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Yom Kippur: A Day for Moral and Cosmic Self-Examination

The Days of Awe, or High Holidays, including Yom Kippur, constitute one of two beginnings in the Hebrew calendar. The second beginning of the year is marked in the spring at Passover, Holiday of Freedom.

All the Jewish festivals are tied up with one another as commemorating Creation, a cosmic event from which all life in the universe originated, and as commemorating the Exodus, an event of national significance to the Jewish people in particular. But it can be argued that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur represent more the cosmic aspect of traditional Jewish existence, while Passover, Shavuot and, to an extent, Sukkot represent more the national particular aspect.

The ‘remembrance of blasts’ (Numbers 29: “And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation… it is a day of blowing the horn unto you;” Leviticus 23: “And in the seventh month, the first day of the month shall be a solemn rest unto you, aremembrance of blasts, a holy convocation.”). of Rosh Hashana recalls the creation of the world: the God of Creation is seen as sitting in judgment of the world and issuing his decree ten days later on Yom Kippur as to whether or not His creation, as measured by the deeds of mankind, was worthy.  While Passover marks the national-particular event of the Exodus and the transition from enslavement to freedom and exile to redemption in the cultural and historic political sense, the Days of Awe signify Jewish existence within the cosmic framework of creation and destiny of the world.

I will draw upon the words of the philosopher-pioneer of the Second Aliya, A.D. Gordon, (Born 1856 in Podolia, died 1922 in Degania). to express some thoughts linked to the cosmic side of Yom Kippur and also to issues on the contemporary Jewish agenda. With the help of Gordon’s thinking, I wish to ask the following: what happens to a holy day like Yom Kippur when the axioms of religious faith, which in the past were the base of its construct, are rejected by a consciousness that no longer sustains those beliefs; and to what extent, if at all, is the holiness of Yom Kippur dependent upon acceptance of faith and beliefs that fashioned the Yom Kippur service over many generations?

Let us first turn to Gordon’s brief entreaty to his pioneer friends to find a way, their rejection of the religion of the Diaspora notwithstanding, to continue to observe Yom Kippur as a holy day for the nation of Israel (Aharon David Gordon, ‘L’heshboneinu im Hadat,’ (Our Accounting with Religion), in Aharon David Gordon – Selected Writings, ed. Eliezer Schweid, Hasifria Hatzionit, 1983, pp. 408-409). Gordon sympathized with the revolutionary stance of his young comrades, and agreed that religious mores based on the Jewish past, which embodied the environment of religious zealousness in which they were raised, were often not fitting to the creative spirit demanded by the new reality. But he believed that their revolt against religion went too far, endangering the Jew’s very existence in the cosmos. He asks:

Have we indeed closed our account with religion […] Have we clarified for ourselves […] what religion means to the soul of man? The nation had a special day for self-reckoning as a people and between each other, for examining the account of life; a total passion for the lofty demands of the human spirit. The accounts and matters of individuals are done with […] and have been replaced by the larger issues and accounts: human, national and cosmic […] (Ibid., p. 408).

Gordon wisely distinguished between the fossilized form of religion, of rote observance, and religion that is an integral part of human existence. For him, religion is that stratum of life where man meets a higher reality, regardless of man’s understanding of that reality. Yom Kippur is marked by the religious creative spirit of the Jewish people as a day of encounter with a higher reality, characterized by self-reflection of the individual, the family, the community and the cosmic human being upon the conduct of the world and the deeds we do.

Even in this context, the tribal-particularistic aspect of Jewish existence associated with commemoration of the Exodus arises, though emphasized less here than on the three pilgrimage festivals. According to Gordon, man is capable of experiencing the cosmos – in a way that enables him to conduct a profound examination of his deeds – only in the context of his concrete individual experience as part of a family, a community and a people that stands in relation to other peoples. He argues that only by means of these elements can man feel a sense of belonging to the wider human race (Compare to ‘Man and Nature,’ ibid., pp. 82-83: “Herein is the entirety of man’s world: Consciousness, language, poetry, formation of the nation, and all based upon religion or participating in the religion. The role of religion in the formation of the nation is of such breadth and depth,” in his opinion, “we must not form a living, independent nation without forming a national religion […]” And, “As the religion develops, so does the human collective develop.”).

This is the main thing. The individual as such can conduct a self-reckoning any day […] [but] what is significant here […] is the power of multiple individuals joining forces […] the noble melody that rises above the single voice merged in a sea of voices of the supreme, human-cosmic chorus (Ibid).

Gordon could understand the heart devoid of the God of Israel and thus incapable of performing the traditional ritual of the day. Nonetheless, he could not bear the thought of the new Jew, arising from the pioneering Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel, living without an established framework of self examination of one’s deeds in the cosmos; or that such a framework would not rest upon a dialogue with the elements that formed Yom Kippur in the past (Throughout his active years in the Land, Gordon struggled against the stream within the Jewish Labor Movement that sought to fashion the ‘new Jew’ by severing ties with Jewish traditions of the Diaspora. His main rival adversary, on this matter, was his friend Yosef Haim Brenner. See, for example, “Building a Nation” and “Clarifying the Difference between Judaism and Christianity,” ibid., pp. 267-273, 314-339).

The topic of self examination is a familiar feature of Yom Kippur, but it seems to assume special meaning in a generation undertaking to lay the material and spiritual foundation of its people’s future. Here, Gordon’s critique of both capitalism and Marxist socialism is relevant to the type of self-reflection he sees as vital to the pioneer society in the Land of Israel.

In his time, free market capitalism and Marxist socialism derived from the economic methods adopted by the new Jewish society being built in the Land. Gordon found serious fault with both, and though to my knowledge he did not discuss them in relation to Yom Kippur, no doubt their connection to the moral and spiritual failings of his day made him wish his fellow pioneers to avoid, through their self-reflection, those pitfalls.

Gordon argued that modern capitalist society was governed by a functional, mechanical, technological and commercial logic that eroded natural human solidarity and isolated the individual from the community into which he was born and bred.

In recent generations, as science […] has brought to the world previously unimaginable technology, capitalism – the child of advanced technology – […] has placed […] the mechanical above the natural […] and has engendered a tendency to consider the whole of humanity as a mere collection of individual molecules ( “L’birur Ra’ayoneinu M’yesodo,” ibid., p. 239).

In capitalism’s commercial and functional approach to reality, nature is not seen as a self expression of “infinite creative power,” the source of creation from which man “suckles life;” rather, it assumes a “character of a shop or a warehouse.” Even “the sown field and the forest […] are measured by number of trees or sums of money […] (Ibid., p. 125).  Obviously, focusing on the individual as separate from the general public is problematic for Gordon; but beyond this, capitalism turns man into a “parasitic plant” that knows to exploit nature’s wealth for his enjoyment but is unable to give back anything from his own creation. Ultimately, the commercial-technological logic shapes human consciousness to regard man himself as a commercial product, and the “human collective” remains “void of life in the cosmic sense.” (Ibid., p. 239).

Neither is Marxist socialism spared condemnation by Gordon, who argues that it too reflects a mechanization of the human spirit resulting from the development of science and technology. In this case, the cause is the dogmatic belief in historical materialism that evolves in accordance with the material conditions of existence in each age. Despite his insistence on the critical importance of the link between the individual and society, Gordon fiercely objected to the “nullification of the individual personality […] within the whole” and believed that human existence ultimately hinges upon each individual’s creative choice. But most of his wrath towards Marxist socialism is directed at its belief in the possibility of “renewing human life by means of new orders of collective living” without “renewal of the human spirit” (Ibid., p. 240). – that is, without educating towards development of the spirit, broadening the soul and creativity.

Gordon considered the Zionist enterprise to be in opposition to both of these worldviews; he viewed it as mainly an educational and creative undertaking that sought to create the new through a process of ongoing cosmic creation – a process that existed before the advent of mechanical consciousness, society and culture characterizing modernity.

This is in essence the historical human cosmic idea of our national revival – to renew the spirit and form of nationalism, to create it anew in a human-cosmic spirit […] based on labor and creation […], on joining with nature in the world […], on justice in all its varieties and forms, between individuals and between the nation and its individuals, [and] justice […] for all that breathes, all that lives and suffers ( The Writings of Aharon David Gordon, Vol. I, (Ha’uma V’haavoda), eds. S.H. Bregman and Eliezer Shochat, Hasifriya Hatzionit, 1951-1954, p. 224).

How was the self-reckoning of Yom Kippur to have a practical effect upon the creation of a culture, society and politics of the new Jewish Yishuv in the Land of Israel? This could not be predicted; but it was clear to Gordon that in order for the pioneer settlement to play a positive role in laying the foundation of the future existence of the Jewish people, it must focus on the Jewish-human-cosmic experience of self examination, asking: What image of man is proper for guiding the development of communal life?

It is always good to evaluate one’s path in life and ask, do I view my life and others’ from a narrow, selfish perspective or do I, at times, examine it through the cosmic prism in which the echo of the prophets’ call for return, repentance and repairing the world is heard? In Gordon’s time and place, during the pioneering days of the Second and Third Aliya, this was essential. However, in my humble opinion, this poses an important challenge in our day as well.

Today we must ask ourselves first and foremost if we wish to carry on the process of building our nation, in the vision of Gordon. If the answer is yes, then we must next ask if our social and political actions have, even inadvertently, transformed man into a lifeless commercial product. Let us not suffice with confessing “the sin which we have committed under duress or willingly;” we must hold ourselves to account for our dealings with our fellow man, and ask:  have our deeds as individuals and as a society promoted or impeded a worthy image of humanity? For, it may be that in the final account, only the image of humanity in our midst will determine if we and our world are worthy of existence.

Josef Turner is a Professor of Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

Yossi Turner is professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy (Emeritus). He received his MA and PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is active in a number of academic and public forums interested in the advancement of Jewish education and culture in Israel and around the world. Professor Turner has written dozens of articles and edited a number of works on a variety of topics in the area of Jewish Studies. He has also authored three full-length books: Faith and Humanism – An Examination of Franz Rosenzweig’s Religious Philosophy (Hebrew); Zion and the Diaspora in 20’th Century Jewish Thought (Hebrew); and Quest for Life – A Study in Aharon David Gordon’s Philosophy of Man in Nature (English).  Professor Turner is currently writing a book of original philosophical thought concerning the present state of the Jewish people, Israel and humanity, tentatively entitled: Between Desperation and Hope.

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