Rediscovering the Transcendent in Our Religious Life

A sermon by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, Yom Kippur 5741 (1980)

Every year at the approach of Yom Kippur, I experience restlessness and a surge of feelings caused by powerful memories of how I celebrated this occasion as a youth in the Hassidic environment of pre-war Poland. Before I became a rabbi, Yom Kippur was one of the most painful days of the year. It was a time when my present conflicted most with my past. On Kol Nidrei night of the year before I decided to become a rabbi, my inner turmoil reached a peak and I could not even remain at services. I had first gone to the Conservative synagogue, and as I entered, I saw at the other end, the leaders standing on the bima dressed in their holiday best, well fed and clean shaven, holding the Torahs ready to begin Kol Nidrei. For some reason I perceived them as smug, self-satisfied, and their egos so bloated that they were dwarfing the very Torah they were holding in their arms.

In contrast I saw with the eyes of memory the Kol Nidrei night of 1939. The Hassidism of the Rebbe, Reb Yosele, a grandson of the Holy Jew of Pszysucha, standing in stocking feet robed in white kittles, reminiscent of the shroud, and wrapped in the talis, their eyes downcast, reading the Tfilah Zakah, a meditative prayer of contrition and confession recited privately before Kol Nidrei. As they whispered the prayer, their sighs and sobs sobered even children who came with a feeling of play. The contrast between what I saw before me and what I remembered was too much to bear and I left.

I walked over to the Reform congregation in the vicinity. The first jarring note was the heavily upholstered seat which moved back automatically like in a movie theatre. But I was determined to stay on. After a few minutes the rabbi and cantor appeared. The rabbi stationed himself at the center of the bima, stretched himself to his full height, and with an affected British accent, called out: “And the Lord spake unto Moses saying speak to the children of Israel.” At this point, I got up almost automatically and slinked out of the temple. I walked up to the nearby railroad station and sat down in the corner of a bench, and as the fast trains ripped past me, roaring, they tore off my chest layers of pain, anger, and anguish and brought relief to my inner turmoil.

I am quite aware now of the different feelings that contributed to that inner upheaval. It is true none of us can go home again, but my home had been destroyed, both my physical and spiritual home, and I had not yet managed to construct a new one of my own. I was not only single but alone; my whole family had been murdered during the war. Yet beyond all these feelings there was also a yearning for the true Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and not just for a family celebration, though it was also that; not just for a sense of community with other Jews, though it provided that in abundance. It was a yearning for the supernatural element of Yom Kippur, which gave the occasion a richness and fullness that spilled over into other spheres of life and filled them with meaning. It was this, the dimension of the sacred, which I experienced on Kol Nidrei night in my youth and which I missed on these occasions ever since then.

Strange as this may seem, I later discovered that I could not find it even among the Hassidim. About 25 years ago, friends of mine from Poland who remained Hassidim had invited me to spend a Shabbat with them. We did everything as it was done before the war, including the gestures during prayer, the melodies, the motions, even the fragrances all were the same. I had the uncanny dreamlike experience of stepping out of time and returning back to 1939. Everything was exactly as it was before the war. Only one thing was different and that was me. I looked at my former self and was a stranger to it. I’ve since often been invited to visit Hassidic rabbis but have resisted because I am no longer a Hassid, and I could not treat it as a sort of theatrical performance.

You might say that in my own lifetime I’ve gone through the experience of three generations of American Jews. I came with deep roots in the Jewish tradition as it was lived in Poland. I went through a period of alienation, not observing the tradition, and then came a third stage. I returned searching for renewal in my own tradition.

My return to the tradition, which took place in the ’50s, was impeded not only by the image of a particular form of Judaism in which I was raised, one that I could no longer affirm, but even more by the orientation prevalent among American Jews at that time. The ’50s was the last decade dominated by the melting pot ideology. We were still in the process of Americanizing our tradition. Often, this was done not out of the spiritual needs of the community or from new insights in our tradition. Factors external to these played the decisive role. We were determined to be American, and the notion of what this entailed was decisive in determining the form and content of Judaism. One might say that we were too outer-directed to have done justice to our heritage. At the same time, most knowledgeable Jews, including myself, continued to believe that there really was just one monolithic and authentic Judaism which called into question the authenticity of any form that varied from it. The Reform and Conservative movements were only politically at odds with Orthodoxy and with each other. The vehemence of the debate more often than not was only a reflection of an inner conviction that they were not on solid ground, not really authentic.

That is the reason why most interpretations of Judaism which came to us from the melting pot generation, the one that tried to rationalize and psychologize Judaism to make it attractive and suitable for good Americans, focused on the moral aspects of our tradition. While I’m not sure whether the sacred subsumes the moral, I’m certain that the moral, important as it is both in itself and as the foundation of piety, does not subsume the sacred. Hence, the Torah of most modern interpreters stands on one foot.

My change of attitude came from a deeper study of our tradition. I realized that historically we cannot speak of a monolithic Judaism. We can only speak of themes and continuity. This coincided also with an appreciation of the uniqueness of the American Jewish community, a uniqueness that calls for corresponding innovation in our religious life.

In recent years, I have had the good fortune of being a member of a community that has been wrestling seriously with Judaism. Sustained in their effort not by memories, but by a direct confrontation with our sacred sources, they know the difference between morality and sanctity and are not satisfied to take God as a metaphor. What is remarkable about this community is not only its earnestness but the affection and cheerfulness that characterizes it. In this community I’ve found both the challenge and support for my own inner development and for the celebration of the sacred in our life, not as Polish Hassidim, not even as Williamsburg Hassidim, but in our present westernized, Americanized selves. I’m still far from a comprehension either of the phenomenon or of the way to it, but I’m prepared to accept my responsibility heeding the Talmudic dictum: “It is not upon you to complete the task, nor are you free to shy away from it.” I also know that I can rely on your sound judgment to help me clarify what is still cloudy and to abandon what is nostalgic. As I see it, our task is to reexamine our tradition to rediscover the sacred for ourselves.

In this task we have to overcome the notion that one form of Judaism is more authentic than another. Our tradition teaches: “רחמנא ליבא בע” – “the Compassionate One wants the heart.” There is a saying in the Talmud, “הרבה בנים למקום” – “God has many children,” and the emphasis here is on their uniqueness. In plain American English, that means pluralism. Hassidim tell of a master who upon succeeding his father introduced many changes. When his disciples questioned him about it he said: “I’m doing precisely what my father did. He served God in his own way, and I’m trying to serve God in my way.”

We have to distinguish between style and substance. By substance I mean the tradition which we all inherited. By style I mean the particular mode of celebrating the tradition of which Hassidism was just one. This is a simple but significant distinction, particularly for us who are in time close to eastern Europe and Hassidism, but in orientation very distant. The important thing to bear in mind is that the tradition is neither Hassidic nor Orthodox nor Conservative nor Reform. All of these are just different approaches to it. The tradition is as much our heritage as it is theirs, and it is now our turn to give it our commentary, to develop our style, and like them use in the process all of the insights contained in the wisdom of the ages of the past periods in accomplishing that task.

Now I would like to turn our attention to substance. I would like to discuss Yom Kippur, what it celebrates and how tradition has structured the celebration of this event so that we come in contact with the sacred dimension in it.

Our holidays are anniversaries celebrating religious events that created the Jewish people and established its character. In the celebration of an anniversary we attempt to span a bridge across time to a significant event in the life of a person or a group. The couple that celebrates their wedding anniversary conjures up the original event that brought them together, the powerful feelings they had for each other on their wedding day. The celebration serves to reinvigorate their union in the present. The same is true for the celebration of national holidays. They put us in touch with a significant event in the life of the group, usually an event that determined the character of the group as, for instance, July 4th. But the encounter in both instances is essentially the same, because at the source of the event celebrated there is an idealized self with all of its power and problems. The religious holiday as an anniversary also takes us over a bridge of time to a constitutive event in the life of the group, but here lies the difference. The event itself is not of human making. Its source is divine.   The event is the result of the interaction between a people and their God. Hence, the encounter is not with idealized man, but of real human beings in their interaction with God.

The best way to discuss this encounter is to see how tradition has structured it in two instances: Passover, the event of redemption; and Yom Kippur, the event of atonement. On Passover, the ritual of the Seder – a drama in which we are the principles – leads us step-by-step with increasing intensity from where we are at present to the experience of the ultimate event of redemption. We begin by pointing at the matzah and proclaiming boldly: “This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt,” but we are still on the periphery of the experience. With the four questions, a rhetorical device to stimulate the imagination, we direct our attention to the symbolic acts and foods of the Seder, and we come one step closer to the experience. We then recite succinctly, almost formulaically, the story of the redemption from Egypt and follow up with a Midrashic exposition of its high points, all the while employing the inclusive “we” until we are ready to declare “The Holy One, Blessed be He, redeemed not only our ancestors, but also us.” Following this we sing Hallel, the song of the redeemed and, cup of wine in hand, we chant “Blessed are you Lord who redeemed us and redeemed our ancestors from Egypt” and then proceed to eat the feast of redemption. In this way the annual celebration of Passover recaptures for us the redemptive experience of the Exodus, a unique and eternal act of divine redemption, the source of redemption forever. And as we link ourselves consciously with this event, we transcend all vicissitudes of history including the Holocaust.

The question we now ask is, what is the event that we celebrate on Yom Kippur? There is an old tradition recorded in the Midrash that Yom Kippur is celebrated on the day that Moses came down from the mountain with the second Tablets of the Law. The first Tablets he broke when he saw that the people, whom he had led out of Egypt and who made a covenant with God at Sinai, were dancing in a frenzy around the golden calf. After astute and insistent intercession on their behalf, Moses finally succeeded in convincing God not to reject his wayward people and to renew the covenant. Upon God’s invitation, Moses again went up to the mountain, spent there 40 days and 40 nights, and the Midrash goes on to say that “the day on which God showed Himself merciful to Moses and to his people was the 10th of Tishri.”   On that day Moses was to receive the tablets of the law for a second time, and all of Israel spent it in fasting and prayer that the evil spirit might not lead them once more astray. Their ardent tears and exhortations, joined with those of Moses, reached heaven, so that God took pity upon them and said:

My children, I swear by My lofty name that these your tears shall be tears of rejoicing for you, for this day shall be a day of pardon, of forgiveness, and of cancelling of sins for you, for your children, and your children’s children to the end of all generations (Legends 3:138-39).

Thus, the reconciliation between God and Israel after the sin of the golden calf is the event that determined the date for the celebration of Yom Kippur. What the Rabbis of the Midrash sought to establish was the transcendent event of atonement and divine pardon, which will forever be the source of atonement.

Now, let us see how tradition structured the ritual and liturgy of Yom Kippur so that it leads us into contact with that transcendent event of atonement. We begin our celebration by cessation from work and by fasting. There are many reasons why our tradition prohibited work on the Sabbath and holidays. At this moment we will focus only on one. To celebrate Yom Kippur we human beings have to change orientation. During the work week he sees himself in the center of his world, making a living. Cessation from work here means withdrawing from that orientation to one in which man reintegrates himself with all of creation before God. Thus, cessation from work is creating the psychic space for the sacred occasion.   The fasting is usually thought of as a tangible act of contrition. I think that the Midrash suggests also another reason, a symbolic one. Fasting on Yom Kippur puts every one of us in the position of Moses on the mountain while pleading with God for the Jews; at that time we are told he neither ate nor drank.

We begin our service with Kol Nidrei. On first glance a legal formula, but upon consideration it is the most sobering statement about ourselves. In essence what we are saying is that our promises and vows to God, which began with piety, ended in mindlessness. We made vows, but we didn’t keep them. It is a humbling confession, one designed to make us contrite. In this mood of humility we enter Yom Kippur. Here, I must emphasize that without humility there is no contrition, there is no repentance, and there can be no return to God.

After Kol Nidrei, the congregation in a chorus with the cantor declares: “The whole Israelite community and the stranger residing among them shall be forgiven for it happened to the entire people through error.” This is a quotation from the Bible in which atonement is prescribed for the community when it fails to observe one of God’s commandments. What we are doing is quoting scripture to God; we establish the ground for atonement. Next, the cantor recites the words Moses used when he pleaded with God after the sin of the golden calf: “Pardon, I pray the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness,” and the whole congregation responds, quoting the words of God: “I pardon as you have asked.” Here, for once, the voice of the people becomes the voice of God.

During the silent prayer when we pray for pardon, we speak of God as “a King who pardons and forgives the iniquities of His people Israel year after year.” We are referring to God’s promise alluded to in the Midrash, and throughout the confession we use the plural “we,” identifying ourselves with the people of Israel before God. All of these references and quotations play upon our imagination to lead us back to the original event of atonement, to a sense of nearness to God, the God of mercy and forgiveness.

When the cantor leads us in communal prayer, we recite the central prayer of atonement which is repeated 13 times in the course of Yom Kippur. We preface the prayer with:

Lord, You instructed us to recite the 13 attributes of Your mercy, remember to us, we beseech You this day, the covenant of the 13 as You once revealed them to the humble one.

The humble one, of course, is Moses. Then we recite the divine attributes:

The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment but visits the iniquity of father upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.

In order to convey the full significance of this prayer in our service, we need to return to the context in which it was first uttered. Moses had already succeeded in stilling God’s anger over the golden calf, but he had yet to obtain a full pardon. To break the impasse he asked for a personal favor. He said to God: “Oh, let me behold your presence,” and God granted him a revelation. Following that audience came the divine command that he prepare the second tablets. When Moses appeared with the tablets we are told that “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed the 13 attributes of mercy.” On this, R. Yohanan, a Talmudic sage of the third century commented:

Were it not written in scripture we could not say this but scripture teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself in a talis like a cantor, showed Moses the order of prayers and said to him ‘Whenever the Israelites sin let them perform this service and I’ll forgive them.’

And, in keeping with that divine instruction, we recite this prayer at the beginning and concluding services of Yom Kippur, and when we do so, we return to the original luminous moment of revelation and pardon.

I still want to point out two more instances in our liturgy. One is the Torah reading, which describes in detail the first service of atonement performed by the first High Priest, Aaron, at the end of which we are told

And this shall be to you a law for all time… For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30).

It is this verse which we recite just before the silent prayer on Kol Nidrei eve. In doing so we return to the sacred moment of the first atonement service and respond to God in His own words, as if to say “Here we are, doing what you asked.” The second thing I want to refer to is the sacred service in the Temple which we read during Yom Kippur day.   That service describes in detail the rituals and prayers of atonement performed by the High Priest in the Temple, and as we read the vivid description of that service in the Temple of old and we join in chorus with the High Priest in his confessional atonement prayer, we transcend time to that great event.

The cumulative effect of our repeated returns to the original event of atonement ends in a powerful acclamation of God, when, at the end of the Yom Kippur services we shout seven times, “The Lord is our God.”

Do these actions and prayers lead to the experiences I’ve described? The answer is – they can. It depends on us. The resources at our disposal are immense and potentially inspiring. I know that there has been a break in tradition. The community with whom I recited Kol Nidrei in 1939 was steeped in tradition. It was their exclusive civilization. Our community is steeped in Western and American culture, trying to rediscover our tradition. What I tried to demonstrate was that the tradition has provided us with a guide to the illuminating and confirming events that originally created the people of Israel. Everyone here has, at one time or another, experienced the transforming power of words and actions. Ritual is of particular importance because it is capable of conveying meaning beyond the rational. This certainly is true in love. I know the difference between these two spheres of human experience, and yet I believe the analogy is apposite. The task is only more difficult.

We now face the task of restoring the sacred dimension of tradition into our life. It is the eternal element of our personal and national existence. It is the source of our creativity. The time is ripe. We are past apologetic and rationalization. We have come into our own as a powerful and populous community.   We are ready to embrace our tradition, including the sacred in it. I’m encouraged by the earnestness and devotion of the people I meet, and I’m convinced that the inner light of our tradition will reveal itself to us as it did to our ancestors.


© 1991 Ben-Zion Gold

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