Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was the 9th of October 2019. On this day, Jews typically attend shul, offer various prayers, and participate in some form of fasting. The day is meant to be a reflection on the ways in which we, as individuals and as a community, have not been our best selves. In this reflection, we speak aloud our objectionable behavior and ask for the Divine’s forgiveness.
In some Jewish communities, the ashamnu prayer, which we use to acknowledge our harmful and destructive behavior, has been the same for centuries. Its particular form and composition is a stylized, alphabetized list of misdeeds. For example, one can find on the list stealing, lying, being rude, disobeying the Torah, participating in abominations, turning away from G-d and so on.
That being said, many communities have rewritten the prayer to speak to modern-day failings. For example, one can find concern for racism and anti-Semitism. Another ashamnu highlights the need to end war. I even found an ashmanu that was considerably more personal in its reflection. It problematized self-doubt and supported self-care.
Yet, the ashamnu that really captures our modern-day failings I found on tikkun.org. It speaks against complacency with patriarchy and calls us to task for the situation in which we currently find ourselves. It is also a great example of how we are both communally and personally responsible for the state of our planet. On an individual level, it highlights the need to participate in elections, the problematic nature of certain beliefs, and often not being angry or motivated enough to work for change. On a communal level, it berails corporate greed, our capitalist system, and the ways in which the government has whittled away rights (of women, refugees, minority communities, workers, etc.) and protections (for the environment, workers, refugees, the poor, etc.) while bolstering imprisonment, military spending and the political power of money.
While the ashamnu offers us ways in which to alter personal behavior to right wrongs, it appropriately accentuates communal responsibility as it is the individual-cum-corporation that is really powerful. Money bends, authority institutes, and power destroys. Patriarchy is more powerful than any one individual, more powerful than a group of individuals trying their darnedest.
Despite such power and even because of it, both the ashamnu and the Day of Atonement prioritize individual action and individual behavior modification over communal responsibility, justice-seeking and civic engagement. Will I be less selfish, less greedy, less racist and/or less sexist in the year to come? Will I vote, shop more conscientiously, support refugees, defend a woman’s right to have control over her own body, and/or take more personal responsibility in the ways my behavior destroys the planet? That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of the individual especially when individuals on their own have less power to affect real change than collective action does.
Why aren’t we doing enough to hold the community responsible? Every ashamnu I’ve read, even the ones of old, suggest that our problems are communal as much if not more than they are individual. Communities, as collective voices and actions, are better equipped to stand up to power. Yet, how many Jewish communities actually take the time on Yom Kippur to reflect on such communal activism as a community? How many communities judge their behavior in light of the principles of ashamnu? How many take some time out of the day to make plans for furthering tikkun olam for the year ahead? We are missing an amazing opportunity!
Yes, I know it is an extremely busy day, and usually congregations are teeming with visitors. But, if we are ever to see the world redeemed, we need to take seriously both aspects of the ashamnu: individual and collective shortcomings. As individuals Yom Kippur offers plenty of spiritual insight and time for reflection. Communally we could do better.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.