Yom Kippur 5774 — A Time for Collective Atonement

by Rich Rubenstein on September 14, 2013 · 2 comments

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Sermon at Hill Havurah Congregation
September 9, 2013

Dear Friends,
I decided to speak to you today on the subject of collective atonement – how a whole group can repent for the wrongs it has done to other groups. I wrote my remarks out a few days ago, but this morning, I woke up with a sharp personal memory and a story to tell. Here it is:

Miss Grimm was my English teacher in the tenth grade, exactly sixty years ago. Although a nice person at heart, I’m afraid that she was aptly named. The teacher had a dour personality, all business, and spoke in a very small voice that even sharp-eared youngsters strained to hear. Strained, that is, until one heard what she had to say and was soon stupefied by boredom. So, naturally – or, rather, willfully – we played pranks on Miss Grimm. Sometimes amusing but often nasty pranks that I will not describe here for fear that some younger members of the congregation might decide to try them out.

In any event, the day finally came that one of our aggressive little jokes reduced Miss Grimm literally to tears. Her voice broke, her eyes watered, and she fled the classroom. We sat for a few moments in shocked silence, then talked. “I didn’t expect that!” said one student. “She’s kind of unstable, isn’t she?” asked another. “It doesn’t matter,” chimed in a third; “this really makes me feel bad.”

It turned out we all felt bad. “When she comes back,” one classmate suggested, “we should apologize.” General nods and murmurs of agreement – but who would be the apologizer? “Rich,” said one of my old friends, “you’re always raising your hand and talking. You apologize for us!”

A few minutes later, Miss Grimm returned. I don’t remember what I said, just something like, “Miss Grimm, we wanted you to know that we’re sorry for playing pranks on you and won’t do it any more.”

“I should hope so!” she replied, dour as ever. And then, with something like a flicker of softness, “Thank you!”

It was the whole sophomore class that atoned for making Miss Grimm’s life miserable. The story reminds us that for Jews, atonement is collective in two senses. First, individual misdeeds are a stain on the community – a shonda – which bring the whole group into disrepute. Second, the community as a whole can also sin – a concept that underlies the preaching of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. When we participate together in a system dedicated to the worship of false gods or destructive pleasures; when we play according to the rules of the game and the game is fixed, enriching a few people and impoverishing many more; when we support oppressive regimes abroad and wage useless, unnecessary wars, we sin collectively and need to atone for these grievous mistakes.

Let me focus for a moment on one of the collective misdeeds named in the Al-Cheyt, the Great Confession recited many times during these Yom Kippur service. We confess a long list of sins in that prayer, but one especially worth here is “the sin which we have committed against You by using coercive power.” The version of this line used in your liturgy today is “the sin which we have committed against You by failing to seek peace.”

Most Jews are not strict pacifists in the style of the Quakers, Mennonites, or other peace churches. But, possibly because we have so often been the victims of violence, non-violence is particularly precious to us. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia recently posted a letter on war and peace in which he quotes the Talmudist, Rabbi Hizkia. Reb Hizkia taught: “Great is shalom, peace, because about all the other mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah it is written, ‘If the opportunity to do the mitzvah comes upon you, then you must do it, and if not, you are not bound to do it. But in the case of peace, it is written, Seek peace, and pursue it—seek it in the place where you are, and if it runs from you, pursue it in that place as well.’”

In specific situations, Jews will disagree, just as others will, about whether a war or other violent policy is necessary, optional, or forbidden. But one thing that we should always agree about is the need to make the most energetic possible efforts to resolve conflicts peacefully before resorting to coercive force. You will hear people say, “Peace talks are utopian. You don’t bargain with killers or terrorists. Too much blood has been shed to talk about conflict resolution.” I want to suggest that this sort of pessimism often implies a lack of faith in one’s own capacity to understand violent conflict and remove its causes.

But, as the al-Cheyt says, the use of unnecessary force is a sin! Without good faith efforts to reconcile the parties to conflict, no military intervention can be considered just. That is why, in my opinion, before America intervenes further in Syria, a peace conference should be held to try to reconcile the parties to that nation’s tragic, immensely destructive civil war.

Of course, Syria is a controversial contemporary issue. But what about past instances of collective violence that many of us would consider unjustified, such as the war in Indochina that ended forty years ago this year? This raises a difficult question: How can a nation without much tradition of collective atonement repent for actions like that war, which took an estimated 3 million Indochinese lives as well as killing some 60,000 U.S. troops? For that matter, how can we accept our collective responsibility for the Iraq War, with its million or so casualties and hospitals still filled with traumatized veterans?

The first thing to be said about this is that some of us are not repentant about these events because they believe that the use of force was justified. This belief raises legitimate questions that we can and should discuss like human beings, instead of relying on stereotypes and calling each other names. But we often avoid discussing difficult issues because they might cause us to question our own assumptions, or because they might be too divisive or might open old wounds. I think we have to respond to this by pointing out that conflict-avoidance is not conflict resolution! One prerequisite to national atonement may be a sympathetic but honest national dialogue about the rights and wrongs of our past behavior – a dialogue that, in the case of Vietnam and Iraq, seems to me to be long overdue.

One idea that may help people to participate in this sort of dialogue is this: Accepting responsibility for one’s own misdeeds does not mean hating oneself or “dissing” one’s country. The prophet Jeremiah did not hate the Judeans he excoriated unceasingly; he loved and admired them enough to insist that they be true to their own high ideals.

Nor does confessing one’s own culpability as a group mean exculpating others, including former enemies. To confess that the United States should not have dropped atomic weapons on defenseless Japanese civilians at the end of World War II does not mean defending Japanese fascism, any more than repenting for Vietnam or Iraq means approving the policies of dictators like Ho Chi Minh and Saddam Hussein. It means accepting responsibility for a failure to pursue non-violent methods of conflict resolution instead of assuming that pursuing peace would be fruitless or immoral.

Other peoples will deal with their moral responsibility in their own way. Yom Kippur invites us to remember that real repentance – tshuva – means recognizing our complicity in unjust violence, resolving to change this behavior immediately, confessing our misdeeds publicly, and compensating those harmed by them. The Prophets make it clear, moreover, that this is not just a matter of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. No — the security of the community demands it, since there is a real connection between local injustice and global catastrophe.
Callous and destructive public policies dissolve and demoralize national communities. They inflame civil and transnational conflicts, and expose everyone to counter-violence by those who feel aggrieved and entitled to seek vengeance for wrongs done to their people.

On this Yom Kippur, just a few days after the anniversary of the great tragedy of September 11, 2001, let us dedicate ourselves to act in the coming year so as to remove all violent incitements to violent revenge. Peace is not only the end, dear friends; it is the means by which we may finally realize the prophetic vision of a world at one with itself.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Hussein Yusuf September 15, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Dear Rich,

Thank you for writing such beautiful article! Your call for atonement—in the the spirit of the old good prophets touched me deeply. Its call to humanity again. Your simple message of the need to acknowledging the past seems to be lost to the world. Thank you for reminding us this!!!


baju batik November 23, 2013 at 4:37 am

This is a really good read for me. Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I have ever read. Thanks for posting this informative article.


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