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Yom Kippur is Broken
If Yom Kippur is the highest holiday in Judiasm, why do so few Jews take it seriously?

September 22, 2007

Against my better judgment, I went to High Holiday services last night for Kol Nidre, the unique service that takes place at sundown on the night when Yom Kippur begins. The reason I went is because I find the Kol Nidre melody particularly intriguing, more than the words or the cantor who sings them. The holiday, which is meant to be solemn and more important than any other holiday in the Jewish religion, is best represented by those four notes, three of which are the hauntingly the same. And this, I think, is a shame.

Yom Kippur should, of course, best be represented by the sudden change that society sees in the Jewish people the day after those notes are sung. Atonement for sins requires not only asking God for mercy, but also our fellow citizens. The most observant Jews spend all day in synagogue, praying, chanting, and asking God for forgiveness for a multitude of sins that are laid out in a script which is the High Holiday prayer book (or Machzor, in Hebrew), so perhaps there isn't time. For the rest of us who spend less time in services, however, one begins to wonder why there isn't a sudden outpouring of grief from Jews for things they have done wrong during the previous year.

Stephen Colbert, the well-known comedian (who was brought up Catholic) appears to understand the holiday better than most. His comical "Atone Phone," complete with a Star of David and Hava Nagilah ringer, is meant to be a joke, and it's an effective one—it's hilarious to watch on television—but it actually demonstrates what should be happening worldwide during the ten days between Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur. Those of us with good reason to should actually pick up the phone, or send an e-mail, or do what it takes to express remorse. It's something I've done for several years now when I could think of specific instances where I felt ashamed of my actions, and though the recipients of my communications were typically surprised and assured me that the gesture was unnecessary, I think it is.

Furthermore, it's my belief that the holiday spirit should apply to all Jews, no matter how observant, and no matter how influential. No service that I've been to is complete without some reference to Israel, whether buried in a psalm in the prayer book, or as the topic of the Rabbi's sermon. The Jewish homeland is frequently referred to in terms that make it seem infallible (oddly enough, on the same level with the Catholic Pope). It is blessed, it is prayed for, it is lauded for its innovations and its people—and yet they are still only people. Israel is a nation of human beings, and though Jews have a long history of granting leeway to other Jews, perhaps justifiably, we are all fallible. While the Israeli government and military clearly must fight a hard but necessary battle to ensure the existence of the country, one must wonder why the leaders of Israel don't seize upon the chance to ask their enemies for forgiveness on this day of all days. Painting one's foes as unthinking, inhuman beasts is inaccurate and counterproductive, and even if one disagrees with that or is unsure that appeasement is the answer, it's clear that the current set of aggressive tactics has not made much progress of late. From a purely political stance, simply asking forgiveness means taking the higher road in the press, at little to no cost in terms of human lives. There's always political risk, but it's a less dangerous risk than one which might provoke a bomb.

In short, my fear is that Yom Kippur has become meaningless. While it's still common for American Jews to fast, the ritual seems largely empty. (My phone has certainly yet to ring on Yom Kippur, and I can certainly think of a few people who owe me that call.) It is always nice to see friends and family when it's time to eat again, but I'd like to think that once upon a time, there was something more to the holiday than being hungry for a few hours before continuing to behave exactly as before.

Perhaps my standards are once again too high. Then again, they are called the High Holidays.

Aaron Greenspan is the CEO of Think Computer Corporation and author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. He is the creator of the FaceCash mobile payment system, ThinkLink business management system, and PlainSite legal transparency project.

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