I never liked Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, growing up. Jewish holidays can best be summarized as “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat,” and thus tend to be joyful occasions, but not this one. It’s a somber day of reflecting on our sins and making amends with the people we’ve hurt. And you have to fast. The promise of a “break fast” later didn’t mean very much when I had to sit in services all day, bored and hangry.
I’m still not a fan of the fasting part. But Yom Kippur provides something that a lot of Christians miss when it comes to the idea of repentance: the practice of making amends with others, not just with God. In fact, some Jewish teachers suggest that God can’t forgive you until the offended party forgives you first.
I don’t agree with that – but in light of the #MeToo era, the importance of seeking forgiveness from others has been deemed less important than being forgiven by God. In many evangelical circles, an abuser can say that Jesus forgave him, and receive a standing ovation – even if he uses language that deliberately minimizes the impact of his transgression.
The victim, by contrast, is deemed “bitter” if she can’t let go of the hurt. She is getting in the way of the good work that God could be doing in her life by holding on to anger, which isn’t really “anger” so much as untreated PTSD. If Jesus can forgive her offender, but she can’t (or won’t!), then she is essentially spitting on the sacrificial work on the cross.
Historically, Judaism offers a bit more nuance to the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation – a natural consequence of being a repeated target for violence and persecution. Yom Kippur is a day that essentially gives people permission to “dwell” on their painful pasts, and does so by recognizing the pain of our ancestors in the Bible who also struggled to forgive their offenders.
Jeffrey Salkin writes these poignant words in his article #MeToo is an American Yom Kippur:
5778 has been the year when, as a society, we confronted the wounds of patriarchy. This was the year of the fastest growing social movement of our time — #metoo – the stories of women (and men, as well) who have accused powerful and accomplished men of sexual harassment.
It is about sex. It is about violence. It is about the profanation of intimacy. It is about the sin of using people. It is about the sin of making people into tools for our desires, and instruments for our ends. It is about the sin of turning people into objects. It is about the sin of abusing power.
Many of the men who have behaved despicably have produced great work.
Question: Is it kosher to admire their work, and to quote their scholarship, and to cite their writings? To what extent do our moral failings — what we do — utterly pollute what we are?
More than that: How long should the punishment last? How long the ostracism? Is redemption for the abuser ever possible? If so, when?
I love how Salkin confronts us with the hard questions, without offering a blanket “God forgives, and therefore so should we” statement.
Forgiveness is hard work. In many churches, it is given too easily with little nuance or appreciation for its complexity. Mainstream Christianity expects forgiveness to happen with the snap of our fingers, but Yom Kippur gives us permission to treat forgiveness as the bumpy process it actually is.