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Yom Kippur: A First Step to Peace

by Ira Chernus on Sep 10, 2002

Ira Chernus

Jews have been observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, every year at this season for two and a half millennia. In each historical era, the day has taken on new meanings. All of those meanings are now reflected in the Jewish community’s ambivalent view of the Middle East conflict. This year, if Jews confess that they, as well as Palestinians, have done wrong and must atone, it could mark a major step toward Middle East peace.

Yom Kippur was first celebrated in biblical times by the priests of the Temple of Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, where two Muslim mosques now stand. It was a ritual for cleansing the Temple and the whole Jewish people of impurity.

The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the first century C.E. A movement to rebuild it has become a rallying point for far-right Jewish nationalists, who are willing to desecrate the sacred mosques. That could provoke all-out war between Israel and the whole Muslim world. Not too many years ago, the idea was widely seen as a lunatic fringe notion. Now it is part of the mainstream debate in Israel, indicating how far to the right the mainstream has expanded.

The later history of Yom Kippur has influenced both ends of the current political spectrum. After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis made Yom Kippur a day of self-scrutiny, a day to repent of sins against all of God’s commandments, ethical as well as legal. The rabbinic prayers, still used in most synagogues today, were phrased in the first person plural. The Jewish people as a whole confessed (“WE have sinned”), asked God to forgive them, and resolved as a group to do better in the coming year.

The modern state of Israel benefits from this sense of communal responsibility. It claims to act in the name of all Jews everywhere. Jews around the world generally respond by supporting Israel’s policies, especially toward its Arab neighbors. However, the holiday’s message of ethical obligation raises disturbing questions for some Jews, as they watch Israel’s army of occupation caught up in a seemingly endless spiral of violence.

In the 19th century, Yom Kippur took on new meanings that reflected this tension between national solidarity and moral sensitivity. The Zionist movement generally saw Yom Kippur (like all Jewish holidays) as a way to reinforce sentiments of national solidarity. The religious meaning of the day became secondary and optional. So did the ethical self-doubts so central to the rabbinic view. For most Zionists, the fact that Jews were oppressed and needed a place of refuge justified anything that would build a strong Jewish state.

The liberal Jewish religious movements of the 19th century produced a quite different view. They focused on Judaism as a way to embody universal principles of moral conscience. On Yom Kippur, liberal Jews stood in solidarity with all humanity, resolving to live by the norms of goodness that all people share.

This strand of Judaism has been especially sensitive to Israel’s military violence. Growing voices on the Jewish left have questioned the ethical as well as practical wisdom of Israeli policies. The scenes of tanks flattening houses in Jenin and other West Bank towns this spring gave new strength to those voices of moral protest.

The existence of a Jewish state, wielding political and military power, has heightened the ambiguity embedded in Yom Kippur’s history. Most Jews want to embrace the feeling of group solidarity that goes back to biblical times, now reshaped by the currents of modern nationalism. At the same time, many want Judaism and the Jewish state to embody global ethical principles.

So this Day of Atonement (“At-one-ment”) finds Jews asking:Ý Are we called to be “at one” with our fellow Jews in Israel, who seek peace and security? Or are we called to be “at one” with all humanity, including the Palestinians, and to repent of violence done against the people of the Occupied Territories?

Striving to blend these two impulses, but not knowing how, the Jewish community is confused. The way out of confusion is to recognize that an occupying power at war can never be secure. The best way for Jews to help Israel’s quest for secure peace is to be “at one” with the Palestinians, who are calling for an end to occupation and a viable state in the West Bank and Gaza.

But “at-one-ment” demands a painful first step. Jews should atone by acknowledging not only the wrongs done by Palestinians, but also the wrongs done by Israel. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish community should confess that it, too, has sometimes tolerated and even supported abuses of power. That is the best next step in the evolution of Yom Kippur, and the best step toward Mideast peace.


Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.