Who Needs Religion?

Posted: Sep 29, 2009 12:01 AM
Who Needs Religion?

Well, that's one way to look at it. Writing in Haaretz, Orna Coussin praised Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement that began Sunday night and ended Monday night) as the ultimate green holiday. Coussin is a secular Israeli and was expressing her appreciation for the fact that everyone is obliged to travel by foot on Yom Kippur. All traffic stops in Israel. No cars, busses, trains, or taxis clog the streets on that day. The shops and offices are closed and the city is given over to pedestrians. "Last year, on Yom Kippur," she exults, "carbon monoxide levels fell from 205 parts per billion, on the day prior to the holiday, to just 2 parts per billion at its height -- a phenomenon unmatched anywhere in the world."

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That's nice. But for millions of Jews worldwide the Day of Atonement continues to exert its traditional power. Coussin may see it as a day for walking the city; religious Jews are trying to walk with God. But even non-religious Jews can find uplift in the Yom Kippur service.

Fierce secularists like Christopher Hitchens deny that religion is necessary for morality. In any particular case, this is impossible to deny. Many highly moral people are non-religious (though, I would venture, less often anti-religious). But people being the way they are -- rationalizing, lazy, self-satisfied, absent-minded, and evasive (to list only some of our milder shortcomings) -- the religious tradition, with its weekly (or in some cases only yearly) kicks in the backside, prods us toward virtue, or perhaps even righteousness.

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and repentance. This is well known. But the fast -- though severe (it lasts 25 hours and requires abstention from food and water) -- is not the substance of repentance, only a symbol. The whole High Holiday season, which begins with Rosh Hashana, is a period of prayer, self-examination, and repentance. This is a time to give generously to charity -- both for its own sake (the Hebrew word for charity is "justice") and to demonstrate our sincere repentance. We are encouraged to pay our debts during this time, and to ask forgiveness from those we have wronged. If we are rebuffed, we're expected to ask again ... twice. Offenses against our fellow human beings are not forgiven on Yom Kippur unless the wronged party has extended forgiveness. As for offenses against God, worshippers are reminded that God is not interested in fasting alone, only in genuine repentance. The measure of sincerity is altered behavior.

The confession of sin is communal -- and quite exhaustive. For those who might have thought they had a pretty good year, the Al Heyt prayer makes them think again. The offenses listed include, as one might expect, lust, gluttony, envy, cruelty, gossip, and dishonesty. But the liturgy also requires confession of impertinence, foul language, being stiff-necked, and "haughty looks." We ask forgiveness for sins of commission and sins of omission, and for sins committed knowingly and unknowingly. Come to think of it, considering its breadth and comprehensiveness, the Al Heyt could have been drafted by a lawyer. In any case, it stands in stark contrast to the narcissistic spirit of our age.

The concept of communal confession may seem odd to Christians whose traditions tend to stress individual repentance and reconciliation with God. One explanation frequently advanced for this practice is that the entire Jewish community is expected to take responsibility for the sins of all of its members. Peoplehood and nation remain key features of the Jewish faith. But it is also the case, I think, that when reciting that long list of offenses, only the most self-deluded sinner could fail to recognize that he had committed more sins that he cared to acknowledge during the preceding period of self-examination. The ancient catalogue of wrongdoing remains as fresh today as ever -- because however much the outward world has changed, the human soul remains what it has always been.

Even with the best will in the world, we are inclined to backsliding. If we haven't been reminded lately to give generously to those in need, or to visit the sick or bereaved, or to extend ourselves to the handicapped, or to thank a member of the armed services, or in other ways to try to please God, we will fall short.