Things Christians need to know, for our own sake, about Yom Kippur, Judaism’s Day of Atonement

by Ken Sehested

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight,
and the earth was filled with violence.”
—Genesis 6:11

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Invocation. “Forgive the entire congregation / of the children of Yisrael / and the stranger amongst them / for the entire people sin unintentionally / Please pardon the sins of this nation / in accordance with the greatness / of Your lovingkindness. . . . / And Adonai said / ‘I have pardoned [them] as you have asked.’” —translated portion of “Kol Nidrei,” Cantor Mo Glazman, prayer sung on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day on the Jewish liturgical calendar

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Introduction: Both of the following two things are true.

First, the attempted co-opting of one cultural or religious tradition by those of another tradition is risky, often arrogant, and a form of colonialism. Some, especially among the relatively privileged, wish to collect “experiences” like others collect stock portfolios. “Culture vultures” is an accurate naming of this usurpation.

Second, people of the Way (the adjective “Christian” would come later, from Roman persecutors), those of us who seek to orient own lives through the “pioneer and perfector” of our faith, Jesus, cannot understand our own core convictions short of knowing our tradition’s deep and abiding rootage in Judaism. And the touchstone of that revelation is Yom Kippur, the climax of the Jewish High Holy Days.

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Hymn of intercession. “Our father our king / Bring an end to pestilence, war, and famine around us / Our father our king, / Bring an end to all trouble and oppression around us.” —English translation of lyrics to “Avinu Malkeinu,” performed by the Shira Choir featuring Shulem Lemmer. Avinu Malkeinu is a Jewish prayer recited during Jewish services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as on the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.

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Yom Kippur: the day of repentance and atonement.

Yom Kippur: the high holy day of confession and cleansing, with the ensuing ritual sealing of names in the Book of Life.

Not confession and repentance in the way many of us Christians have come to believe. Yom Kippur does not mean self-abasement. It is not a day for self-reviling and personal shame; it is not a day for groveling in the presence of the divine, as if God takes pleasure in punishing and condemning us—much less watching us punish and condemn ourselves or each other.

God is not a sadist. And the call to confession and repentance is not a form of masochism.

In Judaism, the focus of Yom Kippur’s call to repentance is not resignation and despair over our weakness and sin (great as they may be), but renewal and hope, the chance to start again.

The Beloved (who cannot be named and tamed) does not assault. The portal to such Love only opens by way of penitential tears—with the honest recognition of fearful, faithless, frail ways.

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Hymn of petition. “And as For Me, My Prayer is for You (V’Ani S’flilosi),” from “The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur,” David Chevan with Frank London and the Afro-Semitic Experience.

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Conflict mediation specialist Byron Bland writes that two truths make healthy community difficult: that the past cannot be undone, and that the future cannot be controlled.

However, two counterforces are available to address these seeming inevitabilities: the practice of forgiveness, which has the power to change the logic of the past; and covenant-making, which creates islands of stability and reliability in a faithless, fickle, sometimes ruthless world.

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The purpose of repentance is not retaliation but restoration; the focus is not on exacting revenge but on enacting repair.

There is joyful coherence between the work of penitence and the struggle for the Beloved Community: The former’s resolve is not to wallow in the prospect of loss, but to bask in the prospect of gain—not to dwell in the land of accusation, but to move forward to the land of shared bounty.

In the end, we are saved by beauty, not duty.

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Word. The context of Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, when one’s name is properly sealed in the Book of Life, is the story of Hagar’s weeping, having been expelled from the security of Abraham and Sarah’s abode, the life of her own son Ishmael threatened by the desert’s desolation. Hers is the first weeping recorded in the Torah, and thus the first in recorded human history. Ever since, the work of Atonement is inseparable from the capacity to hear the cries of the afflicted.” (KLS, exegetical insights from biblical scholar Pamela Tamarkin Reis)

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Above: Painting by Diana Bryer, titled “Rabbi Lynn” (blowing the shofar on Yom Kippur), in honor of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, my co-author, with Muslim chaplain and Sufi scholar Rabia Terri Harris, of “Peace Primer II: Quotes from Jewish, Christian, & Islamic Scripture and Tradition”

Speaking here as a Christian, the purpose of repentance is clarified in this Hebrew phrase from the Talmud: “Tikkun olam,” translated as “repair of the world.”

Tikkun olam was the purpose of God in Creation.

Tikkun olam incited giving of the law, the prayers of the poets, and the clarion call of the prophets.

Tikkun olam was the mission of Jesus.

Tikkun olam is the continuing impulse of the Holy Spirit.

The practice of tikkun olam, in New Testament terms, is conveyed in Jesus’ command to love enemies.

Tikkun olam: In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

As the ancient writer observed, the root of spiritual corruption blossoms into the fruit of fleshly violence. All the Spirited testifiers of the past, and all their kin in the present, witness to the transforming power of sounding of the call to penitence as the portal to that beatific vision which bespeaks the day when, as the prophet recorded God vowed, “I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25); of the time, as the Revelator foretold, God’s own residence will be among mortals. . . . And God “will wipe away every tear” and “death will be no more: mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:3-4).

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Hymn of longing. “Ribbons, pearls, golden flags / The Messiah, son of David, is above us / He holds a goblet in his right hand / And gives his blessing to the whole earth / Amen and amen, this is the truth / The Messiah will come this year.” —English translation of “Shnirele perele,” performed by Pharaoh’s Daughter

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Madrone’s eyes were far away. Slowly she drew her attention back to the room, and shook her head.

“I know my destiny,” she said. “I had a dream.”

She turned to meet Bird’s eyes, and gave him a little, hesitant smile, almost like an apology.

“What kind of dream?” he asked, knowing before she spoke what she was going to say.

“That kind of a dream,” she said lightly. “The kind that messes up your life. It said, ‘Build a refuge in the heart of the enemy.'” —excerpt from “City of Refuge” by Starhawk

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“While we were yet corrupt and violent,
Christ built a refuge in our enemy hearts.”
—KLS paraphrase of Romans 8:5

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Benediction. “Comfort ye, Every Valley,” Handel’s Messiah, text from Isaiah 40, Gramophone Ghana Chorus feat. Ebenezer Antwi

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