This week marks another turn of the calendar, according to Jewish tradition. Friday, Sept. 15, at sundown begins Rosh Hashanah. In Hebrew, “rosh” means head, and “ha-shanah” means the year. It’s the head of the year: It’s New Year’s.
The Jewish New Year differs in some fundamental ways from our secular New Year. The observance, for example, is far more muted. This is because the Jewish New Year is largely a period of introspection that begins in the month preceding Rosh Hashanah and extends until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins the evening of Sunday, Sept. 24. The 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called the Days of Awe and is meant to be a time of stock-taking, of self-reflection. It’s customary during this time, for example, to seek out in person those whom we may have offended in the preceding year and ask forgiveness. These days it’s not unusual to receive a mass emailing from a friend saying, in essence, “Hey, any of you I’ve hurt this year, I apologize and ask your forgiveness.” I’m not sure mass-emailed apologies are what the ancient rabbis had in mind, but it’s better than nothing. At any rate, this period of 10 days, these Days of Awe, is a time principally to reflect on how we are conducting our lives and, specifically, how we may have messed up.
The Days of Awe concludes on Yom Kippur. If there’s any day of the year that even the most non-observant, non-believing Jew goes to synagogue, this is it. Anyone my age remembers with pride when in 1965 Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers refused to pitch in Game One of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. (Instead of Koufax, Don Drysdale pitched and gave up seven runs in less than three innings. “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too,” Drysdale said to manager Walter Alston when he came to the mound to pull him from the game. The Dodgers lost to the Minnesota Twins, 8-2.)
Why does virtually every Jew in the world go to synagogue on Yom Kippur? What happens there that day that is so compelling?
In the broadest sense, what Jews do in synagogue on Yom Kippur is stand together as a community and publicly confess their sins. The Jewish concept of sin differs in some important ways from that of other religions. Judaism teaches that humans are born with free will and with a blank moral slate, with both an inclination toward goodness—leading a productive life and having concern for others—but also an inclination toward evil, baser instincts, and selfishness. The moral laws in the Torah—starting with the Ten Commandments but including hundreds of other commandments—are meant to help steer one’s behavior toward the good.
The Hebrew word most commonly translated as “sin”—cheit—literally means “missing the mark.” Committing a sin, therefore, is like an arrow missing the target; it’s missing the mark.
The ways in which individuals can miss the mark during the course of a year are many, and in the Yom Kippur service we stand all together and recite them aloud. The list we recite—and we do it multiple times—runs through the alphabet with each letter corresponding to a different sin. This doesn’t mean we have committed only 24 sins—the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet—but that we have committed the whole range of sins, from A to Z—the full gamut of possible human failings. Every mark that could have been missed, someone among us surely has missed, and sometime in our lives, we have missed it. So, we stand together and say aloud, “We have been arrogant, bigoted, and cynical; we’re guilty of deceit and egotism, flattery and greed, injustice and jealousy.” And every seven or eight sins or so, we stop and ask God’s forgiveness (presumably we’ve already asked forgiveness from the people we’ve actually hurt). We say, “For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” And then we continue with the list. “We’ve kept grudges, were lustful, malicious, or narrow-minded.” It goes on. “For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”
This full day in the synagogue, by the way, is done while observing a complete 24-hour fast. (The traditional Yom Kippur greeting from one Jew to another is, “Have an easy fast.”)
It’s odd, I suppose, that people would willingly do this year after year, would fast and give up a major league baseball game to participate in all of this. But on some level, it works: We’ve been doing it for several thousand years.
I like the Yom Kippur ritual because it presupposes that human beings are fallible, that we all miss the mark, and that with effort, we can control some of our baser urges and maybe do better next year. I find reciting the litany of possible failures is a good way to take stock: As I say the list out loud together with the congregation, I often think to myself, “Yup, did that one. Yeah, did that one, too. Oh, there’s one I’m not guilty of—at least this year.” For me, there are always more “guilties” than “not-guilties,” but it’s interesting year to year to see how my failings either remain consistent or shift with circumstances. But I like that I get to keep missing the mark without being labeled a bad person.
Certainly, it’s one thing to miss the mark—but what if we no longer recognize that there even are marks to miss?
Some years ago, while teaching a writing class, I took a few minutes to discuss questions of personal morality with my college-age students. What I heard from many of them was a belief in moral individualism, a rejection of any universal moral norms. One explained: “From elementary school, we’ve been taught to respect and tolerate divergent views and customs, so who’s to say one set of values or ideas or ethics—whatever you want to call it—is better than another?”
Another said, “Hey, it’s all about respecting different cultural norms. If everybody’s right, nobody’s wrong.”
These attitudes—call it “moral relativism”—closely match the findings of a study reported in the book “Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood,” (Oxford University Press, 2011). Written by Notre Dame sociology professor Christopher Smith and colleagues, the book is based on a nationwide study of the attitudes and beliefs of “emerging adults” (ages 18 to 23), including their moral lives. It revealed an attitude of extreme moral individualism. Six out of 10 surveyed, for example, said “morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks, commenting on the book in a column entitled “If It Feels Right…” noted that the default position of most of those surveyed was that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”
“Rejecting blind deference to authority,” Brooks continued, many of those surveyed “were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, ‘I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.’”
This doesn’t mean, noted Brooks, that American youth are immoral. Far from it. But they do express an “extreme moral individualism—of relativism and nonjudgmentalism” and have not been given the resources—by schools, institutions, and families—to think more broadly about moral obligations. The study, concludes Brooks, “says more about adult America than youthful America.”
In an email to me, author Smith said he is unaware of surveys updating or refuting his 2011 findings.
In Jewish tradition, the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is seen metaphorically as an open book—the Book of Life—during which time each person’s fate is written for the coming year. In the last hours of Yom Kippur, as the sun sets, the congregation rises and affirms that as the Book of Life closes, we accept that our fate for the coming year has been sealed: “Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall have rest and who shall wander? Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued?”
On this Yom Kippur, or whenever you take stock of your actions, let’s think about when we might have missed the mark—and also what it might mean to a community if too many of us no longer believe that marks even exist.