How we can all repent on Yom Kippur — even if it means losing an election

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish males of the Vizhnitz Hassidic sect listen to their rabbi on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea as they participate in a Tashlich ceremony in Herzliya, Israel, on Sept. 17, 2018. Tashlich, which means "to cast away" in Hebrew, is the practice in which Jews go to a large flowing body of water and symbolically "throw away" their sins by throwing a piece of bread, or similar food, into the water before the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

(RNS) — Tuesday night (Sept. 18) begins Yom Kippur, the day on the Jewish calendar when Jews recite the following confession 10 times: “We have sinned against you, God, of our own free will: by hardening our hearts, speaking openly and privately, knowingly and deceitfully, in our speech with impure lips, giving in to our worst urges, speaking ill of our neighbors, throwing off restraints, ensnaring our neighbors, taking false oaths, and in baseless hatred.”

These are among the 44 sins Jews recount as we go twice through the Hebrew alphabet of 22 letters, a doubled “A to Z” of our sins. We haven’t each committed every sin on the list, but we surely have every base covered as an entire congregation — and then some.

This Yom Kippur, I’m struck by how many of these 44 sins are about vilifying our neighbors and practicing bigotry.

It takes a long time for us to break through our natural resistance and self-righteousness to confess our wrongs. We take all day because we have spent an entire year speaking ill of our neighbors. It well may take the whole year to make right our iniquities. First, we must own that we have hurt others.

The Jewish community is not alone in committing such sins, but the truth is that all Americans could do with an accounting of our national transgressions. As a country, we should all beat our breasts this Yom Kippur — indeed, every day.

We insult religious minorities – especially, in the past year, American Muslims – and rail against those who are guilty of not being just like us.

“Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,” by Maurycy Gottlieb, from 1878. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

The rise of religious bigotry comes at a time of increased political polarization and overt white supremacism. The negative rhetoric flows from the highest offices in the land, bathing us in the wickedness of hating our fellow citizens. Like Pharaoh of Egypt, our leaders refer to human beings as animals infesting the land.

Without owning up to our transgressions, as Yom Kippur demands, we are unable to repent of them. But it is not enough to confess and beat our chests. We have to ask for forgiveness. We must reach out to those we have marginalized, lied about, dehumanized, and offer a sincere apology.

This is not easy. It is especially hard since the others we have degraded may not want our apologies. What then? Well, Jewish practice requires us to beg their forgiveness again. And again.

There is more. True repentance means that when presented with the same occasion to say nasty things, to descend to the least common denominator, to tweet out bile, to spew hatred as a political tactic, we do not commit the same sin against our neighbor once more.

We must renounce the politics of division. We must reject scoring points by beating up on the Other. We must run the risk of losing, yes, losing an election, losing power, losing office, and instead raise up our fellow Americans and all who aspire to be part of this great country.

If we want God’s blessings, we should heed this scripture of American civil religion: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Between now and Nov. 6, we have a great task ahead of us as a nation. We must confess our sins toward our fellow citizens, we must seek to redress their grievances against us, and we must resolve not to pay heed to the worst demons of our nature.

Let the season of repentance be our preparation for the great work of loving our country and loving each of our fellow Americans as we engage in the sacred rite of voting.

(Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky is the Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he directs the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Burton L. Visotzky


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  • Noble sentiments, though sadly lost on a dumbed-down country that’s less concerned with JFK’s selflessly noble “Ask not what your country can do for you…” and more interested in the greed-ridden “I’ve got mine, F U!” That’s Donald Trump’s ‘Murika. That’s where we are. That’s who we are. And the longer the orange Russian puppet squats in the Oval Office the worse it will get. Welcome to ‘Murika, y’all.

  • 1) Elections are decided by human voters in the United States. We do not get our presidents by God allowing them or not allowing them.
    2) It’s my understanding that 71% of Jewish American voters wisely did not vote for Donald Trump.

  • And not only that. Of the 36% of eligible voters who voted in the presidential election, less than 1/2 voted for Trump. So, to say that 1/2 of America supports him is a wild exaggeration.

  • The definition of “a dumbed-down country” is apparently a country in which the majority of the states in the last election did NOT see things your way.

  • Oh no, that nonsense again.


    Take the entire popular vote.

    Subtract California’s popular vote.

    The result is more than 50% in favor of Trump.

    What the Electoral College accomplished was exactly what it was designed to accomplish: preventing a small number of populous states from deciding national elections, in this case saving the rest of us from joining Governor Moonbeam and the Space Cadets.

  • This is how Jonah got vomited out of the whale. “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy” Yes, Jonah has visited your synagogue.

  • And this is why it is Hillary’s priority to get rid of the electoral college. Unfortunately, evil pervades for a season at the the end of the earth. One can smell her thru out the land.

  • The reason the Democrats are very interested in getting rid of the Electoral College is simple: as Hillary demonstrated in the last election, certain states have been heavily courted, wined, dined, and porked to become deep blue. The largest among them is California. She didn’t even bother to show up in some states.

    This largess will pay off IF they can dump the Electoral College.

    The problem is that doing so is an insurmountable task which requires approval of the states they’ve completely lost.

    There is nothing fair in a federal system about empowering a handful of states such that they run the country.

    That’s why, for example, we have a Senate to act as a check on the House of Representatives.

  • He seems to have indicated that Hillary is a tool of evil.

    When last I checked Hillary was a “she”.

    Would “it” work for you, as in “Take Hillary, for example. It is a tool of evil.”?

  • Hmmmm… wondering when the senate democrats will apologize to kavanaugh. Looking forward to “Spartacus” Booker and “Chinese Ninja” Feinstein to beat their breasts.

  • It supplies the southwest, beginning with California, with the supermajority of Democrats needed to win the popular vote if and when they manage to nuke the Electoral College.

  • Oh, come on, danny! People up and down the political spectrum bring politics into almost everything. Neither the “left” nor the “right” has a monopoly on that.

  • I’m sure some of them would disagree indeed—–if they are there rationalizing how they got Donald Trump. But that’s a mental bug, not a feature (as they say).

  • Go ahead, hold your breath — try not to die. Because we are dying 1000 deaths/day watching how this country is being destroyed by the current administration and its henchmen.

  • Israeli Jews are on a different wavelength, have different priorities. We’re here and have to worry about our country.

  • As a Jew, you have to worry here? Worry about what exactly? I am Jewish and have the opposite of worry living here.

  • As an outsider, I’d be curious to know why there appears to be such a political chasm between American Jews and Jews who live in Israel.

  • California has it proportioned amount of electoral votes as stated in the constitution. If they squared away the voter roles; they may lose a few seats in the house.

  • Nightly news….
    Television shows…
    “Main stream” media…
    Google, amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Twitter….
    College campuses….