Rabbis Explore Themes of Yom Kippur


I have swept aside like a cloud thy transgressions.” Merciful in its authority, ethereal in its imagery, and intimate in its address, this line, uttered by God to the people of Israel in the Book of Isaiah, resounds with the chief concerns of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar. Also referred to as the “Day of Atonement” or the “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” Yom Kippur concludes the first ten days of the Jewish New Year, known as the “Days of Awe,” with a 24-hour period of fasting and repentance.

Rabbi Deborah Silver of Shir Chadash (Photo by Alan Smason)

This year, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday, September 18 and continues until nightfall on Wednesday, September 19. As the holiday approached, the Crescent City Jewish News spoke with the rabbis of three synagogues — one Reform, one Conservative, and one Modern Orthodox — in the New Orleans metro area, and explored, through a series of one-on-one conversations, the emphasis Yom Kippur places on such weighty topics as forgiveness and renewal.

“Yom Kippur is for me the most intense day of the whole Jewish year,” said Rabbi Deborah Silver of Shir Chadash, a Conservative synagogue located in Metairie. “It is set about with restrictions but at its heart there is an intoxicating freedom.” Many Jews likely would agree with Silver that Yom Kippur, which stipulates a rigid abstinence from bodily needs, is unmatched in its physical and spiritual intensity. In addition to fasting, the holiday demands that Jews not bathe or engage in sexual intercourse.

“You can rest assured that I will be brushing my teeth on Yom Kippur night and on Yom Kippur morning and even on Yom Kippur day, because my breath will smell bad having not eaten any food,” said Rabbi Matthew Reimer of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation located in Uptown New Orleans. Bad breath notwithstanding, in turning one’s attention away from the physical world, “a more spiritual or lofty state” can be attained, suggested Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Metairie. Similarly, this withdrawal from the body, according to Reimer, is a way “to help focus us,” paring away potential distractions to the soul as it concentrates on asking God for forgiveness of one’s sins.

Rabbi Matthew Reimer of Temple Sinai (photo by Alan Smason)

“Yom Kippur is the day that we apologize to God,” Reimer continued. “But there’s a huge only if before that. And the only if is, and I don’t know if I’ve ever framed it this way, we’ve only earned the right to ask for forgiveness from God — and be forgiven by God — if we have done the work of asking forgiveness from each other, and from and for ourselves.”

Implicit in the act of asking for forgiveness is a return to those that one has wronged. Reimer pointed out that the Hebrew word “teshuvah,” which refers to the self-reflection performed by many Jews during the Days of Awe as an avenue towards forgiveness, can be translated literally as “return.” If forgiveness involves returning — to the wronged, to oneself, or to God — it also coincides with the return of a new year, a paradox central to Judaism in which time is experienced as at once cyclical and linear.

In repeating the process of repentance each year, Yom Kippur offers the opportunity for renewal. Silver elaborated on the import of this: “Yom Kippur represents a huge Jewish idea – that change is possible. We do not have to remain trapped in old, destructive patterns of behavior. Audaciously, Judaism tells us that we never lose our potential to learn, to grow and to flourish.”

Kol Nidre, the melodic opening ceremony of Yom Kippur, perhaps epitomizes the way in which the holiday brings about renewal. Oriented to the past and to the future, the prayer, which translates to “all the vows,” frees one from the broken promises of the bygone year in order to make new vows for the year to come.

Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg of Beth Israel (photo by Nicholas Hamburger)

“Kol Nidre has historical roots,” explained Greenberg. “In the Torah, and then all the more so in the rabbinic commentaries like the Talmud, there’s a heavy emphasis on a category of actions called ‘vows.’ There are a lot of different words for types of vows. I’ve joked in the past, which doesn’t imply that this is funny, and it’s probably not, that I grew up hearing the Arctic native peoples had many different words for snow. Well, Jews have a lot of different words for types of sins and types of vows.”

Silver intends to use the context of Kol Nidre to mention a teaching of Rabbi Akiva that is nearly two thousand years old. “He analogizes Yom Kippur to a ‘mikveh,’ a ritual bath,” Silver said. “That is, it is capable of effecting actual transformation.” But if Yom Kippur, like a purifying ‘mikveh,’ holds the possibility of personal metamorphosis, the success of that renewal hinges on whether the individual can resolve any ambivalence they feel towards someone in their life.

As Greenberg notes, “you cannot go into the ‘mikveh’ with any problematic relationships.” If one does, according to the conditions of Judaism, the process is undone. “A faulty societal or communal relationship,” Greenberg continued, “negates an individual’s relationship with God.” To this end, Jewish renewal is predicated on forgiveness, on returning to those that one has wronged, on moving towards reconciliation.

In asking for forgiveness, Reimer explained, “you’re returning to humanity. It’s all tied together — you’re returning to what it means to be a neighbor. You’re returning to, in your deepest self, what it means to be a member of society. And that’s as much work to do with your neighbor as it is to do with yourself.”

This sensitivity towards one’s neighbor, and ultimately towards oneself, is integral to Yom Kippur. Near the end of the Book of Isaiah, an anonymous prophet relays a string of questions asked by God of the children of Israel. In his line of rhetorical questioning, the speaker perhaps hints at the compassionate vulnerability underlying the act of fasting. “Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?” he asks. “When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?”

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