Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

Ten Days of Repentance: A Wise Tradition for Every Nation

Ira Chernus

This weekend Jews around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the New Year festival, and begin the Ten Days of Repentance. According to tradition, all Jews are supposed to spend these ten days reflecting on the wrong they have done during the past year and resolving to do better in the year to come.

Itís quite an idea: taking ten whole days each year to acknowledge our own wrong-doing and shortcomings, rather than focusing on the faults of others. Imagine if the whole United States gave this a try.

It is hard to imagine, because the Jewish confessional prayers, enumerating the sins of the past year, are all in the plural: "We have done this. We have done that." Itís not likely that any Jew has done all of the sins listed in the prayers. But that doesnít matter, rabbis explain. All Jews are tied together. What each one does affects all others. So all should feel responsible for the bad actions of any one. And each should be determined to help the whole group do better in the future.

It is hard to imagine most Americans taking on such a sense of shared responsibility. In this country, we have struggled mightily for centuries to convince ourselves that we are each rugged individuals, out on the lonely frontier, charting our own individual course in life. If we donít make it to where we are headed, it is nobodyís fault but our own. Thatís the American way.

Of course, it is a fiction. In fact, as Dr. Martin Luther King told us, we are all bound together in a single garment of destiny. What each one does affects all others. As long as we pay taxes and voteóor choose not to voteówe are all truly responsible for the actions the government takes in our name. But most of us prefer the fiction of rugged individualism to the reality mutual responsibility.

It is hard to imagine a group confession here in the U.S. for another reason, too. We Americans so often insist on seeing ourselves as pure and innocent. Some have called it the "American Adam" syndrome. Itís the belief that this land is like a Garden of Eden; its inhabitants are uninvolved in and untouched by the evils of the world. If things go wrong, it must be someone elseís fault. So we can always break free of the past, go back to the garden, begin again, and get a fresh start. Sometimes we may feel guilty for things we do as individuals. But never for the things we do collectively, as a nation. Most Americans could never recite a collective confession. They would simply gag the words "We, as a nation, have sinned."

Today, many Jews find those words a stumbling block too. As they look at the Middle East conflict, too many Jews are ready to blame someone else, rather than acknowledge Israelís share of blame. These Jews have turned away from the wisdom of their religious tradition, to take on more of the American cultural style. In Israel as in the U.S., the individualism of the capitalist marketplace is steadily replacing shared economic responsibility. Israelis, like Americans, tend to insist that "we" are innocent and "they" are the cause of all our troubles.

Israel does call on the Jewish tradition of collective responsibility, when it is convenient. To justify its policies of occupation and repression, the Israeli government claims that it acts in the name of all Jews, in order to protect all Jews, everywhere. Yet when its excesses are called to account, it conveniently forgets the other part of the same Jewish tradition, the need to confess our own sins. Israel will never admit that Jews have sins to repent of against the Palestinians. Nor will it admit what others see so clearly: its excesses actually make the world less safe for Jews.

We might all use these Ten Days of Repentance to reflect on the wisdom of the Jewish tradition. If we want to stop the killing and the dying everywhere, the first step is to look in the mirror, take some responsibility, and admit our own nationís wrong-doing. Then we can begin to make realistic plans to do better next year.


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