Tikkun Magazine

The Joy of Yom Kippur: A Conversation Between Dovid Gottlieb and Michael Lerner


A feast is laid out and consumed before the twenty-five hour fast. Credit: Public domain.

Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb:

The ninth of Tishrei features a once-a-year meal—the festive banquet in preparation for the twenty-five-hour fast of Yom Kippur. It of course serves the purpose of storing nutrition for the fast. In addition, Rabbeinu Yonah adds in his classic Shaarei Teshuva that Yom Kippur is a day of joy, and joy cannot be fully expressed without a banquet. Why is Yom Kippur a day of joy? And why is eating necessary to express joy?

Yom Kippur provides us with a balanced approach to the problem of guilt. There are cases where guilt is unrealistic. This may be due to ignorance of the consequences of the action or inability to do otherwise. Also, when justified feelings of guilt crush the agent, leaving no energy or confidence to improve, those feelings are crippling. Twentieth-century psychology stressed the importance of relieving such feelings. One of the methods sometimes used to relieve guilt is the denial of standards. You feel guilty for violating a norm; psychology teaches that the norm is invalid. When you accept that teaching, you will no longer feel guilt. However, when pressed too far—as in “to understand all is to forgive all”—that method denies the validity of all norms and thereby denies our very humanity. Recognizing morally binding standards, and feeling guilty when we irresponsibly violate them, is part of the essence of being human. What we need is to acknowledge failure and use the appropriate feelings of guilt to creatively improve—and then expiate the feelings of guilt and start with a clean slate.

That is what Yom Kippur provides. We engage in honest, wrenching self-evaluation; we create practical strategies for changing in the future; and, as a result, the day cleanses us from the residues of past failures. “Kippur” in biblical Hebrew means “cleansing.” We feel reborn, and that is a source of great joy. Indeed, this joyous rebirth is one of the reasons that the holiday of Succos five days later is called “the time of our joy.”

One index of this process is the avinu-malkeinu (our father our king) prayer. That expression occurs often in the liturgy, even on ordinary days, and it is never reversed: it always names father first and king second. In simple terms, that is because G-d is parent in essence, and in one relationship plays the role of king. The role of king—to judge, evaluate, and provide consequences—is acted out by a loving parent who wants only the best for us. And the best is to use the past as a springboard for an improved future, with the energy and inspiration of knowing that it is as new start.

The ninth of Tishrei banquet expresses this joy, and so is a conducted in holiday dress, with song and rejoicing. But why is a banquet necessary to express joy? If one thinks of joy as an emotional/spiritual experience, this can seem like a mystery. The answer is that the tradition defines a person as soul-plus-body. Neither alone is fully human. Joy must envelop the whole person.

For example, the Talmud says that celebrating the receiving of the Torah must include banqueting. One might think that spending twenty-four hours in continuous Torah study would be the ideal celebration of receiving the Torah, but the Talmud rejects this. The reason, as Rashi explains, is that we need to show that the Torah is perfect for the whole person, and that necessarily includes the body. Spirituality is expressed in the whole person, including the body—it is not limited to the soul. The banquet incorporates the body into the celebration of receiving the Torah.

The same applies to all spiritual rejoicing: it must embrace the whole person, including the body. Of course it is not the food alone. The feast involves love and camaraderie for family, friends, and guests, as well as song and words of Torah inspiration. In that way, the pleasure of eating becomes part of the spiritual joy. But the joy is not complete without the food—without the body. The ninth of Tishrei banquet makes possible the total experience of the joy of Yom Kippur.

The rejoicing of rebirth is not just personal. It can have a political dimension as well. Consider this passage from the Yom Kippur prayer book: “The righteous will see and rejoice; the upright [straight] will exult; the devout will be happy with song; iniquity will close its mouth; the entirety of wickedness will evaporate in smoke [for] You will remove the rule of evil from the earth.”

It is specifically joy that defeats evil. How? One way is this: when we show our joy and offer to share it, we can disarm the enmity of those who oppose us. As Solomon said: “If your enemy is hungry—feed him! If he is thirsty—give him drink!” And the Talmud comments “He will then make peace with you—and love you!” (Rashi). Trenchant criticism, political confrontation, public vilification, rallying the faithful to demonstrations (peaceful or not) have a place in confronting the forces of evil. But at best this will only defang them. We want ultimately that they should be reborn to a new understanding. This will take more than just political defeat. Showing and sharing the joy of rebirth is one step in that direction.

How can we do this in practice? Here is one suggestion. When we engage in dialogue with those with whom we disagree, we can start with a celebration of our shared values and commitments. Rejoicing in our common goals reinforces our common identity. (If the dialogue is in person, we can have a banquet!) Then we can move to trying to bridge our differences. We can thereby create a spirit of sharing and accommodation that may lead to mutual enrichment and rebirth. In this way the spirit of Yom Kippur may be an inspiration for the whole year.

Yom Kippur

Fasters congregate in McPherson Square in Washington, D.C., for Yom Kippur. Credit: Creative Commons/Brandon Nedwek.

Rabbi Michael Lerner:

I wonder if you might give us guidance for how to handle the deep sorrow we have in needing to repent for the murderous acts of a state that claims to be “the Jewish state” killing children by the hundreds and 2,100 civilians and finding that the majority of our fellow Jews see these acts as righteous rather than as something for which to repent? How do we handle that and include that in our joyous celebration of Yom Kippur?

I’d love to learn from you on this. It is my impression that there is no halachic (Jewish religious law) sanction for killing innocent bystanders in fulfilling the command of “rodeph” (the Biblical rule that when someone comes to kill you, you should rise up and kill that person first). Am I wrong? My interpretation of the rule is that one only has sanction to kill the specific person who is an immediate and personal threat to your life, and hence that that sanctioning of self-defense could not be generalized to a whole people. If I’m right, I don’t see how religious Jews could plausibly give sanction to Israel’s actions in Gaza this past summer.

Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb:

Sorry for the delay in answering—I wanted to consult with some friends about your important questions.

First, I join you in putting scare-quotes on “the Jewish State.” The State of Israel very often does not espouse or practice what I recognize as Jewish values. (At least they are honest about it—they almost never appeal to real Jewish sources to justify their actions.)

Second, from what I know you are completely correct about the din (law) of rodef (pursuit): there is no justification in killing an innocent person to save myself from a rodef (pursuer).

However, it is not entirely clear that in the conflict with Hamas it is the law of pursuit that is relevant. One can suggest that this is a war situation and not an isolated case of one person wishing to kill another specific person. Now a war situation is not subject to the normal laws of pikuach nefesh (danger to life) and rodef. The very fact that people can be forced to go to war and risk their lives for milchemes mitzva (halachically mandated war) shows that normal laws about danger to life do not apply.

In the case of war, there is at least one precedent for the treatment of innocents: the treatment of the Keini (descendants of Yisro) in the war against Amelek by King Saul.

In Samuel I (15:6), Saul says to the Kenites: “Go, move away, separate from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with him—and you did kindness with all the children of Israel when they ascended from Egypt”—and the Kenites separate from among the Amalekites

Metsudos David comments: “Go, move away … for at a time like this it is impossible to distinguish and take care.”

That is to say, “The attack is going ahead in any case. Since we do not want you to get hurt, we are warning you to remove yourselves from danger.” So the IDF policy of dropping leaflets from the sky and giving the “knock on the roof” is consistent with this precedent.

But or course there is a great mass of information and understanding that needs to be applied to this war and I do not have the competence to do that.


An Israeli soldier patrols Palestinian farmland. Credit: Creative Commons/Michael Loadenthal.

Rabbi Michael Lerner:

Human rights advocates argue that the warnings issued by the IDF to civilians a few minutes before their homes or apartment complexes were destroyed had little practical meaning, because Israeli drones and airplanes and tanks were killing people out in the open as well as in their homes. Gazans, like most of the world, had heard of the killing of youth playing on the beach in clear view and without any reason to believe that somehow they were burying missile launching pads in the sand. For most, there was no safe place to go, because even UN schools and hospitals were becoming targets for the Israeli military.

The reference to Amalek is also somewhat bizarre from a religious standpoint. Most Jewish religious authorities recognize that the Amelekites attacked the Jewish people when we were refugees in the Sinai desert, escaping from bondage in Egypt. Today it is the Palestinian people who are the refugees and the powerless compared to the immense military power of the IDF.

But these are not the issues that you proposed to address, and I appreciate your modesty in saying that in regard to the factual issues of the struggle in Gaza you don’t have the competence to address them.

None of this should detract from the valuable ideas you express about the joy of approaching Yom Kippur. As to making it religiously and spiritually deep, please read our High Holiday Supplement.

Dovid Gottlieb received his Ph.D. from Brandeis in philosophy and taught at Johns Hopkins 1969-1981. Since then he has been teaching at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. He is the author of Ontological Economy (Clarendon) and The Informed Soul (Artscroll). Rabbi Michael Lerner is the editor of Tikkun, chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California.
tags: Israel/Palestine, Judaism, Rethinking Religion