Modern Jewish Atonement Ritual

Modern Jewish Atonement Rituals

A week ago, I wrote a post about a Jewish prayer ceremony known as Slichot which focuses on communal repentance. Indeed, the whole high holiday period is focused heavily on ritual and symbolic acts of repentance.

One of the more controversial rituals is the act of <a href= http://www.jewishmag.com/25MAG/KAPORA/kapora.htm&gt; Kapparot </a> which has been widely decried by some <a href= http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1253198168254&gt; rabbis and most major animal rights groups alike. </a> During Kapparot, rabbis take live roosters/chicken and swing them around their head before slitting their throats. The rooster represents the severity of gods decree, or the attribute of justice as opposed to mercy, likewise, the Jewish word for man and rooster is similar and thus a symbolic equivalency can be made. Thus, by this act, the sins of the congregation are symbolically transferred to the animal. The bird is then given to the poor for the break fast meal of the Yom Kippur fast.

The symbolic link between this act and our belief in the atonement of Jesus Christ as well as temple rituals of slaughter should be quite obvious. The rituals words quoted during the ceremony relate to this.

“”This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”

Thus, the symbolic slaughter is an act of transference where the severity of Justice is averted. This custom dates from the ninth century.

One of the other major ritual acts of this period is called <A href= http://www.ou.org/chagim/roshhashannah/tashlich.html&gt; Tashlich. </a>This act is inspired by the Book of Michah

“”Who is a G-d like You?  You forgive sins and overlook transgressions
For the survivors of Your People;
He does not retain His anger forever, for He loves Kindness;
He will return and show us mercy, and overcome our sins,

And You will cast into the depths of the sea all their sins;
You will show kindness to Yaakov and mercy to Avraham,
 As You did promisee to our fathers of old.”

Thus, Jewish communities take bread or bread crumbs and ritually throw them into a body of water. A kabbalistic tradition involves the shaking of ones pockets or the talit (prayer shawl) to emphasize the symbolic freeing of the soul.

Both of these rituals show the Jewish focus on ritualistic atonement which clearly remains strong in the Christian/LDS tradition through the sacramental reenactment of the attoning sacrifice as well as the tradition of Passion Plays etc ( not so big in the LDS tradition)

Kol Nidre, Covenants and Excommunication

Kol Nidre, Covenants and Excommunication

I just attended Kol Nidre which is considered one of the more iconic and spiritually significant prayer services of the Jewish year. This prayer has even entered into popular culture with its culminating place in Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer . I have always loved this prayer for its beautiful and intricate melody, but this year I focused on the words in particular and found many things that struck me in unique ways.

The English translation of the main bulk of the prayer is as follows:

“All vows, obligations, oaths or anathemas, pledges of all names, which we have vowed, sworn, devoted, or bound ourselves to, from this day of atonement, until the next day of atonement (whose arrival we hope for in happiness) we repent, aforehand, of them all, they shall all be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, void and made of no effect; they shall not be binding, nor have any power; the vows shall not be reckoned as vows, the obligations shall not be obligatory, nor the oaths considered as oaths.”

This prayer/declaration has been used by anti-Semites as grounds to declare Jewish people not worthy of trust. This prayer they would argue makes Jews unworthy to hold office because they will not fulfill vows such as the constitutional oath. Yet, any person reading this with spiritual sense or even the barest understanding of the purpose of Yom Kippur would reject this absurd analysis. Kol Nidre is concerned with spiritual covenants between man and God that have gone unfulfilled over the past year.

I think that all of us can admit to having been guilty of making promises in our personal prayer that went unfulfilled. How often have we promised to God that we would read the scriptures more diligently or turn to him with our whole heart, only to find old patterns and habits reasserting dominance. In such cases, according to Jewish and I’d venture also LDS tradition, we become guilty not just of the actions that took us away from the straight and narrow path, but also of a violation of our relationship with God. Simply put, the whole plan of salvation is an enormous covenant between man and God. When we bridge our part of the covenant and violate the trust of God, that is an action with consequence.

The people’s of the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon took covenant making with the utmost seriousness. The famous story of Jephthah and his tragic promise to god which ultimately necessitated the sacrifice of his daughter is one such example. Likewise, in his The Book Of Mormon: A Short Introduction (2009) Terryl Givens has argued that one of the dominant themes of the Book of Mormon is the importance of covenants. By Contrasting Helaman’s Stripling Warriors and the Pacifist “Anti-Nephi-Lehis,” separated by only a generation, Givens suggests that the takeaway message from both of these stories is:

“That faithfulness to covenants righteously entered into trumps both. The anti-Nephi-Lehies ‘had entered into a covenant and they would not break it (Alma 43:11). By identical token, their sons ‘entered into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites (Alma 53:17) In the Book of Mormon, covenant is the thread of safety on which the survival, spiritual safety, and very identity of the people hang.” (Pages 50-51)

Thus, covenant relations were viewed as absolutely sacred and unalterable in biblical times. Likewise, (This Is from a not yet endowed member, so take my writing here with a grain of salt) the most controversial element of the endowment ceremony came from a desire to literalize the spiritual seriousness and significant of the covenant that one undertakes.

Still, it becomes clear that we cannot live up to every single promise and obligation that we make to the lord. We will fail to live up to what is expected of us. Thus, for Jews, the Kol Nidre prayer plays a very vital role in spiritual healing for the New Year. Likewise, our weekly taking of the sacrament can in some ways be said to be analogous. As we renew our covenants and seek absolution from our sins:

“O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen”

Another topic that was of especial interest for me in the Kol Nidre prayer was the mention of anathemas which in the version I saw last night was written as “excommunications.”

The explanatory notes in the prayer book I used explained that on the night of Yom Kippur those that had been excommunicated were brought back into the fold in order to allow the prayer to truly be efficacious and atoneing on the part of all members of the Jewish people and the congregation.

There is something profound here that I actually think that member of the LDS church can learn from. Those that are cast out of the community are viewed perpetually as still part of that community and of vital concern. Spiritual improvement of the individual is viewed as tied up with the communal. The highest form of spiritual success could only happen when every person of the covenant was restored to the fold. One ancient Jewish tradition stated for instance “The Jewish Messiah will come if every Jew properly observes two consecutive Sabbaths (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 118).” Every year, Jews were given a chance to renew their covenants with God and to regrow their ties to the faith. In some ways, perhaps we are doing a massive disservice when we do not allow excommunicated members of partake of the sacrament. If the sacrament is truly a weekly companion of what is a yearly practice among Jews, then should we not likewise truly give all individuals a chance weekly to restore themselves spiritually with God. I think there’s a lot to admire and learn from the Jewish custom.

“Heaven House” rather than “Hell House”

I just watched the movie Hell House which is a documentary about a “Hell House” put on around Halloween time by Conservative Christian Trinity Church in Cedar Hill Texas. Since Trinity pioneered this phenomenon several decades ago, the concept has spread across the country and many other major churches have made their own versions. The purpose of a hell house is basically to scare everyone that enters into accepting Jesus Christ. Thus, they portray vignettes of domestic violence, rape, suicide, abortion etc. in great graphic detail. Later, they show all of the characters roasting and being tormented in hell eternally. The only person that is ultimately saved is one that lived a “life of sin” but has a death bed conversion literally confessing his sins in the last minute of his life. It seems to me, that this way of teaching the gospel is absolutely dangerous and degrading. For instance, the hell house is very insensitive to rape victims. The devil character mocks them and often provokes these characters to commit suicide. Yet, instead of finding a loving father that understands their weakness and gives them comfort and forgiveness, they are cast into hell eternally and suffer. Ultimately this just seems inconsistent with the love of God and the very purpose of humanity. Though we don’t know every detail, I am so thankful for the additional revelation and light that we hold that allows us to live a life of joy rather than fear.

All of this led me to contemplate whether Latter Day Saints should offer a competing product during Halloween time. I think that someone should develop a “heaven house” that could show people the grandeur of Gods plan of salvation and encourage them to come to Christ by appreciating his glory rather than fearing the consequences. Just as in the hell house, there would be little vignettes, but they would be centered around the plan of salvation. Thus, we could see the divine council, the earthly minister of Christ etc. We could also see glimpses of the Glory that awaits us in the Kingdoms of God. Life situations could be displayed, but ultimately I think with a focus on how the light of Christ is constantly intersecting with our lives. Above all, I think that we would focus on God as loving father rather than cruel despot. I don’t know if there would be any audience for this, but I think it would be an interesting experiment. I imagine that people ultimately will achieve a deeper true conversion in their heart if they go through a process that focuses on love rather than terror and hell

Have a happy and sweet new year!

For those who do not know much about the Jewish faith, this weekend is the celebration of the Jewish Spiritual New Year Rosh Hashanah ( Passover was the traditional start of the Jewish calendar/ political new year). As a convert to the Mormon faith, the Jewish holidays take on different and very fascinating meanings in my life. Especially profound is the incredible focus on covenant relationships, spiritual renewal, repentance and judgement. In the next week I hope to write a couple of posts about this time and to draw on reflections and connections that are of interest to me at the very least.

Last saturday, I attended a midnight prayer service that is called Slichot (Apologies/Repentance) this is a prayer service that is said throughout the around two week period from the saturday before Rosh Hashanah and Yum Kippur or the Day of Awe and Atonement. Slichot is a lengthy prayer service entirely dedicated to repentance for ones transgressions. Slichot is a service that is done in order to bring one up to a spiritual state of purity whereby one can stand before God as a friend in worship in service this weekend. The Slichot are made up of what Jews refer to as the Thirteen Attributes of God which can be found in the Book of Exodus

“Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses. (Exodus 34:6-7)”

By reciting these attributes and dwelling on the insignificance of man in comparison to God, one is able to achieve a state of forgiveness and spiritual forgiveness.

One thing that is slightly abnormal about Slichot is that it is begun on a Saturday evening. The usual focus of the Jewish week of Prayer is the Sabbath which begins Friday evening, and continues until an hour after sunset on Saturday. Interestingly, some Rabbis and Jewish religious authorities explain this day shift by saying that the Jewish community during the prayer of Slichot is taking upon itself the redemption of the whole world rather than just its own community. The Sabbath day is viewed as the bride of the people of Israel, and is something specifically linked to Judaism. Sunday, in contrast, is viewed as the first day of general creation and so Slichot is done so that it may best effect the whole world.

This is consistent with the Jewish interpretation of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 as referring to the Jewish people as a collective rather than to an individual messianic figure ( I of course would hold that a passage can have multiple layers of meaning and that both may be possible):

4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

Thus, there’s a focus that I often heard, especially in Chabad services, growing up on the redemptive nature of the Jewish experience. Jews are suffering in the world and persecuted in order to bring further and greater light into the world.

To all of my non-Jewish and or LDS readers, I will continue writing tomorrow about the symbolism of the shofar, and a few other rituals of repentance that I think are incredible interesting such as Kaparot and Taschlich. Until then, realize that this weekend is a spiritually significant one on which Jews believe that Heavens are especially close to the earth. There is a belief that our prayer has more efficacy and power this week than on any other. In other words, during this period, it is almost as if the whole word is transformed into a temple or place of rest of God. It is a spiritual belief that seems to be a prefiguration of the millennial period when gods presence will rest perpetually on the earth and all will be at peace.

Shanah Tova v’Metucha

Plato’s Meno and Phaedo and the preexistence

I am currently taking a class entitled Innateness: The nature vs nurture controversy which is a pretty fascinating philosophy course on the topic of what is human nature. I will be blogging about topics relating to that class for sure. We began the class by reading the Meno and Phaedo by Plato, two works concerned with the question of what is knowledge and how we acquire it. I found these works striking because of some unique overlaps with our concept of a pre-existence, but also with some core differences.

In Plato’s works, Socrates argues that all of our knowledge is not something learned, but merely something recollected. In the Meno he uses the example of a slave that has never learned mathematic principles discovering them for himself as he is asked somewhat leading questions. He concludes that that slaves knowledge must be ingrained in his soul and remembered throughout life.

S: If he has not acquired them in his present life, isn’t it clear that he had them and learned them at some other time?

M: It seems so.

S: Then that must have been the time before he was a human being?

M: Yes.

S: If, then, there must exist in him – both while he is and while he is not a human being – true opinions which can be stirred up into knowledge by questioning, won’t it have to be the case that his soul had in it all this knowledge, all along? For it’s clear that throughout all time he either was or was not a human being.

M: So it would seem.

S: And if the truth about reality is always in our soul, the soul must be immortal. And therefore you should take heart and seek out and recollect what you do not presently know – that is, what you cannot presently remember?

Socrates suggests something that seems very consistent with the LDS tradition, namely the view that individuals are born with an innate sense of right or wrong as well as of such concepts as justice

“And if we acquired this knowledge before we were born, and were born having it, then we also knew before we were born and at the instant of birth not only equal or the greater or the less, but all other ideas; for we are not speaking only of equality absolute, but of beauty, goodness, justice, holiness, and all which we stamp with the name of essence in the dialectical process, when we ask and answer questions. Of all this we may certainly affirm that we acquired the knowledge before birth?”

This seems quite similar in many ways to d&c 93

“29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.”

Interestingly, part of argumentation that led Joseph Smith to affirm the notion of Pre-existence also relied on a very similar strain of argumentation as that employed by plato (King Follett Discourse)

“The intelligence of spirits had not beginning, neither will it have an end. That is good logic. That which has a beginning may have an end. There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal [co-eternal] with our Father in heaven.”

Thus, it is clear that there are some extreme similarities between the views expressed by Joseph Smith and that advanced in Plato’s dialogues. Still there are some stark differences.

First of all, Plato/Socrates is concerned with the idea of ideal forms. Thus, he believes that everything that exists in this world is but a derivative of some more perfect ideal form.

But the true earth is pure (katharan) and situated in the pure heaven (en katharōi ouranōi) … and it is the heaven which is commonly spoken by us as the ether (aithera) … for if any man could arrive at the extreme limit … he would acknowledge that this other world was the place of the true heaven (ho alethōs ouranos) and the true light (to alethinon phōs) and the true earth (hē hōs alēthōs gē).

This does not seem wholly consistent with our idea of actual perfectibility. In our view, a perfect us has never existed before and does not exist separate from us, for instance. The process of growth and discovery is very real and meaningful. We are actual transforming what is central or core to us ( our intelligence) through the process of living and growing.

This is no where better exemplified than the oft quoted cuplet “As Man is God once was, As God is man may become.” In its most extreme form, this idea is in open contrast to the idea that all of our experience is merely recollection. We may have given up a lot of knowledge to pass through the veil, and much of what we know may be rooted in our interaction with the light of christ, but ultimately there is something actually transformative about our experiences in this life. Socrates in these works does not seem to do too much to imagine or explain the purpose for this physical/material life, and indeed it does not seem like he can offer a coherent response here. We can instead turn to our knowledge that a physical bodily experience and our process of recollecting truth as well as discovering new revelation and insight actually helps to build us up in a way that a life devoid of experience can not do.

I ultimately think that Plato’s work on pre-existence poses an interesting challenge for our relationship with greek philosophy. Many Christian anti-mormon writers have commented on how our ideas of the pre-existence seem totally rooted in greek philosophy rather than biblical thought. Of course, I would disagree with this based on my understanding of Genesis One and accounts of creation as well as verses that hint at the divine council, but these challenges still raise an interesting question in regard to how exactly we can conceptualize our place in relationship to greek philosophy. Was the philosophy a source of apostasy, a potential source of inspired knowledge or something else entirely? These are fascinating questions that deserve significant attention