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The Meaningful Quiet of Yom Kippur in Israel

Even on the Day of Atonement, no single sense of ‘Torah’ can safeguard the distinctive needs and wishes of such a pluralistic society
Dr. Marcie Lenk is  the former Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Christian Leadership Programs.

Late on Friday afternoons, all over Israel one feels that things are slowing down, becoming quieter, preparing for the Sabbath. Yom Kippur is called “the Sabbath of Sabbaths” (Leviticus 16:31), and in Israel, one feels that intensified sense of stopping and stillness.

On Yom Kippur, streets and highways are so empty of cars that strolling adults and young children on bicycles and roller skates take over.


This scene, taken for granted by native Israelis, is unimaginable elsewhere in the world.


I recently spent a number of years studying and teaching in Boston, where despite the sizable Jewish community, Yom Kippur is a special day only inside the synagogue.


Out on the streets, there is nary a sign of this holiest of days. My sense as a Jew heading for Yom Kippur services was that I was moving against the tide, trying to create a reality of a day which was not really happening “out there” in public space.


This year in Jerusalem, as I enjoy the sense of peace and solemnity of Yom Kippur both inside and outside my synagogue, I am reflecting on the significance of Jewish time in public spaces. In other words, I am thinking about what it means to have a Jewish state.


One of the teachers in my Jewish school in New Jersey instructed us that when we sang the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva,” we should replace the line “to be a free nation in our land” with “to be a Torah nation in our land.” As I prepare for my 15th experience of Yom Kippur in Israel, I wonder again that I ever believed that this would be a good idea.


I am proud to live in a country in which Jewish values are expressed and experienced in our public space.


But the “Torah nation” for which I sang as a young girl would be a theocracy, a model rejected by Israel’s founders and rejected by the government and most of the people of the State of Israel.


The many kinds of Jews in Israel take different approaches to their Jewish lives, and the rights of our non-Jewish minority groups must always be protected, as well. No single sense of “Torah” can safeguard the distinctive needs and wishes of such a pluralistic society.


While the Chief Rabbinate does have too much power in cases of Jewish family law, in most day-to-day issues, no one in Israel is compelled to observe Jewish law. As a modern democracy, freedom of religion and freedom from religion must be protected, as is promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.


The Jewish calendar is dominant in Israel, as is the Hebrew language. How else do we express the Jewishness of the state? The Jewish tradition provides models of a society that all of the citizens of Israel may agree upon, despite our diversity. The haftorah reading for Yom Kippur comes from the Prophet Isaiah. There is irony that in the middle of this day of fasting, we read a prophet’s condemnation of the self-righteousness of the person who believes that s/he is special to God because s/he is committed to abstaining from food. The prophet asks rhetorically, “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:5).


He then answers his own question, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted…,” this is the way to be in God’s favor.


The values expressed by the prophet are now shared by most societies around the world. For Isaiah, however, these are values that the people of Israel need to understand as expressions of the will of the God of Israel. Today we might call them Jewish values.   

As we enter into the holiest fast in the Jewish calendar, my hope is that in the quiet of the day we will all feel that Yom Kippur is truly present in the State of Israel.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

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