Yom Kippur

One Judaism, Under Siege

It is easier to make Yom Kippur about personal atonement rather than collective responsibility.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

During my time as a yeshiva student in Gush Etzion, we lived through the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious nationalist. The heads of the yeshiva – then Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Yehuda Amital – not only condemned this illicit vigilantism, but also took the opportunity for heshbon ha-nefesh – for evaluative self-reflection on behalf of the national-religious community that they shared in leading. At the time, I remember feeling a certain resentment that those whose politics and ethics made them least culpable in breeding this kind of hatred were those who spoke loudest about sharing in the responsibility. Was it not the extremist rabbis who should be beating their chests, and not the rabbis already explicitly talking about Jewish responsibility for the other?

If anything, the even easier answer would be to avoid the chest-beating altogether and pursue the route of “not my Judaism.” “Not my Judaism” is a convenient way to avoid collective culpability, and especially culpability for deeds perpetrated under a banner that we share. Those who burnt a mosque this week in the name of Judaism? This does not implicate me – they are practitioners of a different religion.

This idea blossomed for me in one of my most fascinating and sobering memories from this past year, when I was sitting with a major Israeli politician and several key American Jewish religious leaders. One of the rabbis in the room was on a tirade against the growing ultra-Orthodox power in Israel, and mentioned in particular some recent act of thuggery – and commented that he watches ‘them’ and “at times, feels that we and they are observing a different religion.” Without batting an eye, the secular but Jewishly engaged politician – who seemed otherwise kindred politically and religiously to the rabbi – responded by saying, “Sometimes I feel that way about you.”

Division and distinction, dissent and difference are breeding an emerging language that tells us that it is easier for us to think of ourselves as different religionists with a common ancestry than it is to see ourselves implicated by the actions of others.

In fact, the question of ‘one Judaism or many’ represents one of the great debates among scholars of ancient Judaism. Does the evidence of widely disparate Jewish practice in antiquity suggest that we are seeing one Judaism with many forms, or quite literally multiple different “Judaisms?” We tend to think of the internecine conflict of the Second Temple period as ‘sectarianism;’ we know that nascent Christianity and rabbinic Judaism shared common ancestors; and we assume, like the present, that Jews across geographic divides, in distant Diasporas, shared enough in common with their kin across the boundaries to be considered part of the same religion. But is it necessarily so? Some scholars have argued that when we use the category of Judaism to describe all these ancient phenomena and different practices, during a time when the Judaism that we know today was in formation, we obscure the genuinely meaningful diversity of its colorful past. After all, many of these forms of Judaism ultimately disappeared. Do we gain or do we lose from a big tent when we think about our mythic past?

I am basically agnostic about the ancient historical question, though I follow my teacher Professor Shaye Cohen in feeling more challenged by thinking about what is shared rather than drawing quick and easy distinctions. It is much harder, however, to be agnostic about this question in the present and to wait for historians to chronicle the issue.

The events of this past week and this past Jewish year suggest that this question has not gone away. The Jewish people is becoming more diverse than ever before – more diverse even than during the transformative and cataclysmic first century, which saw the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the emergence of Jesus, and political divisions so severe that they created devastating long-term rifts that led to violence and bloodshed. We have become a people riven apart by Israel, once one of the defining features of our collective identity. Increasingly we are growing apart along denominational and ethnic lines as well, with mounting distinctions in how we define who is Jewish and who can cross the boundary and become Jewish (or Israeli); who should speak for our institutions; and what represents the authentic continuation of our oh-so-central defining past.

This Yom Kippur, I plan to beat my chest in thinking about this state of affairs. If Passover represents the Jewish people coming together, Yom Kippur is the holiday of the shared common religion of the Jewish people. Yom Kippur’s core ritual, in the Biblical and rabbinic retelling, was the purification of the Temple by the High Priest; and at the same time, the ritual of the scapegoats. One goat, bearing the sins of the people as confessed by the High Priest was sent to death in the distant wilderness; the other was slaughtered and sacrificed to make expiation for the people. Our sources and the liturgy describe the sense of collective anticipation and relief when these rites were performed properly; the destiny of the Jewish people, as a people, held in the balance throughout these tense ritualized moments.

Just as it is easier to isolate the events of others ostensibly perpetrated in our name as the acts of others, it is easier to make Yom Kippur about personal atonement rather than collective responsibility. Look around: Yom Kippur has become intensely personal.

Our communities mark the day differently in our thousands of different holy places; and even within, we wrap ourselves in our own penitential private spaces, beating our chests silently for our own transgressions, even while we speak about those transgressions in the first person plural.

The heshbon ha-nefesh that the Jewish people now sorely need is the much more challenging, much more painful awakening and reviving of this day in which Judaism is reaffirmed as one religion. It is not intuitive, it is not easy; but perhaps we might once again make collective responsibility a source of joy and pride.

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