Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Solution to the Problems with Kappara

My apologies....this post is severely truncated and not well written, I will try to expand on these ideas after the holiday but I am currently out of time....I just wanted to present at least a basic formulation for the benefit of those who may want something to contemplate over Yom Kippur.

In my previous post, I raised several issues with the conventional understanding of 'judgment' and 'atonement' that seem to me very serious. This post is a continuation and hopefully a resolution of the difficulties identified in that post.

I believe that the key to unlocking the mystery of what "really happens" on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can be found in the words of the Rambam in his Laws of Repentance:

"Even though repentance and prayer are always appropriate, during the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur they are especially fitting and immediately accepted, as it is written, 'seek Hashem when He can be found'. This is true with respect to an individual. With regard to the community, however, any time they repent and cry out sincerely they are answered, as it is written, '[what great nation has God close to them] like Hashem our God whenever we call upon Him.' Yom Kippur is a time of repentance for all, individuals and communities, and it is the end of pardon and forgiveness for the Jewish people. Therefore, everyone must repent and confess on Yom Kippur...."

What we see from these laws is that the judgments rendered on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are not unique or arbitrary metaphysical occurrences; on the contrary, they are specific examples of a general principle that anytime the community repents and cries out sincerely, they receive a Divine response. In other words, what makes Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur special is the fact that on these days the entire congregation of Israel is involved in repentance and prayer and their fate is thus subject to Hashem's review and redirection.

Hypothetically, such a national process of introspection and rededication to God could happen on any day of the year, as it did in the story of Purim, and such a religious renaissance could fundamentally transform the relationship between the Jews and Hashem. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur stand out because they are times that the Jewish people are legally mandated to engage in such a process regardless of the circumstances, and thus bring about the effect of reconciliation with their Creator anually.

So Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are not metaphysical deadlines for God. They are holidays during which the Jewish people are expected to involve themselves in communal repentance and prayer, and it is this activity on their part that brings about reconciliation, atonement and a renewal of their status vis a vis God's providence.

We understand now why, from a national standpoint, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are so fundamental. They are observed by Jews world over and, as such, serve to reestablish our communal covenant with Hashem year after year. But why do individual Jews have to feel that their destiny is determined on Yom Kippur? Don't they have the latitude to negotiate their personal fates with Hashem at their own convenience?

This question touches upon a key principle of Judaism that is one of the essential themes of the High Holiday liturgy. As individuals, the level of providence most of us enjoy is a function of our participation in the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Unlike Avraham or Moshe, we are not necessarily worthy of specific providence on our own merits.

Our fate is bound up with that of the nation of Israel as a whole, so it is only in that context that we have the potential to change our spiritual destiny as Jews. An individual who is fortunate enough to receive special, personalized treatment from God - a prophet described in our Tanach, for example - would not be bound by this principle, and might have the ability to alter his providential course mid-year. But this would be the exception, not the rule, with 99% of us requiring the national covenant to link us to God's overarching plan.

So Yom Kippur is an awesome day on which we, as citizens of the Nation of Israel, rededicate ourselves to our holy mission individually and collectively, hoping that in the merit of our return to Hashem we will experience greater intellectual and material success in the coming year.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Problems with The Concept of Kappara

Understanding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as Divinely mandated "Days of Judgment" poses some serious theological difficulties. First and foremost, why can't the Creator determine an individual's fate moment-by-moment, based upon that person's merits or level of perfection at a given time? Why should He be required to submit a judgment by a particular deadline?

Moreover, it seems as if the system of "Days of Judgment" yields fundamentally unjust results. A person who deserves one kind of treatment on Yom Kippur may either advance spiritually or regress afterwards, rendering his official judgment for the year inappropriate. Providence that adapts to the ebb and flow of an individual's spiritual growth would appear to be far more reasonable.

Furthermore, the idea that Hashem engages in a process of judging at one time and not another is metaphysically problematic, inasmuch as His nature does not admit of any change. Adding to this conundrum is the fact that the purported metaphysical "judgment" would have to take place according to a man-made deadline, i.e., the Jewish calendar as determined by the Sages of Israel! Are we really to believe that the Rabbis are scheduling the Creator's activities?

Finally, stories in Tanach that depict Divine interventions or responses to prayer belie the notion that one's destiny is "fixed" on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and cannot tolerate subsequent adjustments. There is no indication whatsoever that God cannot answer tefillot offered between one Yom Kippur and the following New Year, or that repentance that takes place during that time period is ignored or dismissed by Providence.

Yet the Rambam, greatest among Jewish philosophers, clearly subscribes to the view that Hashem does judge every individual during the Ten Days of Repentance, and that the deadline for obtaining forgiveness and pardon is fixed at Yom Kippur:

Just as a person's defects and merits are weighed upon his death, so too annually are each and every person's defects and merits weighed on the holiday of Rosh Hashana. One who is found to be righteous is sealed for life. One who is found to be wicked is sealed for death. And those who are in the middle are given until Yom Kippur - if they repent they are sealed for life, and if not they are sealed for death.

How can we decipher this mysterious phenomenon?

To be continued....