God of the Left and of the Right, Forgive Us

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A man praying at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur.Credit: Emil Salman

With Kol Nidre approaching, now is the time to suggest that this year, all Jews who see Israel as a central part of their Jewish belief and practice need to approach Yom Kippur in a slightly different way.

Yom Kippur’s message is primarily personal and not political, of course. It is a time for Jews to consider their actions, confront their wayward inclinations, and contemplate how they might repair their conduct and seek forgiveness for their sins.

The prayers of Yom Kippur do not do this in an abstract or philosophical way; they do it concretely and specifically. In the Al Chayt prayers, repeated 10 times during the traditional Yom Kippur service, the sins listed are the stuff of everyday life. We ask God for forgiveness for our offensive speech, lustful behavior, and oppressing our fellow human beings; we ask for pardon for our contempt for parents and teachers, for lewd associations, and for fraud and falsehood. Faced with these reminders of our sinful ways, laid out in excruciating detail and repeated throughout the day, there is no place to hide.

But with the Middle East in turmoil and with the memories of the fighting in Gaza fresh in our minds, it may be that we need to expand our liturgy a bit to recognize that our devotion to Israel, admirable but fierce and therefore sometimes extreme, can also lead us in sinful directions. And with that in mind, I suggest the following additions to the Al Cheyt prayers for Jews of the Left and Jews of the Right.

For Jews of the Left:

For the sin we committed by minimizing the dangers faced by Israel, making excuses for the actions of Israel’s enemies, and asserting grand ideals while dismissing troubling realities.

We see Arab moderation in places where it does not exist, and we fail to see Jew-hatred in places where it does. We try to put a good face on the outrages of Hamas and on the evasions of Abbas and the Arab League. We do not pay enough attention to the shell-shocked, traumatized children of Sderot. We excuse the ranting of Palestinian leaders, even when they lie shamelessly and accuse Israel of war crimes and genocide; and when we protest their words, if we do, we do so far too gently. We too often patronize the Palestinians and fail to remind them that their suffering, no matter how real, does not exempt them from the moral principles that obligate all humankind.

We speak out against the forces of religious extremism that polarize our people but not against the forces of assimilation that decimate our ability to survive as Jews. We sometimes forget that Jews who wear kippot or black hats are Jews too. And we forget as well that we Jews, despite the profound differences that divide us, still have one God and one Torah, and studying that Torah, each in our own way, is part of our Jewish destiny.

For Jews of the Right:

For the sin we committed by ignoring the occupation, accepting the status quo, and failing to take the initiative to propose a plan to move Israel toward peace.

We talk about a two-state solution but don’t really mean it, or we reject such a solution outright without offering anything in its place. We pretend that there can be Zionism without democracy. We forget that the Palestinians will always be our neighbors, and that without peace and security for Palestinians, there will be no peace and security for Israel. We pretend not to see the terrible burdens and cruelties of occupation and the suffering of the occupied, and we care more about the Land of Israel than the State of Israel. We are silent as Israel builds settlements that drain her resources, undermine her security, and turn the world against us. And we assume, without reason or rationale, that we can sustain ourselves indefinitely without a border.

We are also silent when Jewish hoodlums attack Arab civilians, destroy Arab property, and build illegal outposts in the territories. And we make shameful excuses for those who advocate a radical piety that imposes their religious will on others and accepts no form of Judaism but their own. We join in the battle against Islamic fanaticism but refuse to confront the religious zealots who live in the Jewish State and strike fear in the hearts of Israel’s political leaders.

And so we say together, Jews of the Left and Jews of the Right:

Forgive us our sins, O God of forgiveness, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer and lecturer living in Westfield, New Jersey.

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