(A recent letter for my Mixed and Matched column in the J weekly.)
In the past you have said that a Jew shouldn’t make the High Holiday services the very first Jewish service that their non-Jewish partner experiences. But last year my observant Christian boyfriend loved Yom Kippur. He said he likes it because it is about apologizing for sins and getting right with God. The service is very serious and solemn and he likes that too. What do you say to this? Wouldn’t other Christians find Yom Kippur meaningful?
Loving a serious Christian
My first thought is that your boyfriend is loving the service that appears to be most similar to Christianity – an addressing of one’s sins and making things right. There is more talk of sin and the perils of going into the new year with that burden on your soul in the Yom Kippur service that in any other Jewish service. The metaphorical threat of not being written into the Book of Life is quite dark and repeated again and again. It is reminiscent of the Christian concept of sin and the danger of unforgiven sins damning you to hell. But for Christianity those sins can and must be forgiven by God. What your boyfriend may not be picking up on is that the primary goal of this season is to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with other human beings, not solely with God. It is much harder to apologize to the neighbor whose fence you knocked down and never told him about, than to pray to God to forgive you for concealing your error. In Judaism we must get things “right” with other people. The service says, “for the sins I have sinned against God, the Day of Atonement atones. But for the sins I have sinned against others, the Day of Atonement does not atone.” Merely praying to God doesn’t clear the slate.
This is one of those examples of Judaism being reworked to fit into a Christian viewpoint. He isn’t doing this to be disrespectful; he is simply interpreting the words and experience through his life filter, which is Christian. It is important that he understand the difference. This is a primary distinction between the two religions. If you two get serious and talk about marriage and children, he needs and deserves to know what you and your tradition will be bringing to your family. It would be quite an unpleasant surprise for both of you were you to each interpret the other’s understanding of sin, redemption and salvation as the same in your traditions.
Please note that there is no appeal to a single savior figure in Judaism. The absence of Jesus makes a big difference. Jesus intervenes on behalf of Christians to “speak” to God and save them. For Jews it is a one-to-one conversation with a Greater Being; there is no one to be your advocate. May Christians “pray in Jesus’ name” as a way of accessing divine grace. The approach to God from a Christian perspective is different that the Jewish approach. Many Jews don’t believe in God or struggle with the idea of a supreme or divine or creator force. But they still believe that the commandments are a good set of rules and worth following.
Christianity refers to the “wrathful God” of the “Old Testament”, interpreting the many passages of God interacting with humans as literal. The Sages view the bible as multi-layered in its teaching. So that reading the literal words of the Torah is called Peshat meaning surface or literal. Without attaining a higher level of understanding, one has only the children’s story, and let’s face it, that one is pretty hard to accept as a guide.
Might other Christians enjoy Yom Kippur? Sure, they might. They may see it through the lens your boyfriend has. But I suggest that a deeper understanding is valuable to Christians as well as Jews. Take your boyfriend to Torah study or to a lecture on one of the Parshot. You may be surprised at how delighted he is to delve into the symbolic and mystical meanings that are hidden there.
Don’t expect it to be easy for either of you. But if you both enjoy religious exploration it will be a delight. I once heard Professor Daniel Matt teach on the first three words of the Torah for more than an hour and WOW, it was amazing.