Can We Keep Politics Out of Yom Kippur?
JNS.org – Whether Donald Trump deserves to be impeached or not, with Yom Kippur just around the corner, the question on my mind is: How much should we allow politics to take over our holiest day of the year?
That thought first occurred to me when I read a High Holiday message from the Reform Jewish Movement dated September 3.
“As we begin the month of Elul,” the statement gently began, “we enter a time of introspection and reflection culminating in the Jewish High Holidays.”
Very quickly, though, the message got down to business:
“In this spirit, we reflect upon and are compelled to express our deep concern about the coarseness of public discourse, led in too many ways by the president of the United States.”
Yup, him again.
The statement continued with a focus on excoriating our Tweeter in Chief and praying that all Americans “will loudly and unambiguously call for an end to politics infused with bullying, hateful diatribes, and personal character assaults.”
What’s the problem, you ask?
The problem is not that these sentiments are wrong, but that they are disconnected from the High Holy Days spirit of self-accounting and self-judgment.
However much one may hate Trump, he’s got nothing to do with our personal behavior over the past year. He can’t answer any of these questions for us: How have we dealt with the people in our lives? Where did we go wrong? Who did we hurt? How can we make amends?
Indeed, should we judge ourselves by how well we have resisted the president this past year, or by how well we have resisted the urge to hurt others?
We have allowed politics to so hijack our consciousness that it’s now common for rabbis to give sermons dealing with political battles of one kind or another, urging us to fight for justice by confronting the “other” side.
That may or may not be fine on Shabbat, but we ought to draw a hard line at the Day of Atonement. On this day, the “others” who should concern us most are those whom we ourselves have hurt, offended, deceived, or neglected.
As the Reform statement says, “We enter a time of introspection and reflection,” but this sacred time is so we can confront our own wrongdoings and seek atonement and forgiveness.
There is nothing controversial about this: Yom Kippur is a time to focus on our sins, not those of others, even those of a president one may think is the worst thing to happen to humanity this century.
I’m sure there are plenty of rabbis who won’t feel the need to bring up politics on Yom Kippur and will focus on inner repair. I’m addressing the others — those who may feel that the most inspiring message they can deliver has to deal with a president they abhor.
This is a missed opportunity. A Day of Atonement message should take us inside ourselves, not inside those we can’t stand.
As rabbi and cantor Eva Robbins writes in a column in The Jewish Journal, Yom Kippur is “a day of purging and cleansing … [when] we feel transparent, weak, and vulnerable, as we cleanse the ‘shmutz’ of our lives, enliven our souls by unburdening the brokenness within, and come away rebirthed and renewed for the next year.”
And as Rabbi Lori Shapiro writes in her cover story in that same paper, especially at this time of year, we must remember that “Judaism demands personal accountability, sobriety, and knowledge of oneself.”
Is there an appropriate way to bring up Trump and politics in a Yom Kippur sermon? Here’s how I would do it:
“Dear congregants: Many of you may be expecting today a sermon expressing my deep concern for the state of our nation, and especially for a president whose behavior many of us consider beyond the pale. You may be expecting me to urge you to confront this president for the sake of truth and justice.
“Of course, I can easily do that, but we already do that all year long. Today is different. This is our Day of Atonement, a day of humility, of somber introspection.
“Today, we focus on our own behavior and failures, not the behavior and failures of others. The ‘others’ we should worry about are those whom we may have hurt.
“So, let’s get to work. It will be a long day. And no worries — after we break the fast and are spiritually cleansed, we can go back to Trump.”