Thursday, October 6, 2011

How Does Forgiveness of Sins Work?

10/6/2011—Today is eve of Kol Nidre (the eve of the eve of Yom Kippur). During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jew is supposed to engage in an intense activity of self-examination. Here is an example from an email I received from Alissa Flores at Beyt Tikkun, which is a Jewish Renewal Congregation associated with Tikkun publisher Rabbi Michael Lerner:

“Yom Kippur gives us the tremendous blessing and opportunity to contemplate death before it occurs-- to even rehearse our deaths by wearing white, by fasting, by abstaining from material pleasures--so that it doesn’t hit us by surprise. It gives us the opportunity—once a year-- to tie up the loose ends, to finish unfinished business, to say our ‘I’m sorry’s’, ‘I forgive you’s’ and ‘I love you’s’, which, when we come to our death beds, we’d wished we’d said. And it gives us the opportunity to reflect honestly on our lives—to contemplate if we are where we want to be and if not, what we’d like to change. It’s an opportunity for a wake-up call without having to go through the kind of catastrophic event that often wakes people up.”

The apparatus of Yom Kippur—fasting, prayer, silence—is helpful in achieving self-examination, of waking up as Alissa puts it. But the holiday is also pretty useless. As the liturgy notes, every year the same sins reemerge to be noted.

This raises two issues that are perhaps related. How is self-examination practiced? And how does forgiveness of sin happen?

The problem of self-examination is that I am the same smug person who committed the sin in the first place. If I recognize it now, I probably recognized it at the time. And if I didn’t then, I probably won’t now. The problem of forgiveness is that there is no person/god to forgive me, so what is all this about?

And yet forgiveness of sin happens as I know personally. And the myth of a god who forgives is a crucial step in forgiveness. If I believe in confession and the possibility of forgiveness, then forgiveness is possible.

This fact tells us something about reality. For the link between self-examination and forgiveness of sin is what Heidegger called gelassenheit. When I trust in God, I am free to let all my defenses down. This helps me see myself warts and all. And I am free to trust God to forgive me, no matter what. This frees me to self-insight I could not otherwise achieve. I empty myself of pretension before God.

Is this kind of trust in reality possible without the God myth? I think so, but maybe only if I have been trained in that myth or an alternative myth first. Certainly secular life needs forgiveness.

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