Yom Kippur:

Encounters with the Absolute[1]

Whether in first-century Alexandria or in contemporary Calgary, Yom Kippur--the Jewish Day of Atonement--has maintained an inexplicable hold even over Jews who in other respects have become severed from their spiritual roots. The holiday's power is not diminished by its dearth of tangible symbols, historical associations or links to the cycles of nature.

The following two vignettes illustrate the awesome force that can be exerted by this sacred day over Jew and Gentile alike:

In 1911 Rudolf Otto, a young German lecturer in Theology, undertook a journey to North Africa, India and the Far East. The Day of Atonement that year found him, a Christian, in the Moroccan town of Mogador, where he visited the local synagogue. Amidst the material squalor of the setting, Otto was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Hebrew chanting, particularly of the "Kedushah," that sublime prayer in which the community emulates the angelic adulation of the Almighty as portrayed in the mystic visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts!"

In this experience were sown the seeds of Otto's lifelong fascination with the experience of holiness in world religions. In his seminal work The Idea of the Holy he explored the essence of the "mysterium tremendum" that engulfs individuals when they stand before the power of a "wholly other" majesty that transcends rational understanding.

In Otto's analysis of the holiness experience, it is the process of atonement that allows us to bridge the chasm of profane unworthiness and enter into relationship with God.

In another episode that occurred shortly afterwards, the spell of Yom Kippur saved Judaism from losing one of its most creative and heroic teachers:

Like many of his Jewish contemporaries in turn-of-the-century Germany, young Franz Rosenzweig embarked upon a quest for personal religious solutions to the puzzles of human existence. Though unsatisfied by the aridity of the prevailing philosophical schools, his superficial Jewish education had not equipped him to counter the attractions of liberal Protestantism, which professed to embody the essence of enlightened universalism.

In 1913 Rosenzweig resolved to adopt Christianity, a move which was conventionally viewed as a necessary prerequisite to full acceptance into European culture and society. However he wished to enter the new religion "as a Jew," and therefore determined to spend the last days before his conversion in Jewish settings, emulating the founders of Christianity who had seen the new faith as a fulfilment of their Judaism.

When Rosenzweig confided his plans to his mother, she threatened to have her apostate son turned away from the Yom Kippur services in the central synagogue of Cassel. It thus turned out that Rosenzweig attended worship on Oct. 11 1913 at a tiny orthodox house of prayer ("shtiebl") in Berlin.

The experience was an overpowering one. Rosenzweig never described precisely what it was that transformed him in that Berlin synagogue, but we know that immediately afterwards his perspectives underwent a complete reversal, and that the prospect of conversion was "no longer possible."

In later writings Rosenzweig emphasized that, beyond feelings of personal exaltation and communal solidarity, Yom Kippur constitutes "a testimony to the reality of God that cannot be controverted." He described movingly how on that day every Jew "confronts the eyes of his judge in utter loneliness as if he were dead in the midst of life..." And yet, in spite of the apparently unbridgable gap between individual and Creator, on Yom Kippur "he is as close to God...as it is ever accorded man to be."

Whatever it was that Rosenzweig experienced in that Berlin synagogue, it impelled him to devote the remainder of his life--much of it in the grip of a debilitating illness--to studying and teaching the Jewish tradition. His Star of Redemption remains one of the most challenging works of Jewish theology. His collaboration with Martin Buber produced a fresh new German translation of the Hebrew Bible and under his leadership the Frankfurt "Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus" inspired some of German Jewry's most distinguished intellectuals.

Perhaps it is Yom Kippur's very defiance of historical or natural context that cries out against the facile determinisms of modern ideologies. Starkly alone before our Creator, we acknowledge that the power to change life's course belongs to no-one but ourselves.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca