Yom Kippur 5780

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah – 9 October 2019

 
Observing Yom Kippur as Liberal Jews

What is the Liberal Jewish approach to Yom Kippur? Traditional observance of Yom Kippur is based on rabbinic interpretation of the command found in the Torah that ‘you should afflict yourselves – v’innitem et-nafshoteikhem – ‘on the tenth day of the seventh month’, ‘from evening to evening’ (Leviticus 23:27-32). This affliction is understood according to the halakhah (Jewish law) in terms of five prohibitions (Mishnah Yoma 8:1)

    1. Not to eat or drink
    2. Not to bathe
    3. Not to anoint
    4. Not to wear leather shoes
    5. Not to have sexual relations

Since Liberal Judaism prioritises ethical over ritual teachings, Liberal Jews may question whether or not all these prohibitions are applicable to our observance of Yom Kippur as Liberal Jews. While most Liberal Jews probably adopt the first prohibition concerning not eating and drinking, the others may be regarded as irrelevant to the main purpose of the day, which is to complete the process of t’shuvah, ‘returning’, by confessing our misdeeds before God and making a journey towards forgiveness and atonement.

Closer inspection, however, suggests that all five prohibitions are relevant to observing Yom Kippur as Liberal Jews. With the threat of environmental catastrophe looming and in the context of the global refugee crisis and the persistence of poverty, adopting the five prohibitions enables us to engage our bodies and our minds in pursuit of our Liberal Jewish ethical agenda.

1. Not to eat or drink
Importantly, the haftarah (concluding scriptural passage) set aside for reading on Yom Kippur morning from Isaiah, chapter 58, centres on the prophet admonishing those who feel that they have fulfilled their obligation on Yom Kippur by fasting, and reminding us that the fast that the Eternal One desires is to liberate the enslaved and oppressed, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless (58:6-7). The message is not that one should not fast, but rather that the purpose of not eating and drinking is to remember those in need and take action on their behalf.

And there is more to consider when we fast on Yom Kippur – not least where the food we eat on the other 364 days of the year comes from. Is it fair-traded and ethically sourced? How many air-miles have been consumed to bring it to us? Then, there is the impact on the planet of our attachment to eating the same diet all year round. For example: Avocados are lovely, a real superfood, full of nutrients, but our determination to eat avocados whatever the season, has involved the uprooting of bio diverse forests to plant enough avocado trees to meet the demand. A few years ago, Rabbi Janet Burden wrote a Liberal Judaism leaflet, entitled, ‘Ethical Eating’. Refraining from eating and drinking on Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to reflect on how and what we eat the rest of the year and to develop an ethical approach to our consumption.

2. Not to bathe
The first prohibition includes ‘not drinking’. There are vast areas of the world where people are dying of thirst. And then, there is the second prohibition against bathing. We take it for granted in the northern and western regions of the world that we can take a bath or shower whenever we like. But there are growing areas of the planet, where water is increasingly in very short supply. Millions of people across the globe do not have the luxury of bathing. If the thought of not bathing for a day makes us feel uncomfortable, imagine what it’s like never to have the chance to immerse oneself in clean water.

3. Not to anoint
‘Anointing’ is about using facial and body creams, putting on make-up and wearing perfume. On Yom Kippur, the physical self-care involved in our daily anointing rituals is replaced by spiritual self-care and self-examination. But there can be more to abstaining from anointing than this. Observing this prohibition gives us the opportunity to reflect on of the use of chemicals in cosmetics, to consider the narcissism involved in our preoccupation with our appearance, to reflect on the problem of sexual objectification in our society and the extent to which societal expectations ‘groom’ us into thinking that to be ‘acceptable’ we must be ‘desirable’.

4. Not to wear leather shoes
The prohibition against wearing leather shoes, symbolic of our dependence on other creatures, brings us back to environmental concerns. The bald fact is that leather goods represent dead animals. As we consider the threat of climate change, we know that the ruthless exploitation of our beautiful blue planet and our reckless use and abuse of other creatures is reaching catastrophic proportions. Perhaps, on Yom Kippur, as we put on footwear that has not entailed killing, we may reflect on our impact on the Earth. Of course, we shouldn’t limit our concern to the use of leather, and think about all the materials that have gone into the shoes – and into the clothes – we wear and where they have come from.

5. Not to have sexual relations
Jewish teaching has a very positive attitude towards sex. Indeed, it is a mitzvah to have sex on Shabbat. But contemporary culture has become sex-obsessed. As sex has been commodified, how much sex a person ‘has’, has become a marker of personal achievement. It may now be increasingly acceptable to be LGBT in the western and northern regions of the world, but it remains unacceptable to be asexual. And then there is the matter of how we conduct our sexual relationships. The Torah portion read on Yom Kippur afternoon in LJ congregations, includes a verse from K’doshim, the ‘Holiness’ code that speaks directly to this concern: ‘You shall love your neighbour/companion as yourself’ – V’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha (Leviticus 19:18). In the context of sex: regardless of sexual orientation, sexual relations should be loving, mutual and reciprocal. When those of us who have sexual relationships resume sexual activity after Yom Kippur, Leviticus 19:18 should be our guide.
 

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