This Yom Kippur We Need “Collective Repentance”
By Rabbi Justus Baird
The Jewish high holy days are here again. For Jews around the world, this season brings on a craving for sweet things like apples dipped in honey, as well as heavy things, like repentance. As a rabbi who leads communal prayers and delivers sermons at this season, I am always in search of something new to say about repentance. This year, inspiration came in the form of a scholarly book by David Lambert called How Repentance Became Biblical. Lambert’s scholarship has the potential to transform how modern people of faith approach repentance, what Jews call teshuvah.
The book is a remarkable read for anyone curious about how repentance has changed over the millennia. Lambert uses brilliant textual analysis to lay bare the difference between how the authors of the Hebrew Bible understood repentance and how the rabbis of the first century CE understood repentance.
Here’s a few headlines of what Lambert uncovers. In the Bible, acts like fasting, putting on sackcloth and ashes, or falling on one’s face have nothing to do with what we think of as repentance. Instead, they are actions meant to make suffering visible in hopes of getting divine attention. Fasting in the Bible is an ancient version of a hunger strike, not an exercise in spiritual reflection. Today’s understanding of repentance as an interior, reflective, mental act performed by someone of their own volition, with the intention of considering past behavior and changing future behavior, emerges long after the Hebrew Bible was canonized, sometime around the first century CE, in Lambert’s estimation.
Lambert’s scholarship gave me new insights into classic Jewish texts often used to teach about repentance, including the book of Jonah, the story of Hannah crying out about her infertility in 1 Samuel 1-2, and the piercing challenge in Isaiah 58 about what fasting means, a passage that Jews read on Yom Kippur (“Is this the fast I have chosen?”).
More importantly, Lambert’s scholarship inspired me to realize that if our deepest understandings of repentance have evolved once, they can evolve again. And I believe that repentance needs another revolution, especially in twenty-first century American society. Specifically, we need to take steps toward what we might call “collective repentance.”
As a society, we Americans have no process for communal repentance. This summer, before and after the spectacle and tragedy of the protests in Charlottesville, we renewed public debates over what do to with civil war monuments. How, exactly, does a society repent for actions that took place generations ago? Black American thought leaders are laying the groundwork for reparations, a major conversation about financial repentance for the sin of slavery upon which this country was built. And Native American leaders continue to call for a public conversation about repentance for the genocide that earlier Americans committed in the 18th and 19th centuries. How can faith leaders prepare Americans for a public conversation about collective repentance?
Other societies have walked this path. What can we learn from how Germans struggled with its leadership of the Holocaust? From Catholic and Protestant theologians who wrestled with their interpretations of Judaism in the mid-twentieth century? From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa?
Lambert’s scholarship contains one clue about a direction collective repentance might take in America. In an email exchange I had with Lambert, he described our contemporary approach to repentance as a “near obsession with interiority.” And in a blog post after the Trump election, he critiques today’s understanding of repentance as being overly focused on the victimizer. “The offenders—their feelings, their thoughts, their actions—remain center stage. They control the narrative. When will they choose to apologize? How do they feel about what they’ve done?” Instead, he suggests, we should re-embrace an approach found in the Hebrew Bible. There, the cries of those who are oppressed, widows, orphans or the enslaved Israelites, are heard. Victims are subjects in the narrative.
One of the biggest privileges of serving as dean of Auburn Seminary is the opportunity to learn from leaders of faith and moral courage who have dedicated their lives to making American society better for everyone. Through them, I have learned to hold two truths at the same time: on the one hand, American society creates unparalleled opportunity and serves as a beacon of freedom around the world; on the other hand, American society is built on the wholesale treatment of other peoples as less than human. I pray that in my lifetime we Americans will courageously forge a path toward collective repentance that lays bare what we have done and repairs relationships with those who have been harmed along the way. It may be the surest way to a more perfect union.