Not the neighbor’s Yom Kippur

by | Sep 14, 2018 | Torah Thought

The first Jews were part of the Ancient Near East. They knew the habits of thought, the default assumptions, of their society. But as Jews, they were revolutionaries, rejecting the depravity and the inhumane expressions of Bronze Age life, with its murderous despotism in the political realm and its debasement of human life in a slavery-based social system. This combination of indebtedness to, and protest against, the traditions of the neighbors characterizes Biblical religion in virtually every domain.

The holidays of ancient Israel are good illustrations of this. The neighbors of our biblical ancestors had the notion of High Holidays, comprising a half-month beginning with the New Year, continuing with rituals of Atonement, and concluding with a jamboree celebrating the harvest and the renewal of society’s lease on life. This lays down the baseline of our own Autumn holidays. But beyond that borrowing, the distinctive Jewish message is made clear in the monotheist beliefs and ethical emphases of the Jewish festivals of Tishre.

The ancient Mesopotamians had two New Year festivals, one during the lead-up to the Full Moon nearest the Vernal Equinox, and the other—like our own Days of Awe—in the half-month leading up to the Full Moon closest to the Autumnal Equinox. There were local variations as to which was more important, but an ancient Sumerian myth, Enlil Chooses the Farmer God, expresses the opinion that the Autumn is when the New Year truly begins. Their high god adjudicated a quarrel between two of his sons, representing respectively the work of the farmer and the shepherd, standing in for Winter and Summer. The high god gave the nod to the farmer, meaning that the New Year of the Autumn, leading into the winter, was deemed the more important. This corresponds to the physical geography of Mesopotamia, where the autumnal rains, after the parching heat of the summer, brings the landscape back to life and allows for the sowing of the coming year’s crop of winter barley.

An intriguing point of contact is found in the ritual of atonement, shared in broad outlines by our ancestors and their Mesopotamian neighbors. During the Akitu New Year’s festival, the pagans cleaned their Temple and enacted a predecessor of the biblical “Scapegoat” ritual: “On the fifth day the temple was sprinkled with water…then a sheep was beheaded and the walls of the chapel were rubbed with its body. This done, the head and the body were thrown into the river, while the officiating priest and slaughterer were sent into the desert…to observe a quarantine until the end of the festival. The ceremony was called kuppuru.…” Both word and concept are parallel to our own Yom Kippur.

But if the language of pagan myth and ritual provided the background to the details of our religion, the distinctiveness of Judaism emerges upon closer examination. The ritual of expelling one goat to the wilderness and of sacrificing another animal, sprinkling its blood upon the altar, was the first word, not the last word, in the Jewish notion of atonement. The Yom Kippur that developed in the course of our Jewish journey, and that is predominant today, in our Temple-less phase of existence, focuses on the ethical and the interpersonal. As the rabbis express it: “Yom Kippur secures atonement for sins committed against God. Yom Kippur does not secure atonement for sins committed against one’s neighbor, until one has conciliated his neighbor.”(Mishnah Yoma 8:9).

As Jews, we want to be able to learn good ideas from our neighbors, but also to insist on our distinctiveness. That is how we contribute to a better tomorrow.

Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel