A Christian Observes Yom Kippur

by Harvey Cox

Dr. Cox is Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of such books as The Secular City, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit and Turning East.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 12-19, pp. 30-42. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock and Bill Fore..


A Christian’s view as an “insider” at Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) because he is married to a Jew.


The author, a Christian theologian and scholar, is married to Nina Tamarkin, who is Jewish. Fifteen years ago, they decided to raise their son in the Jewish faith, and to participate in each other’s religion as their respective convictions allowed. In this excerpt, the author describes Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement.

During most of Yom Kippur I nurse a dull headache. We are supposed to eat nothing from just before sundown the evening before (which is called Erev Yom Kippur) until after sundown on the day itself. We refrain from drinking (some people even avoid water), we do not engage in sexual activity and we do not wear leather shoes or belts, which at one time were an expression of finery. So here I am, stifling hunger pangs, a little thirsty (although I do allow myself a glass of water now and then), wearing my only pair of suspenders and canvas running shoes. Sex is the farthest thing from my mind. A grilled cheese sandwich has more erotic appeal.

Why are we doing this? Because there will be no eating or drinking or sex (or finery) in death, and Yom Kippur is about sampling some of the qualities of death so that when we are allowed to live life again, it will taste even sweeter. One rabbi suggests that there is something about the last meal one eats before the Yom Kippur fast that is reminiscent of the prisoner’s final meal before the electric chair. There is some truth in the saying that there is nothing better than a firing squad in the morning to clarify the mind. For some reason (which physiologists may one day explain), fasting does produce a kind of mental clarity, despite the headache.

On Erev Yom Kippur, the evening service begins its long confessional statement with some trespasses almost anyone can identify with. It asks for forgiveness for "the sin we have committed before Thee by hardening our hearts" and goes on to mention "sins we have committed before Thee in speech" and "the sin we have committed before Thee by wronging our neighbor." I can confess these transgressions because I can think of numerous times during the year when I have done them, and it is good to get them off my chest. So far, so good.

But then comes a part of the prayer that puzzled me at first. Unlike any Christian prayer I know, it asks God’s forgiveness for the sin we have committed "unknowingly." Immediately my mind steps back. I know that while on the cross Jesus asked God to forgive his executioners because "they know not what they do." Still, every five-year-old knows that if he can persuade his mother that he didn’t mean to break his little sister’s doll carriage, she cannot logically hold him responsible. The question puzzles me. Why should I be held accountable for things I have done unintentionally and without even knowing it? I am still pondering this dilemma when, a few lines later, the prayer goes on to list sins we have committed "by spurning parents and teachers"; "by denying and lying . . . by bribery. . . by scoffing . . . by slandering."

Now I am finding it hard, even with a relentless searching of my conscience, to remember when I have done these things. And when it comes to "the sin we have committed before Thee by demanding usurious interest," I begin to wonder just what it is that I am confessing. The prayer goes on to detail "being stiff-necked," "talebearing," in addition to "causeless hatred." This section in the service is followed by assurances of God’s pardon, but a few pages later another list of sins appears. Here the congregation confesses, "We have dealt treacherously, we have spoken slander, we have acted perversely. . , we have done violence, we have framed lies . . , scoffed, revolted, rebelled."

When I reached this part at my first Yom Kippur service, I was almost ready to sneak across the street for that grilled cheese sandwich and forgo any further confessing. I may be a sinner, but the sinner whom these prayers were describing was not me. Of course, I did not stalk out; still, being expected to confess things I had never done bothered me. It made it almost impossible for me to enter wholeheartedly into what is, in many other respects, a moving service. It seemed that I was somehow expected to confess -- more than once -- not only things I was not aware of, but long lists of sins that I had never even thought of committing. It seemed unreasonable.

I only saw the logic of unintentional transgressions when a rabbi pointed out to me that during these Days of Awe, Jews do not just repent for their own sins. They repent for the sins of all the people. No wonder I felt wrongly accused. The concept of collective repentance has been, until recently, quite foreign to most of Protestant Christianity. True, in Roman Catholicism there are whole communities of monks and nuns who intercede every day for those who do not have the desire or the capacity to pray for themselves. But the Protestant tradition, with its strong emphasis on the responsibility of the individual person before God, has not ordinarily looked favorably on these practices. As Martin Luther once put it, every person has to do his own repenting and his own dying. No one else can do either one for you.

Eventually, however, contemplating the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur became one of the moments in my encounter with Judaism that most enlarged and enriched my own faith. First, with regard to confessing sins we do not know about and did not do intentionally, in fact, of course, we do often hurt other people without intending to and sometimes without even knowing. Sometimes we learn later how something we did or said wounded someone painfully. But there may be many other times when we do such things and never hear about them, even though the sting still afflicts the other person. This is why I have come to believe that asking for forgiveness for the hurtful things we have done without even knowing them is salutary. It makes us think carefully about what we might have done in the past and remember to be more careful in the future.

But what about confessing things other people have done? Even when I realized this is a corporate confession, the concept continued to pose a problem for me, and still does. My question is quite simple: Can anyone actually repent for someone else? Wasn’t Luther right? Doesn’t repentance require a change of heart by the transgressor, an intention to try to do better? One of the points made by the Protestant reformers was that it was fruitless to have monks and nuns intercede for us -- which was, at the time, one of the main reasons for the existence of the monastic movement. Catholic theology held that the monastics were drawing on a "treasury of merit" stored up by people who did good deeds, transferring a kind of payment to the divine accounts of those in moral arrears. Of course, at the time there were terrible abuses of this practice. Rich people could pay for endless masses to be said for the souls of their departed loved ones and -- eventually -- for their own. Some even thought that if they endowed enough monasteries, they could live lives of reckless violence and promiscuity while the gentle sisters and brothers faithfully intervened for them morning, noon and night before the throne of grace. Luther, who had been an Augustinian monk in his youth, roundly condemned this whole idea. But it is sometimes not entirely clear in his writings when he is condemning a religious practice and when he is condemning its corruption and misuse. Protestants do pray for other people, for their health and well-being, even for their salvation. But they do not repent for them.

Still, I am not fully satisfied with this. It seems to promote an extreme form of religious individualism. One can see how this kind of thinking found its way through later Lutheran pietism to Søren Kierkegaard and then to its atheistic version in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. Kierkegaard asked that the inscription on his tombstone read "The Single One," and he told his fiancée, Regina Olsen, that he could not marry her because that would dilute his necessarily lonely and direct relationship with God. In one of his finest essays, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber says of Kierkegaard, "It is through, not despite of, the Regina Olsens of this world that we come to God."

I believe, with Buber and against Kierkegaard, that we come to God through the human ties within which we have been set. We are bound together with bonds that go deeper than skin. But I also believe, with Luther, that there are some things we simply have to do for ourselves. And I am still made uncomfortable by the thought of repenting for someone else’s sins or of someone else’s repenting for me. Obviously, this is not just my personal plight. It points to a much larger issue in the whole area of public morality: Can a corporate entity -- a nation, a tribe, a people -- repent?

After World War II, the German Protestant churches issued a statement of repentance for their sins of omission and commission during the Third Reich. They issued it, furthermore, not just in the name of the churches (including, presumably, members who were alive during that period but were now dead), but also in the name of the German people. It was a welcome admission. But just what did it mean? How many people from how many churches had to vote for the statement in order to make it truly representative? Does such a statement, for example, have any validity if it is passed by a closely contested vote? How can the churches speak for anyone except themselves?

These are difficult questions. We sometimes hear that America should formally apologize to Japan for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, just after the end of the war, a group of American Protestant theologians and church leaders issued a statement of repentance. But who would have the moral authority to do it today? Bill Clinton, the president of the United States in 1995, which marked the 50th anniversary of the bombings, was not yet born when the bombs were dropped. Many older people, especially some who were in the military in World War II, opposed any such apology, insisting that the Japanese should first apologize for Pearl Harbor. Whatever the merit of either of these ideas, they run into the same obstacle encountered by those who want America to apologize for slavery, for the murderous displacement of Native Americans or for any of a host of obvious and grave national sins. The question is a very basic one: Who has the authority to make such a penitent apology, and for whom would that person speak?

Other question about the Yom Kippur prayer arises from my uncertainty about who is included in the corporate "we" of the Jewish prayers of repentance. Here the age-old tension between Jewish particularism and Jewish universalism enters again. Are Jews praying that all Jews be forgiven, including the unrepentant ones? If so, who is included in the category of Jews? At a time when the "Who is a Jew?" controversy has made the borders of the community less distinct, this is not easy to answer. But suppose it included all Jews of any category whatsoever, including secular atheists; what about the rest of us? Are Jews on Yom Kippur repenting for everyone, for all of us? This may seem like a tall order. There may be a few million unrepentant Jews in the world who need such intercession, but there are billions of non-Jews who -- if such third-party prayers are valid -- are being spiritually neglected. Isn’t it unfair somehow that a few unrepentant people who are lucky enough to have someone who repents for them (because they are Jewish) should have a more favorable standing before God than those who are not so fortunate? This discussion can quickly get rather silly. But the underlying riddle of the relationship between the corporate and the individual remains.

There are two different but closely related issues here. One is whether I must repent for myself or whether the group to which I belong can repent for everyone who is part of that group. The other is whether a collectivity, be it a nation, a country or a religious group, can repent and gain forgiveness either for itself or for those who are completely outside. As I reflected on these questions, thinking that maybe it was my own upbringing that made them so difficult for me, I was relieved to discover that -- as in many other such matters -- it was not just my upbringing. Thoughtful Jews are concerned about the same issues. On individual repentance, Rabbi Everett Gendler remarks, "The process of individual teshuvah (repentance -- literally, turning around) is so demanding and requires such concentration that I don’t see how we can achieve reconciliation within the groups to which we belong at the same time. Group renewal and mending should be done, but it is so easy to deflect personal teshuvah that we might do best not to try to find justification for it by including corporate teshuvah in Rosh ha-Shanah."

He goes on to suggest that maybe it would be better "to adopt a more frequent process of personal teshuvah all year round [or] on each Sabbath." The issue this rabbi is wrestling with is a troubling one: What is the connection between the spiritual responsibilities of the individual and those of the community?

This may well be an area in which Jews and Christians can help each other. Christians do practice personal teshuvah on a weekly basis but have a weak sense of corporate responsibility. According to Gendler, Jews may have the opposite problem. In any case, what I have learned from my unending struggle with the idea of teshuvah is this: at its heart is the radical idea that people can change. Both Judaism and Christianity, in opposition to the many forms of determinism that dominate our culture today, insist that human beings are created with the freedom to examine their lives and -- with the help of God and of fellow human beings -- mend their ways and alter their courses. We are not totally determined by our genes or our early toilet training, though these and many more factors supply the material we must work with. Our destiny is to be born in one century and not another, with a particular skin color, brain capacity and gender. But what we do with all these is up to us. In the courtroom of Yom Kippur, none of the excuses offered in the courts of this world by creative defense counsels are acceptable. The judge knows we are free and that we can change, if we decide to do so.

I have another issue with Yom Kippur. If we can confess other people’s shortcomings, can we also profit from their virtues? Here, it had always seemed to me we reach a precarious divide between Jews and Christians. Most Christians, although they may be suspicious of vicarious confession, do believe in vicarious atonement: the idea that someone’s virtue or suffering can benefit someone else. Catholics teach that one can draw on the "treasury of merit" stored up for everyone by the righteousness of the saints and that one can benefit from the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Protestants, representing a more individual faith, generally reject the intercession of saints, but they believe that Christ’s blameless life and undeserved death provide the primary source of their reconciliation to God.

For decades I was under the impression that a major theological difference between Jews and Christians ran along this fault line. Jews, I had read and heard (including from many Jews), simply do not believe in vicarious atonement, whereas Christians obviously do. Further, I had been led to believe, while Christians rely on God’s grace for receiving mercy and forgiveness, Jews must demonstrate acts of compassion that outweigh their deeds of selfishness. But now this has become yet another point on which I have had to jettison my old ideas. During the traditional Yom Kippur service, it was once the custom, and still is in many congregations, to retell the story of the so-called ten rabbinic martyrs. These rabbis were killed by the Roman authorities for refusing to obey the prohibitions against Jewish religious practices after the legions had suppressed the revolt led by the Jewish rebel Simeon Bar Kochba in the second century CE. Why is this saga retold? Here is what American Orthodox rabbi Irving Greenberg says on the subject: "In a way, the ten rabbis, like Isaac, were invoked for the sake of vicarious atonement; the merit of their devotion and martyrdom should win forgiveness for their descendants, the living people of Israel."

Today, he adds, the martyrs of the Holocaust are sometimes invoked in the same way. This makes sense. In a tradition like Judaism, which emphasizes the corporate nature of human life, including its reach back into history, why should one not benefit today from the lives of the righteous who have gone before? We profit from those long gone in many other respects. We cherish the music they composed, savor the books they wrote, marvel at the pictures they painted and use the scientific discoveries they made. Why should we not benefit from them on the spiritual level? It must also be said that we still chafe under many of their follies, still mourn the dead of their many wars and are just beginning to clean up the putrid mess they have made of our rivers. But that is another story.

"Yes but," one Jewish answer has been. "But why do Christians focus so much on Jesus, on one man’s merits and martyr’s death?" It is a fair question. My own response is inspired by the French artist Georges Ronault’s vivid portrayals of the crucifixion in his Misérère series. Ronault’s conviction, derived from Pascal, was that "Christ will be in agony until the end of the world." Consequently, he systematically pairs the traditional stations of the cross with depictions of the suffering of ordinary people. As Christ is led to his place of torture and death, we see at every stage a prisoner being led to the gallows, a lonely women in a barren suburb or a poor old man dying alone in a tenement. Christ does continue to suffer, the series says, with all who suffer unjustly in the world. When Christians say he suffered and died for us, we mean that, in some sense, the kind of people Ronault pictures suffer and die for us as well, and whether they are, or were, Christians makes no difference. From this perspective, there is no reason why the ten rabbinic martyrs of the Yom Kippur service should not be included. Might the day come when Jews can remember that Jesus of Nazareth was also a rabbi who was martyred by the Romans?

My understanding of the atoning vicarious death of Christ is not shared by every Christian. Some Christians insist that Christ and Christ alone died for us. But if Jesus Christ was a human being, as all Christians believe, then his suffering cannot be completely severed from all human suffering. "No man is an island," John Donne reminds us, and this includes Jesus. Catholic spirituality has rightly recognized this in the devotion it has encouraged to the sorrows of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The suffering of one person inevitably causes the suffering of others. This insight has become increasingly valuable to me, and it plays an important part in Christian mysticism as well as in feminist and liberation theologies. We are all in this together.

There is another point of convergence between Jews and Christians on the vexed question of grace and good works. At the end of the Yom Kippur service, having prayed for mercy and forgiveness, Jews finally throw themselves totally on the mercy of the court. As Rabbi Greenberg puts it, "This atonement is by divine grace; it is above and beyond the individual’s own effort or merit." I was astonished when I first read this sentence. Martin Luther once ignited a whole Reformation with his preaching of sola gratia (by grace alone). When the hour of decision, forgiving or sentencing finally comes, do Jews cling to the same hope? As Greenberg says: "Many Jews assume that only Christianity focuses on grace and on the merits of another’s sacrifice for their behavior, but in biblical times, temple worship had strong sacramental overtones. . . . Modern Jews would do well to recover the sense of grace that brings us forgiveness even when we do not earn it for ourselves."

This is another instance in which the core convictions of Jews and Christians have been distorted by centuries of polemic. Christians have frequently been told that we believe in justification by grace (or in the case of Catholics, by grace and works), while Jews believe they are justified by adhering to the precepts of the law. Jews have often been taught the same thing, so for millions of ordinary Jews and Christians, this alleged difference has become a hallmark contrast, even a flat contradiction, and has often been presented as an either/or proposition. The truth, however, is quite different.

Maybe the wooden term "justification," with its cold, judicial overtones, has misled everyone. The underlying question is a simple one: How do God and human beings enter into a fruitful relationship with each other? Do we somehow earn the privilege of receiving God’s compassion? Or does God love and forgive us freely, regardless of our merits? Or is there some mixture of the two?

In recent years Catholic theologians, drawing closer to what has been considered the "Protestant" position, have insisted that in the final analysis, no one enters God’s presence except by God’s grace. And Jews, freed from the chafing need to stress their differences from the Christian majorities around them, have begun to reclaim their own traditional teaching on the divine grace that brings forgiveness "even when we do not earn it for ourselves." This whole development is a healthy one. It suggests that the teachings of these traditions on the relationship between God’s grace and human works of justice and compassion simply do not differ as much as we have been told in the past. Jewish teaching does not hold that God’s favor is gained merely by accumulating good deeds. And the New Testament emphasizes that "faith without works is dead." The most recent translations of the Epistle of James, where this famous quotation in found, clarify the matter considerably:

But someone may say: "One chooses faith, another action." To which I reply: "Show me this faith you speak of with no actions to prove it, while I by my actions will prove to you my faith." You have faith and believe that there is one God. Excellent! Even demons have faith like that, and it makes them tremble. Do you have to be told, you fool, that faith divorced from action is futile? (James 2:18-20).

Historically there have been genuine differences between Jewish and Christian thinkers about the meaning of "sin," but also some common ground. Outsiders, and many Jews as well, can get the impression that in Judaism "sins" are specific acts, such as the list of misdeeds confessed at Yom Kippur. But the rabbinical tradition suggests something more complicated. The rabbis drew a distinction between what they called the yetser ha-tov, which is the inner inclination

to do good, and the yetser ha-ra’, the inclination to do evil. Sometimes Jewish stories depict these two urges as arguing inside our heads, pushing us in one direction or the other. The tradition suggests that God, candid self-examination and the firm exercise of the will help the good urges to prevail.

Jews have never attached much credence to what Christian theology calls original sin, which plays an important role in Christianity. They understandably wonder how we can all be implicated by Adam’s fatal bite into the forbidden fruit. But these disagreements are often obscured by biblical literalism and ignorance on both sides. People once believed Adam was a real historical figure, so it is little wonder that our being cursed for his disobedience caused such confusion. But Adam and Eve mean "mankind" and "life." They are the metaphorical representatives of all humankind. The story in Genesis is not about primeval ancestors but about us.

But what does it say about us? Here there are some differences. Christians have said that the story of the fall is about how we invariably try to deny our finitude and escape our mortality ("to be as gods") and end up making things worse. We find ourselves expelled from Eden and barred from returning by an angel with a fiery sword (a favorite theme in Christian art). Christian theologians have therefore thought of sin more as a kind of congenital disability, with specific failings as its symptoms. But it is a disability we somehow have a role in perpetuating, like a fly gets itself ever more entangled in a web the more it tries to get out.

In recent years, some thoughtful Christians have asked whether the term "sin" is still useful when the word is used as a lure to market sexy perfume and rich chocolate. I do not think we can give up the word so easily. Sophisticated modern Christian writers, such as Søren Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, defend its validity, interpreting original sin as a metaphor for our flawed and precarious human condition. Each saw sin, not as the opposite of virtue, but as the opposite of faith and as an expression of the distressing mixture of freedom and fate that keeps prompting us to do things that in our better moments we know are wrong.

Kierkegaard, contemplating human existence psychologically, noticed the sense of vertigo and anxiety that arises when we become aware of our finitude, and how expert we are at deceiving ourselves about it. Tillich, more philosophically inclined, saw original sin as a result of "man’s existential predicament," our haunting sense of "estrangement" from ourselves, from each other and from the mysterious source of our being. It is no wonder that he welcomed existential philosophy and literature as allies of Christian theology. In a more ethical vein, Niebuhr thought of original sin as our tendency to make our own perspectives absolute, to transform our sense of the good into the good for everyone. For each of these influential thinkers, the story of Adam and Eve is not about something that happened in a garden long ago but a powerful symbol of the human situation we confront every day. Whether or not we call it original sin, it remains a stubborn fact of the human condition.

The differing conceptions of sin found in Judaism and Christianity generate somewhat different ideas of God’s forgiveness. Since for Christians sin is more a condition than an act, more an inner flaw than an infraction, God’s grace must penetrate to the core of our being. We must be inwardly transformed. The Jewish tradition teaches that if we are appropriately penitent, God will forgive the transgression we have committed against him, but that even God cannot or will not forgive the misdeed we perpetrate against our fellow human beings. For these we must seek their forgiveness. I think Christians have much to learn from this. Too often they believe that once they have confessed to God, they do not need to reconcile themselves to the other party. But this makes it too easy. Jesus told his followers that if, on the way to the temple to offer a sacrifice, they remember something that has undermined their relationship with a neighbor, they should first go and make peace with the neighbor and only then go and offer the sacrifice. Jesus was never more rabbinical than at this moment.

But I also find something powerfully attractive in the Christian understanding of sin as a tragic flaw, as interpreted by Kierkegaard, Tillich and Niebuhr. They are grappling, as we all do, with something about us that goes even deeper than questions about ethics and morality ("sins"), as important as those questions are. They are engaging a mystery that traces back to the classical Greek recognition of the inescapably tragic dimension in life and to the universal human intuition that, although we know ourselves to be free in some sense, we also wrestle constantly with forces within us and around us that make living a moral life hazardous and enigmatic.

Like a Shakespeare play, Yom Kippur also has its antic interval. During the afternoon service, the congregation listens to a reading of the biblical book of Jonah. I look forward to this part of the service. First of all, the confessing is now over, and like most people present, I think I have had enough. Also, I love the story of Jonah, the recalcitrant Jewish prophet who is sent to call the pagan peoples of Nineveh to repentance. He takes a ship in the opposite direction to escape God’s command, is thrown overboard during a storm, is swallowed by "a great fish," and regurgitated at the very place he was trying to avoid. Still in a bad mood, Jonah reluctantly preaches to the people of Nineveh and -- much to his chagrin -- they repent and find God’s favor.

It is a charming story with all the elements of high camp. Its sheer tall-tale absurdity and blatant caricaturing appeal to the contemporary consciousness. In his pathetic ineptitude, Jonah is a kind of Mr. Magoo or one of the clueless characters Woody Allen plays in his early films. Still, its farcical quality drives home the lesson of Jonah. First of all, it is radically opposed to narrow ethnic particularism. It says that gentiles, even from a nation the Jews hated at the time, are fully capable of living righteously and basking in God’s blessedness. This is a nice touch when one hears it, as I do, with the ears of a gentile. It is also about the paradoxical tension between human freedom and divine providence. Wiggle as you may, it warns, you will not ultimately escape your destiny, even if it requires being ingested by a carnivorous sea creature. Destiny is not fate. Destiny is the framework within which we exercise our freedom and without which freedom would be meaningless. I was born a white male in America in the 20th century, with a certain body type and brain capacity. That is my destiny. I cannot change it. What I do with it is my freedom.