Yom Kippur is coming up. This year it will coincide with the Jewish Sabbath (September 30 / October 1). While Jewish New Year (Rosh haShannah) is a new beginning for all of Mankind, Yom Kippur seems to be a private party between the Creator and the Jews. What’s going on?
There is a story that I heard from a very smart, wise and holy rabbi. I listened to it every Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur for years. In the beginning it shaped up each year, but now it seems to have stabilized. Meanwhile, I have found plenty of arguments to demolish it. I still have tremendous respect for this rabbi, but on this story I overtook him.
The story — which I now mostly abhor:
Yom Kippur is such a great gift of charity from G-d — only for the Jews. It goes beyond what makes sense. How could we come up to an earthly judge and say: We did it, but we regret it, so please overlook it. Yes, we did the same things for years and promised to improve every time and each time we failed, but we were sincere in our contrition at the time. And it is not from fear that we apologize for our violations of the law — we regret them from our love for the law giver, so please reward us as if every violation was actually the opposite. That would be absurd, no?
But that is exactly why G-d awards only the Jews with special leniency: because of our unquestioning loyalty to Him which also makes no sense. We said: Whatever You tell us we shall do, no questions asked (Exodus 24:7). That is going beyond what is reasonable, so G-d treats us also better than the reasonable.
Gentiles, on the other hand, go by what makes sense. The rabbis teach us (Eichah Rabbah 2:13): “If a person tells you there is wisdom among the nations of the world, believe him.” Our Rabbis always needed to argue the Philosophers of the world. The latter made fun of our Commandments that are not understandable, especially of (the type of) the Commandment of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19:1-22). They go by logic, so G-d judges them reasonably. There’s no leniency possible there. Repentance doesn’t work for Gentiles. They will get the full measure of Heavenly punishment. (Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-10) was a one-time exception – and only temporarily so.)
So don’t let go to waste G-d’s great special charity for us, and repent.
* * *
I will tell you what I like in the above story, what I dislike in it, where it doesn’t make sense, and then I will give you a better story instead.
I like in it
Jews get a special treatment, not because G-d would be partial — Heaven forbid — but rather because we deserve it for being the only People in the world that said and says: We will obey and then understand (Exodus 24:7). I’m sure that Gentiles also can get out of the ordinary treatment — for instance for protecting Jews and making them live safely.
However, there are many Jewish sources that stress that G-d holds Jews to a higher standard, doesn’t give us a pass at all. And that the Laws for Jews are always more demanding than Jewish expectations of Gentiles. That would explain two things. Why Jews would need special days more conducive to repentance and mercy. And why Jews need to pray as a community whereby the virtues of members add up and morally weak points are cancelled out by strong points in others.
Excellent call to seize the moment and repent.
Anyway, the rabbi is only talking to Jews; if he were to address Gentiles too, he probably would pick another thing or two to say. And he most likely doesn’t know Gentiles as well as I do. He actually might be more familiar with idol worshipers from the Books and anti-Semitic masses from more-recent assaults on Jews than with modern Non-Jews.
I dislike in it
I grew up with Gentiles, in a Gentile surrounding and with Gentile friends. I can tell you: they’re not that different from us. That’s why we are Divinely obligated not marry them. On a human level it’s often hard to tell the difference and know why we shouldn’t.
You can’t maintain that Gentiles collectively or individually all would be so different, think differently, are less trusting in G-d and that only their repentance would be of no value.
It doesn’t make sense
Heavenly judgment does not resemble earthly judgment. Even for a rabbinical court, repentance plays no role for the verdict. First of all, because you don’t know if it is truthful. Secondly, a rabbinic court does not punish. It lets people return what they took unlawfully or pay up what they withheld. So it makes no sense to compare civil punitive law to Heavenly Judgment.
Besides, G-d knows if you really made amends and also: how could He punish? Even lowly me never punished my children. If they “misbehaved,” I would talk to them, help them. Sometimes I would learn why they did something that I didn’t like; sometimes I learned that they needed help with something. That’s the way to help things pick up.
Punishment hardly makes any sense, as it generally hurts people and does not improve them. Maybe punishment can voice a society’s norm, encourage people not to give up on justice and work as deterrence, but that’s about it. It makes no sense in the name of justice to hurt someone or satisfy feelings of revenge — especially not for G-d.
I once worked as a shop assistant . On my watch, a visitor to the store stole something very expensive. My boss did not only the nice, but also the smart thing: he did not let me pay for it — though he could have. He knew that I really couldn’t miss the money and he also understood that punishing his worker may make him more anxious, but not necessarily more effective against theft. If my sense of loss would not improve me, punishment certainly would not.
Death makes even less sense than punishment. From a human perspective, death is a loss, a tragedy, and there is no justification for it. It’s too costly. That’s why we Jews must believe in Heavenly (reward and) punishment and sages need to apply laws of capital punishment — because they make absolutely no sense whatsoever. So treating logic-following Gentiles measure-for-measure cannot entail killing them.
Gentiles have Free Will just as Jews have volition. The only difference is that we have a larger literature than anyone else to support us to choose the moral path. (That does not prove that we are more successful. We might as well be more challenged so that we need more ammunition against evil.) Regret is our Free Will operating on the past. And now you would tell me that Gentiles don’t have that?
Further, it makes no sense at all that a Gentile could and would regret and improve his life and G-d would stay or act oblivious to it, Heaven forbid. Why would He let him live beyond the first mistake if not for giving him a chance to shape up and to show that he means it?
Giving creatures a possibility to repent but regard it as worthless is like throwing a person drowning a life jacket that you punched a hole in. Abraham already tells us that that is inconceivable: “Shall the Judge of all the Earth not do Justice?” (Genesis 18:25).
So if G-d should treat Gentiles with hard logic, He could not punish or kill them.
A better story
There are many important cultures and languages, and losing any of them is a loss beyond recovery to all of Mankind — and when done deliberately it constitutes ethnic cleansing.
Yet, all people could become Catholic, all of us can make and enjoy pizza and all nations may learn Latin, so specific peoples do not need to survive. Their cultures should. So, the more intermarriage among Gentiles the marry-er, I would say.
Yet, Jews are a People — the only People — grounded on a mission. We are the only Nation with a raison d’être. Only Jews can practice, learn and understand all of Judaism, and so the Jewish Nation must live on — as the only one. This is also for the good of all people, as Jews have as assignment to proliferate our holy moral Lore, meant for and important to all of Humanity, not just the Jews.
Therefore, I assume that “there is no Yom Kippur for Gentiles” means: there is no specific day on which all Gentiles collectively need to find Heavenly pardon. (Gentiles should also not celebrate Shabbat, and Yom Kippur is the ultimate Shabbat on earth.) Rather, each individual Gentile may repent on any day (today is best!) and time (now) on his/her own.
Jews need Yom Kippur and the other Festivals, and Yom Kippur Katan and Rosh Chodesh almost every month, and every night before going to sleep with specific prayers to shape up and turn our ways around as a People.
May all of Mankind be inscribed for a good and sweet new year!