Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Secular Yom Kippur

9/27/2009—The above title refers to two aspects of Yom Kippur today for me: my own secular journey, which may cut me off from a very meaningful experience, and the future of secularism in general.

Yom Kippur means day of atonement. It is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The ceremony originally involved sacrifices at the Temple. This ceremony later changed to one involving chickens. Most liberal Jews are not even aware of this, but I experienced it when I was a Yeshiva student. I remember the day of the chicken very well. Here is a description:

"The Kaparot ritual involves taking a chicken (a rooster for a man and a hen for a woman) or money in your right hand and revolving it over your head while reciting a prayer.

The prayer finishes with the following declaration:
'This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken will go to its death (or, if using money, 'this money will go to charity') while I will enter and proceed to a good long life, and peace.'

The chicken is then slaughtered and it (or its cash value) is given to the poor. This ritual is meant to symbolically express our recognition that we have sinned and are no longer deserving of life. By killing the chicken we are stating that, in truth, this should be our fate but that God has given us the opportunity to return to Him through teshuva and Yom Kippur.

It is important to realise that Kaparot is not a magical means of removing your sins. Only teshuva, 'repentance' can do this. Kaparot is a way of inspiring and expressing teshuva."

The question is whether a secular person can find a way to fundamental renewal. I will go to synagogue tonight and I will try to fast tonight and tomorrow. But since I am no longer a member of the synagogue, which is a symbol of no longer belonging to the community, I don’t think the day will happen for me as it used to.

Many secularists do not seem to understand the need for repentance. Purification is alien to them. But the old image is still the best one. Once, your soul was shiny and new. You have accumulated dullness and even some tears in your soul. That means that you have lived in an ok fashion most of the time. You have done some real harm some of the time. And you have done shameful things a few times. I say this about you because it is true of me and you are no better.

But you can only repent in the presence of something larger and better than yourself. Where will this come from in secularism? John Dewey might say that it could come from the ideal version of myself—-what I could have been and what I could have done. If so, we would have to believe that sin can be forgiven. Perhaps life itself gives us a new chance every year. I hope all my readers experience growth and satisfaction in the year to come.


  1. "I hope all my readers experience growth and satisfaction in the year to come."

    Thank you.

    I wish you the best of luck with your synagogue.

  2. I agree - secularists do need the idea of repentance, and a special time for it. We all do. It is in line with taking time to reflect or meditate, and taking time out from the hectic day-to-day. To feel, really feel, the strong sensations of being alive as such - one of the strongest of those being suffering. Without time to reflect on the feeling of suffering, you may not stop to ask why you feel that feeling. My suffering comes from many things, but some are definitely repentance-worthy.