Empty Prayers for Forgiveness

Yom Kippur, the most important day of the year to observant Jews, is an empty ritual to the majority of secular Jews.

Rachel Neeman
Rachel Neeman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Rachel Neeman
Rachel Neeman

The relatively recent trend of "selichot tours" in Jerusalem and Safed answers a need among many Israelis who see themselves as secular to connect to Jewish ritual and feel that they are better Jews as a result. A return to tradition, they call it. Once a year, they sign up for a nighttime walking tour with a professional guide during the days or weeks leading up to Yom Kippur. They peek into synagogues where the traditional selichot prayers are being said, view the crowds of worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and soak up the exotic atmosphere. Tourists in their own country.

This appropriation of the selichot tradition for the purposes of domestic tourism, sometimes with the addition of role-playing actors and recorded piyyutim (liturgical poems set to music ), is parodic, even perverse. Above all, it signifies apathy to the concept of selicha, forgiveness.

To truly connect to this concept, we should ask for forgiveness every single day: from the 18 Eritrean refugees we turned away at the Egyptian border; from Moshe Silman, who we abandoned to his fate; from Omar Abu Jariban, who we dumped at the roadside; from the refugees we lock up in detention camps; from Rachel Corrie; from the Palestinians we have been mistreating for decades. We should acknowledge our responsibility for these actions, protest against them and take action to insure that they never happen again.

But the selichot tour participants are engaged neither in forgiveness nor in making amends. Rather, they are engaged primarily in the realization of the "me culture." Its members, in addition to consuming designer labels and foreign travel in search of fulfillment, also feel a need to cushion their world with "meaning" - "meaning," that is, in the sense of a consumer good to be purchased, absorbed and eventually, inevitably, found wanting. Then Yom Kippur rolls around, and they find it lacking as well, an empty shell.

The most important day of the year to observant Jews is an empty ritual to the majority of secular Jews. Even the ones who fast, and polls show that most secular Jews fast during Yom Kippur, usually do not link the fast to a change of consciousness. Others do the minimum by attending the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur eve, considering the prayer to be kind of insurance policy for the year to come.

We have sinned, betrayed, robbed: These are empty words to those who are detached from the religious concept of heshbon nefesh, spiritual reckoning. Most secular Israelis spend the majority of Yom Kippur at the beach, or at home watching the movies they rented in advance. Nonetheless, they sense that something is awry, that there is another meaning to this day, hidden and deep, to which they are not privy. Perhaps they really won't be inscribed in the Book of Life if they press the "on" button of the DVD player? And what if they succumb to temptation and eat, like the character in Woody Allen's "Radio Days," who crosses the line after entering the yard of his "Communist" neighbors?

There's another question we could ask: Is it even possible for those who eat nonkosher food and sleep with menstruating women, even if they do occasionally kiss mezuzahs when they enter or leave a room, to connect to expressing remorse for their sins against the creator of the universe? After all, transgressions against God are the primary focus of the selichot services, not those against other human beings.

This question in turn leads us to wonder whether we do indeed live in a secular culture, or only pretend that we do, and have in actuality become addicted to rituals such as prostration on the graves of rabbis and buying amulets blessed by kabbalists. Israeli culture, which initially grew out of a rejection of religion and all that it stands for, is today apologetic at best and addicted to religious ritual at worst, and no longer even dreams of a separation of religion and state.

Maybe, alongside the social protest, we need a cultural protest, too. It would demand a return not to tradition, but rather to the roots of a new Hebrew way of being, liberated from the divine decree and committed to the humanist tradition, in which the formula "we are the most guilty of any nation" has a practical meaning very different from one it has for believers.

Selichot tours at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Sept. 6, 2012.Credit: Michal Fattal



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism