Yom Kippur in Israel, Or, Why Guilt Is No Good for the Jews

The sages taught that if you come upon a beggar, you are not obligated to give to him, but you are obligated not to look away. Simple, right? Not at all.

My father-in-law died much too young for me to have had the privilege of knowing him. Still, over the years, I've learned much from lessons he taught his daughter. Here is one that I've returned to over and over again as Yom Kippur approached:

The sages taught that if you come upon a beggar, you are not obligated to give to him, but you are obligated not to look away.

Simple, right? Not at all.

My first impulse, I have to say, is to give without really looking. No, even that's a lie. Encountering the street person, the person in need, my first impulse is to feel guilt. To feel shame. Shame at what I may have, thank God, and what he or she may not - my health, my family, a home. And then, perhaps as a means to look away, to give.

My first impulse is not to, as billboards for the new season of an Israeli television series advise "Look truth in the eye."

I thought of my father in law's lesson again when I read Peter Beinart's explosively accurate article "The American Jewish Cocoon" in the current New York Review of Books. Beinart states that many knowledgeable U.S. Jews essentially wall themselves off from Palestinians and the realities of their lives.

"To say that American Jews need to hear from Palestinians is not to say that doing so will turn them into doves," Beinart notes. "To the contrary, in some ways a truly open conversation with Palestinians may be more discomforting to American Jews like myself who are committed to the two-state solution than to those skeptical of it."

Far better this, though, he suggests, than a situation in which by and large, American Jews do not look truth in the eye.

Of course, to an extent that is remarkable, given the dense geography and history of this place, neither do many Israelis.

And, to a degree that is no less troubling – given that I have had a personal hand in occupying every single region that Israel has ever occupied – neither, these days, do I.

In theory, the power and rootedness of guilt in the Jewish tradition would cause someone like me - compel someone like me - to seek out injustice, to see it in situ, and to act. Guilt, they say, is meant to motivate.

But that's not how guilt works, is it? In fact, guilt paralyses. Guilt is a magic mirror that makes you look bad and, rather than spurring you to do something about it, keeps you staring at your own reflection. This force which is meant to empower, undermines. It is obsession unrelieved by enlightenment, gravity without gravitas.

Worse, on Yom Kippur, tradition has made guilt into a fetish. Intoning and enumerating our sins, we beat our right fist into our left breast no fewer than 860 times. There are those among the more traditional, who precede this by swinging around their heads a doomed chicken, or money for charity, and saying (Machzor Zichron Zeev translation): "This is my exchange. This is my substitute. This is my atonement. This rooster will go to its death, [or this money will go to charity] while I will enter and proceed to a good long life, and to peace."

Enough.

This Yom Kippur fast, to the degree that I am capable, I will be abstaining not only from food, but from guilt.

It has taken me a lifetime to comprehend that true atonement has nothing to do with feeling guilt, and everything to do with taking responsibility. It's about time.

I will not feel guilty for living as a Jew in Israel. I will not feel guilty that the members of my family are proud to be Israelis, proud to speak Hebrew, proud to love the Torah, Jewish sources and Hebrew literature and song, proud to protest social injustice against the poor, the asylum seeker, the minority.

Just as I will not feel guilty for working as hard as I can for an independent state of Palestine alongside Israel. Just as I will not feel guilty if I explicitly advocate for the rights of Palestinians over the rights of settlers.

Guilt, like pessimism, is faith in failure. This Yom Kippur, I am trading optimism for shame, faith for frowning.

I'm not yet sure how this will play out. But the first step will be giving up that most destructive of guilty pleasures, guilt itself.

In fact, it's already having an effect. Going cold turkey on guilt, I'm beginning to see what the Machzor means when it instructs us to take things, by force, by fist, to heart.

Al chet she'chatanu l'fnecha b'n'tiyat garon. For the sin we have sinned against You in haughtiness, condescension, acts of patronizing.

Al chet she'chetanu l'fanecha b'kachash. For the sin we have sinned against you in denial.

A few months ago, I got glasses. Oddly enough, almost immediately I was able to hear better. Listen better.

Look truth in the eyes.

This year, I'm going to keep my glasses clear. The better to listen to my father in law.

Olivier Fitoussi