This Shabbat, we will celebrate the Shabbat of Shabbatot, Yom Kippur. The Torah portion for Yom Kippur focuses on rituals in the desert during the Exodus. It goes into great detail about the sacrifices that must be performed – purification rituals for Aaron, for the Mishkan, and for the people, as well as rules for observance of the holiday. People often interpret the holiday as one of penitence and sacrifice, a solemn, serious, subdued day. It seems to be a holiday made in heaven for those who hold fast to ritual, who believe in a strict interpretation of rules and laws. In the ongoing struggle for the soul of Israel, our observance of Yom Kippur might seem to argue in favor of those who hold to a strict, Orthodox world view.
And yet, the Mishnah and ancient Israeli history seem to indicate that there are more layers to this Holy Day. In Tractate Taanit 26B of the Babylonian Talmud, we discover that at one time in Jerusalem, it was customary for the young women to dress in white finery and dance in the vineyards in order to attract eligible young men, a kind of early Jewish Sadie Hawkins Day. As the young men gathered around them, the women would quote Proverbs, urging the young men to choose them, based not on beauty, but on their inner virtues. These young men and women went beyond the ritual described in scriptures, and found a way to apply the concepts they found there in a personal and positive way.
Rabbi Irwin Kula writes on CLAL’s (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) website that “the rabbis claimed there was no more joyful day on the calendar than Yom Kippur.” He points to an interpretation of the Torah that says that on the first day of Elul, Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets after destroying the first set upon seeing the golden calf. Yom Kippur, then, is that date 40 days later that Moses returns with our second chance. The higher value here was not ritual, but being forgiven and finding a way to be closer to God through observance of the commandments.
Even the prophets seemed to think that there was more to the holiday than ritual. Our haftarah reading from Isaiah says that it is not fasting or ritual per se that is desired, but observance of the holiday by those who let the oppressed go free, share their bread with the hungry, take the poor into their home, and clothe the naked. We, the Jewish people, needed to do more than follow a form; we needed to be a just people and practice justice in the world.
Going beyond scripture and applying the lessons learned in them is part of the ongoing discussion we have with God that began, frankly, in the Torah itself. Over and over again we see our forebears arguing and discussing what they think God is saying. We see it with Sarah laughing and questioning the messenger (Angel) when she hears she is to give birth. We see it when Abraham argues for the lives of those in Sodom. If we can see Yom Kippur as more than a process of expiation, but as an attempt at reconciliation and relationship, as at-one-ment rather than just atonement, we are entering into that same conversation.
Judaism would not be what it is today without our history, the Oral tradition, the rabbinic interpretations, the prophets, and, in the modern era, the insights brought by our modern day movements. We have moved beyond the expectation of ritual for ritual’s sake, if indeed we were ever really there. And Israel would not be what it is today without the non-Orthodox majority – those who have fought in the army, reclaimed and worked the land, created a rich culture of music and art – and through groups like the Reform Movement in Israel, which reached out to the souls of the modern and so called ‘secular’ Jews who are part of a rich Jewish Renaissance there. As we honor and celebrate the fullness of Yom Kippur, as we read not only the Torah but the haftarah, as we reach for a closer relationship to God on this holy day, let us commit ourselves to protecting the rights of all Jews – including those in Israel – with complete access to the same fullness and level of participation in this eternal Jewish conversation.
May we all be written and sealed into the Book of Life!