which Mishkon Tephilo has done for decades, attracts more and more congregants each year, he said. “It’s as much a social occasion as a liturgical one. It’s a refreshing alternative to the sobriety of the morning service.”

Further inland, Encino-based Valley Beth Shalom has seen a spike in Tashlich attendance for the same reason. The Conservative congregation has been holding a ceremony on the second day of Rosh Hashanah for the past 10 years at Encino’s Lake Balboa.

“Tashlich is amazingly popular,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom. “The sunshine is wonderful, we’re out in the fresh air, and we can begin to smell the autumn coming. It’s really joyful.”

This year, Valley Beth Shalom will partner with Valley Village congregation Adat Ari El for a joint Tashlich service. Feinstein is expecting a crowd of about 250 at the lakeside park, which Los Angeles park rangers keep open an extra hour for the ceremony.

An added bonus of holding Tashlich at the site, Feinstein noted, is that the bits of challah thrown into the water end up feeding the ducks that live on the lake grounds.

Temple Israel of Hollywood chooses to forgo traditional breadcrumbs for a more novel approach to the purging of sins, Rabbi Missaghieh said. As soon as the crowd gathers at 4 p.m. on the first day of the holiday, all the children begin building a wall of sand along the shore. After songs and readings, participants consider an area of their lives they want to improve in the new year, then inscribe their thoughts by hand into the wall. The waves eventually wash the sand away, carrying congregants’ written confessions out to sea.

“I think there’s something very magical about it,” Missaghieh said. “You spend the whole morning thinking about God, talking to God. But then you actually go out into nature and feel the grandness of God’s creation on the day of creation. It’s a very visceral moment; not just your mind, but your whole body is experiencing the rebirth of the world.”

PETA slams N.Y. kapparot ritual [VIDEO]



PETA anti-kapporot video

NEW YORK (JTA) — For the second year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has complained about the High Holy Days ritual of swinging a chicken over one’s head, a sin-transference ceremony.

In a letter sent Monday to the New York agriculture department’s Kosher Law Enforcement division, PETA alleges that thousands of dead chickens were thrown away after the ritual last year in one Brooklyn center. The letter singles out the kapparot center run in Crown Heights by Rabbi Shea Hecht and asks the state to investigate whether consumer fraud occurred. Jews who bought chickens for the ritual expected the birds “to be processed for meat that would be distributed as tzedakah,” or charity, the letter states.

Last summer’s complaint to the state and city was more wide ranging, alleging a variety of health and safety violations as well as animal cruelty. It spurred a meeting of more than a dozen rabbis in Brooklyn, and they sent out directives to kapparot centers saying they needed full-time rabbinic supervision.

A related letter was submitted to the Kashrus Information Center, an independent association of more than 100 rabbis that monitors kosher affairs in Brooklyn. Rabbi Moshe Weiner, the Kashrus center’s rabbinic administrator, said that Hecht’s site and others operated by communal organizations are well run. While there have been problems in the past from “fly-by-night” kapparot centers, Weiner said proactive steps taken by rabbis last year significantly cut down on such problems.

Your Basic High Holiday FAQ


Every year they roll around, and every year you’re not quite sure what to do. Go ahead, ask us. After years of answering readers’ questions, we’ve compiled the most frequently asked ones below:

Why do synagogues charge for High Holiday tickets?

Hate to say it, but this is the most frequently asked question of all. The answer, in a nutshell: There’s no free lunch. The High Holidays are traditionally the time most Jews go to synagogue, so the ideal time to raise money to keep the synagogue afloat the rest of the year. Lights, payroll, heating, rabbis, ads in The Jewish Journal — none of it is free. See listings on page 40.

OK, so, now tell me what these holidays mean, anyway.

“Rosh Hashanah” literally translates as “head of the year.” It celebrates the creation of the world. The holiday is observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which usually falls in September or October, and marks the beginning of a 10-day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance, which culminates on the fast day of Yom Kippur. These 10 days are referred to as Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe or the High Holidays.

Synagogue services give us time to reflect and resolve, but prayer and meditation are not enough to bring repentance. The only way to atone for sins we commit against others is by sincerely apologizing, making good our transgressions, and asking for forgiveness.

What are Selichot?

Selichot, meaning forgiveness, are penitential prayers recited by Jews prior to the onset of the High Holiday season. They prepare us for 10 days of reflection and self-examination. Sephardim begin them in Elul, and Ashkenazim on the week before Rosh Hashanah. And you can do them in any synagogue — for free.

What is Tashlich?

Usually performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah after the afternoon service (unless it falls on the Sabbath), Tashlich is the symbolic casting away of our transgressions. We go to a flowing body of water, perform a short service asking for forgiveness and throw bread into the water (some throw rocks).

Why do we dip an apple into honey on Rosh Hashanah? And what’s with pomegranates?

Sweet apples dipped into sweet honey equal a sweet year. The numerous seeds of the pomegranates — which just happen to reach ripeness this time of year — symbolize our good deeds. Other traditional foods for this time of year are round challahs (symbolizing a complete, whole year) and, among Sephardic Jews, whole fish.

What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” “The tenth of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement for you” (Leviticus 23:27). Yom Kippur is observed by abstaining from work, by fasting and by attending communal prayers.

Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?

The Torah commands us to afflict our bodies on this holiday.

Why do we blow the shofar?

The shofar is made from a ram’s horn. It is sounded every morning during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, on Rosh Hashanah itself and again at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Its piercing sound is a “wake-up call” to repent.

What is Kol Nidre?

Erev Yom Kippur services begin with Kol Nidre, the opening prayer and also the name of the evening service. Kol Nidre is an Aramaic declaration that nullifies all the vows and promises that each person will make to God and to him/herself in the coming year, an acknowledgment of the weakness of human resolution. Wearing white is common on Kol Nidre as a symbol of purity.

What is Yizkor?

Yizkor is a service that recalls loved ones who have died and is recited on Yom Kippur.

How do we atone for our sins?

Yom Kippur atones only for sins between humanity and God, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, you must first apologize, righting the wrongs you committed if possible. This must all be done before the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

What is the Jewish definition of sin?

In Judaism, the word “sin” has different connotations than it does in our wider culture. “Sin” in Judaism is generally not something for which a person will be punished in the afterlife, but is rather an improper act for which one can ask forgiveness — not just of God, but of other human beings, as well.

If I skip services on the High Holidays, will a lightening bolt strike me?

Yes. Just kidding. For more information, link to sites like urj.org/holidays and www.askmoses.com visit www.jewishjournal.com. — Staff Report

 

Guilty of Being Too Guilty


Yom Kippur reminds me of the time I spent in couples counseling with a serious boyfriend. My boyfriend believed he could be cruel or invasive or dishonest, but as long as he copped to his "sins" once a week, he’d be absolved (especially if he used bogus touchy-feely phrases like "I’m sorry you feel that way," "I validate your experience," and "I respect your boundaries").

"Sweetie," he said at an early session. "I know we talked about forgiveness, and I have something to tell you."

Then he took a deep cleansing breath and smiled sheepishly: "I’ve been reading your journals."

"You what?" I replied incredulously.

"Remember the four F’s of forgiveness," my boyfriend cautioned, basking in his expiation.

"I’ll give you four F’s!" I screamed — and believe me, they were not the four F’s of forgiveness.

For my boyfriend, going to couples therapy became his version of Yom Kippur. If I got angry at him for, say, "forgetting" to give me a message from my ex, he’d hold my hand and reply sanctimoniously, "But at least I’m admitting it. Isn’t that the most important thing?"

No. It wasn’t. You can’t erase a misdeed — or your guilt — simply by "admitting it" and asking for forgiveness. It’s far more complicated than that.

So here’s my High Holiday confession: I don’t believe in Yom Kippur. And I’m not asking for forgiveness.

It’s not that I don’t feel guilt — I do. But my therapist — who’s Jewish — says this is a problem. He thinks I feel too guilty. Each week I sit across from him, whip out my journal and enumerate my so-called sins. While worshippers from Brentwood to Jerusalem literally beat themselves with their fists each September in shul, I metaphorically beat myself up each Thursday in a Santa Monica office suite.

I feel guilty for avoiding a coworker going through a breakup because whenever I say, "How are you?" he replies with a 15-minute sob story and all I have time for is "Good, and you?" Or for buying a friend’s 4-year-old a toy labeled "6 to adult" because it was on sale, then explaining, "This way, he’ll have something to grow into." Or for giving a guest at my house orange juice from concentrate and saving the fresh-squeezed juice for myself.

As a child, I remember dutifully writing out my "sins list" each Yom Kippur, the way my Christian friends wrote out their "Santa lists" three months later. My list was always longer. There was so much to feel guilty for: Saying you hate your brother when he won’t let you listen to his new Peter Frampton album. Lying to your parents about what time you went to bed at a sleepover. Wishing that your clueless teacher would go the hospital for a few weeks so that you could have a cool substitute instead.

While making that list, I became a conflicted combination of self-righteousness and self-flagellation. Why did I need to ask God’s forgiveness for some minor slip-ups, while my mostly considerate behavior went unacknowledged — where was that holiday? And why did I promise not to do these things the next year, when it was nearly impossible for a normal girl not to feel, think and act out the "sins" I’d supposedly committed? Meantime, I felt guilty for questioning my guilt. Yet not once did I atone by fasting — in my mind, putting on an itchy dress, sitting through mind-numbingly boring services and wondering how I came to be such a bad person were punishment enough. Almost. At 11 I became anorexic and went on a perpetual fast, but I’d recovered by the time Yom Kippur came around — and actually felt guilty that I hadn’t timed my anorexia more appropriately.

Extreme? Maybe. But guilt is in my bloodlines. Whether we’re raised Orthodox or "culturally Jewish," most Jews grow up like mini-schizophrenics, with multiple voices in our heads that continue to haunt us into adulthood: "Rachel’s mom says her daughter writes from camp every day — and my daughter, she could be dead and I wouldn’t know!" Or "Sure, you can wait to have grandchildren — we just might not be around to meet them." And "How nice of you to acknowledge my birthday — your brother called three hours ago."

Then there’s that special brand of Jewish not-quite-enough guilt: You’re educated, kind, do weekly volunteer work with kids. But what about that time that you didn’t visit Uncle Merle in the hospital? He’s having his chest opened like a chicken, and you couldn’t take half an hour out of your busy day before the MCAT exam?

Eventually, I lost interest in Yom Kippur, but I never lost that sense of guilt. I’ve spent years trying to give myself room to fail, to be less of a perfectionist and more self-forgiving. It’s not that I want to shirk responsibility, or grant myself carte blanche to misbehave. It’s about having realistic expectations. At least, that’s what my therapist says.

In a twisted way, I’ve always envied people who don’t live under a cloud of guilt. In college I briefly considered becoming a lawyer because I was fascinated by the murderers and rapists who — knowing full well what atrocities they’d committed — could stand up in front of a courtroom and say with a straight face, "Not guilty, your honor."

Or take the guy who broke up with my friend but asked to continue sleeping with her — and feels no compunction. Everyone’s guilt (and chutzpah) barometer is different. Just look at Ken Lay, or the shameless contestants on the reality show "Wife Swap."

I wish I could say that my neurotic fixation with guilt has kept me from typing e-mails to my friends while distractedly mumbling "Uh-huh" on the phone with my mother, or from nearly having an affair while in a committed relationship. It hasn’t. But how does beating our chests in front of God once a year help us or those we’ve hurt? I’ve tried looking at God as literary trope for our conscience, but in what Fitzgerald famously called the "3 a.m. of the soul," we have only ourselves to answer to. God doesn’t need to take Ambien to sleep at night. We mere mortals do.

Which is why I have such a problem with Yom Kippur. While my friends with office jobs are disappointed that it falls on Saturday this year (no extra day off), I’m thrilled that it won’t disrupt my work week. Each year I try to ignore the holiday, but it’s not so easy.

The other day I was explaining this to my friend Lynn in New York. She’s married to a very wise rabbi who can quote "The Simpsons" as fluently as the Talmud, so I got him on the phone and asked how a guilt addict might approach this ritualized annual guilt-fest.

"Isn’t Yom Kippur counterproductive?" I asked her husband, Rabbi David Adelson. "I mean, so many Jews feel burdened by guilt all year round. It’s like making a culture of drug addicts celebrate Crack Day."

Lynn is a neurotic writer like me, so David knew what he was dealing with.

"It’s not a holiday about guilt," he explained. "The Jewish attitude is that you reflect on your life, see what needs work, and incorporate those lessons into your future."

"Fair enough," I said. "But what do we do with the crippling guilt that this reflection brings up?"

"Well, you can redirect that reflection in a healthy way," he replied. "If what you’ve done in the past hasn’t worked for you, try something new. Yom Kippur isn’t so much about guilt as it is about reorienting. "

His insight was so simple that it blew my mind: reorient. That’s exactly what my shrink has been noodging me to do for years. So this Yom Kippur, I’ve decided to "reorient": I’m going to try to spend the entire day without feeling any guilt. Instead of my usual guilt-fest, I’ll go on a 24-hour guilt fast (and yes, I’ll still eat). I’m not sure how God will feel about this, but at least my therapist will be proud.

Besides, if I start to feel guilty about not feeling guilty, I can always repent next Yom Kippur.

Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is author of the memoir “Stick Figure:
A Diary of My Former Self” (Simon and Schuster, 2000). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.

For the Kids


In the Wrong

In the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, we learn a lot about the Levites, who were the priests in the Tabernacle; we also learn about the different sacrifices for different types of sins. If you committed a sin on purpose, you brought one kind of sacrifice; if you did it by accident, you brought a different kind. And if you committed a sin because you didn’t know it was a sin, you brought yet another type of sacrifice. When you’ve done something wrong, always ask yourself this question: Did I do this on purpose? You must always examine the truth of your questions. Be true to yourself and to other people around you.

To the Moon

Q: Why is the moon bald?

A: Because it has no ‘air!

Q: Why does the moon need change for a dollar?

A: Because it needs four quarters!

Start the Sin Cycle


Here we go again: the Yom Kippur confessional is upon us, our annual alphabetical recitation of our sins and transgressions, from ashamnu to ti’tanu, from avarice to xenophobia and zealotry. The list never changes; the question it poses, somewhat tediously, is whether we have changed.

While it maybe thought useful to have a list that is basically a catchall, in which each of us can see not only the entire community but himself or herself, such a list is also problematic; too much. The longer the list, the more overwhelming it is, the less it comes as a challenge, the less we attend its components, the more we treat it as poetry rather than indictment. Pleading guilty to a poem? Our confession becomes too easy; the ritual defeats its purpose.

I would hardly write in this fashion did I not have a solution to propose, one inspired from another ancient civilization. The Chinese name each year after one of 12 animals, in an endless cycle. (This reflects a certain view of life: What goes around literally comes around.) There’s the Year of the Dog, the Year of the Snake, the Year of the Rat, the Year of the Ox and so forth.

I’m not much into animals, Chinese or zodiacal, but the notion of naming specific time periods after particular elements, be they animal, vegetable or moral, has some appeal. Might we not choose to signify each new year with a name, specifically the name of one of the classic transgressions? Think of it as a kind of “sin of the year” that would provide us as both individuals and a community some focus in the year ahead. Suppose, for example, this were to be “The Year of Cupidity,” a year in which we genuinely seek to modify our greed. Or “The Year of the Evil Tongue,” during which we’d try, really try, to avoid gossip and slander. During the run-up to a new year so designated, we’d have think tanks, synagogue committees and family circles devoted to analyzing the issue at hand and proposing methods for dealing with it. Over the course of an adult life, we’d have the opportunity to confront, in a serious way, our disposition to lie, to persecute, to counsel evil and all the rest.

Imagine: Each of us could make his or her own cheshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul), with respect to the well-publicized transgression. We could, perhaps as families, explore our motives, raise questions that might normally be thought impertinent but that now would be rendered near-mandatory by the communitywide understanding that this year, families everywhere are working their way through the issue. The burgeoning book clubs might select their books with an eye to the yearly theme. We could (and should) meet across denominational boundaries, explore Jewish sources, Jewish history, our own experiences, all with a mind to wrestling the transgression into a state of submission.

As it happens, I am especially intrigued by the prospect of a frontal assault on cupidity. Perhaps it is my own infatuation with things that renders it easier and more urgent for me to bare and then beat my breast in connection with greed — or, to make the self-criticism both easier to absorb and rather more accurate, not so much greed as simple acquisitiveness.

But in what sense is acquisitiveness a failure of the community at large, as distinguished from its component parts? One answer: Almost all our communal institutions honor and increasingly offer leadership positions only to the moneyed — some of whom merit the honor or position, many of whom do not; it is their wealth that is the necessary condition, and sometimes even the sufficient condition. Organizations once headed by devoted activists — one thinks, for example, of the American Jewish Congress — have become shameless in this regard, selling their souls along with their leadership positions. That’s a transgression worth considering, one face of avarice. (And a face of betrayal, as well.)

When the poor people of Chelm protested that only the rich could sit next to the synagogue’s east wall, the rabbis decided that henceforward, all walls of the synagogue would be known as the east wall. If, however, there were those in the congregation who wished to pay more in order to next to what was formerly knows as the east wall, that was their right. If it were only so simple!

Even the process of deciding which transgression to focus on, year by year, could prove valuable: Imagine interest groups within the community debating whether this is more timely than that; imagine debates in which idolatry is pitted against oppression. We might even devise a method of popular voting, the community as a whole selecting the sin of the year. Starting with cupidity is plainly only a suggestion. If it’s a timely “C” we want, we could as easily start with celebrity, wondering what it means and why so many of us respond to it. Or, if “A” is where to start, there’s not only “avarice,” there are also “aggression,” “abstention” (as in “indifference”), “arrogance,” and on and on, together a more than sufficient material for a lifelong course in ethical behavior, for a thoughtfully examined life — a way to be ethically challenged and be proud of it.

One small point of personal privilege: As the father of the idea, I’d like to be excused from being required to deal with my stiff-neckedness, if and when we get to that one. Thanks.


Elliot Fein teaches Jewish studies at the Tarbut V’Torah School in Irvine.

Small Sacrifices


This week, we begin "Vayikra," the first book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. This section of the Torah is filled with many fascinating and important Torah concepts that we can relate to, including the laws of lashon hara (the prohibitions against speaking ill of others), kashrut (keeping kosher) and the well-known phrase: "Love your fellow as yourself."

One concept in this week’s parsha that some of us have difficulty understanding is that of korbanot (animal sacrifices) that were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. You might ask, "How would the ritual sacrifice of an animal on the Temple altar help me atone for my inadvertent sins?"

Let’s start at the beginning. The very beginning. Sages tell us that during creation of the universe, Adam and Eve were created last to teach us the nobility of man as well as humility.

How does creation teach us these two concepts? Though it may not be politically correct, in Judaism, all things are not created equal. We are taught that there is a hierarchy of creation, and in it, man reigns supreme. God first created inanimate objects, followed by plant life, animals and, finally, man. Only mankind was created in the Almighty’s image and only man was given a divine mandate by God. Only man has the ability to choose freely between good and evil. Only man was put on this world to study the Torah and fulfill God’s commandments.

By serving the Almighty in this way, we perfect our souls, control our base instincts and elevate even mundane tasks into holy ones. Thus, mankind was created last in order to show us that all of creation was prepared for us — and is here to enable us to accomplish our noble purpose of serving the Almighty. If, on the other hand, we don’t live up to our potential and don’t fulfill our divine responsibilities, then we become in a sense less than the animals.

Animal sacrifice is a reminder that we are not equal, that we are elevated above all creatures and that we need to behave in a way that befits our status. Consequently, the act of sacrifice should bring us to repentance and regret.

The feelings of compassion we have for the animal being sacrificed remind us of our special role and can motivate us to repair the spiritual damage our actions have caused. This can be the noblest of all human endeavors, for only mankind can make a conscious decision to change himself and not act solely on instinct. Only man has the ability to break bad habits, change one’s attitudes, responses, and behaviors and thus elevate himself.

Furthermore, the concept of sacrifice becomes even clearer when we look at the actual translation and mistranslation of the word "korban." Korban really has little to do with sacrifice and much more to do with the Hebrew word karov (to be close). One didn’t just pay for the animal, sacrifice it and expect to be absolved. Part of the process of getting closer to God also included viduy (confession), sacrifice and self-examination.

This teaches us an important practical lesson: Sometimes people feel they have to sacrifice to live a religious life. In fact, the Almighty doesn’t expect us to sacrifice but rather wants us to make the right choices to bring us closer to Him.

People don’t say, "I sacrificed watching the ballgame to see a beautiful sunset." Rather they say, "I chose the sunset and as a consequence, I didn’t see the ballgame." So, too, we shouldn’t say, "I sacrificed going shopping to keep Shabbat," but rather, "I chose to be close to God by observing Shabbat, and the consequence was that I didn’t go shopping."

Studying about korbanot can help us remember our nobility and purpose in this world, while helping us re-prioritize so that we don’t "sacrifice" to serve God but attempt to come close to Him with joy instead.

May we be successful!