An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds his son as another helps them to perform the Kaparot ritual
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds his son as another helps them to perform the Kaparot ritual in Bnei Brak, Sept. 20, 2012, ahead of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Photo by Reuters
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For an observant Jew the situation seems simple: On Yom Kippur, according to Jewish law, transgressions committed against God are forgiven. Your transgressions against another human being, however, are only forgiven if you have asked the injured party for forgiveness. Likewise, the injured party is required to offer forgiveness if asked. This somewhat impossible formula, which does not take into account the complexities of human nature, might have been appropriate centuries ago, when Jews lived in closed-off, conservative and hierarchical societies in which most interpersonal and collective disputes were mainly a matter for the individual and the surrounding community.

But what of the present day when, because of the unrestricted flow of information, the perpetrator is often not even aware that he has given offense and does not know who was injured and why.

An observant Jew is obligated to reconcile with their fellow Jew, even if this takes place mainly on the verbal, symbolic level. Members of a religious community can turn to a rabbi, who may only analyze the situation but may offer advice and who often issues a ruling. But what about someone who is secular?

To a humane individual, forgiveness and reconciliation are part of their makeup, and there are alternatives to the laws set out in the Shulhan Arukh. Such a person is in no need of special days (such as Yom Kippur ) or obligatory rituals. The alternative to Jewish law, particularly the laws governing relationships between people, is mainly a matter of moral intuition. In any event nonobservant Jews have no supreme authority to turn to for instruction on how to behave in delicate, complex personal situations. Friends, family members, psychologist or marriage counselors are not a substitute for authority.

But lo and behold, even though religious people are filled with the shalts and shalt-nots governing interpersonal relationships, there is precious little meaningful difference between their behavior and that of secular people. Xenophobia, for example, exists in both camps. Certain rabbis with many followers even issue rulings, such as the one prohibiting renting apartments to Arab students in Safed, that are unacceptable event to religious people who have embraced universal values.

In our crowded, conflict-filled public agenda, filled as it is with existential disputes, dealing with problems between people is pushed to the bottom of our priorities. And even when they do occasionally rise to the top of our awareness, as for example in last year's social protests, one would be hard put to point to any significant change in behavior as a result. This is chiefly because those who drew attention to the issue did so manipulatively, in order to advance political aims in areas where there is no consensus and to attack their rivals - and were soon found out.

Some will say, even if we accept the almost axiomatic assumption that people have evil in them from youth, that human society has advanced dramatically, especially in recent generations. Thus conciliation meetings between religious and secular people, or those aimed at reducing tension between Jews and Arabs, or right and left, must be treated as acts, albeit symbolic, whose effect goes beyond the small circle of people who are conciliatory by nature. This also holds for the moving gestures toward refugees and work migrants.

But promoting deep, substantive changes requires changing our lifestyle; our national character, if you will. And I fear that the average Israeli, whether religious or secular, is not ready for this. G'mar hatima tova - May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.