At sunset on Friday, Sept. 13 this year, the Kol Nidre service will gather the Jewish community in synagogues across the globe, to initiate a solemn day of fasting, reflection, and prayer. At sunset the following evening the Ne’ilah service will assemble the community once again to close the annual observance of Yom Kippur. Through this “Day of Atonement,” they seek repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation in their relations with God and with one another. Many will remain at the synagogue most of that day for personal or communal prayer and reflection; others will spend much of the day at home, reviewing their lives and relations since last Yom Kippur, asking forgiveness from others where necessary. This is the 10th of Tishrei on the Jewish calendar.
As Christians, we remember more than 2,000 years that comprise the story of the Christian community, from its beginnings within the Jewish community in Jerusalem, through the dramatic evolution that occurred as the Church took root in gentile communities of other cultures, to its present situation as the largest faith community in the world. The early Church and Rabbinic Judaism both took shape about the same time, both rooted in Biblical Judaism. But very soon in the history of these sibling communities, negative stereotypes of Jews and Judaism dominated the Church’s relations with the Jewish community. That led to the demeaning of Jewish faith and the persecution of Jews, culminating in the role that the Church’s theology played in setting the scene for the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II.
Especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Christian communities have begun to re-examine this tragic history and to recognize the anti Judaism that, for centuries, has poisoned the life of the Church and brought untold suffering on the Jewish people. This gives Christians every reason to want to be with the Jewish community in repentance this Yom Kippur, to share their fast, to stand before God with them, acknowledging our own need for repentance and seeking forgiveness, as an expression of our commitment to new relations with this community.
The Jewish High Holy Days
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the Israelites thus: ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts of horns…. On the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement…. on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God…. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practise self denial, from evening to evening you shall observe this sabbath” (Leviticus 23).
The above biblical citations refer to what have become the Jewish High Holy days, in the seventh month, known as Tishrei. The first day has been expanded over time into a two day holiday which Jews call Rosh HaShanah, the New Year. Being in the seventh month it is obviously not the Jewish New Year, for that is in the first month, Nisan, which contains the Passover freedom festival. In the seventh month Jews celebrate the world’s New Year, the anniversary of Creation. Often repeated throughout these days is the declaration: “Today is the birthday of the world. Today God will bring to judgement all the world’s creatures. “
The second festival of the seventh month is now known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is celebrated as a complete twenty-five hour fast from sundown until the following nightfall. No water or food is consumed during this period. Traditional synagogues will have services in the evening, which last about three hours. Then, in the morning, services will begin early and last through the entire day until the sounding of the ram’s horn [Shofar] at nightfall. Some pious persons will spend the whole night as well chanting the Book of Psalms and other readings.
Rosh Hashanah begins in a festive mood. “Blessed are you, Lord, Sovereign of the universe, who has sustained and supported us and enabled us to reach this moment.” We are grateful for the gift of life during the past year. However, the mood is both happy and serious at the same time. It is the beginning of a ten day period of judgement and therefore of penitential reflection. One is encouraged to examine one’s life during the past year, express regret for sins and errors, confess before God and resolve to improve conduct during the New Year ahead. We can then ask- and expect- God’s forgiveness. However, if our sin was against another person, we must first secure their forgiveness before expecting that of God.
On Yom Kippur the penitential mood is dominant. The prayers move around a wide range of religious emotions: awe and reverence before God’s majesty; tenderness and love as gifts of God’s love; tears of regret and noble resolve. The congregation, many dressed in white throughout the day, alternately bow and sway, cry and laugh as they move through the liturgy. The final hours are filled with intense spiritual passions and ultimate exaltation. We believe that God has indeed listened to our prayers and will forgive us. Now the New Year can begin in joy.
The prayers throughout this period are heavily dependent upon Psalms as well as other Rabbinic and medieval poetic writings. These reflect a wide range of spiritual moods and theological attitudes and may vary from community to community.
Pope Francis and the Jewish Community
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) this year, Pope Francis wished Jews around the world a sweet and peaceful year 5774, called for increased dialogue among the world’s religious communities and opposed fundamentalism in any faith. During his first private audience with an international Jewish leader since being elected Catholic Pontiff in March, Francis asked World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald S. Lauder to convey his New Year message to Jewish communities world-wide and said he also needed a sweet year because of the important decisions lying ahead. Using the Hebrew words for ‘Happy New Year’, Pope Francis wished a “Shana Tova” and asked the WJC to share that message with the Jewish people worldwide.
At their meeting, Lauder and the Catholic Pontiff spoke about the situation in Syria and agreed to speak out against attacks on religious minorities, such as Coptic Christians in Egypt and against trends to restrict well-established religious practices such as circumcision. The Pope specifically expressed concern about the bans on kosher slaughter in Poland and directed Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Vatican’s Commission for Relations with the Jews, to investigate and host a follow-up meeting as early as next week.
Francis reiterated a statement made last June that “a Christian cannot be an anti-Semite” and said that “to be good a Christian it is necessary to understand Jewish history and traditions.” He added that Jews and Christians shared the same roots and that dialogue was the key to building a common future. Referring to the conflict in Syria, the Pope called the killing of human beings unacceptable and said “world leaders must do everything to avoid war.”
After the meeting, Ronald Lauder praised the Pope for his unwavering commitment to dialogue and said that “Pope Francis’ leadership has not only reinvigorated the Catholic Church but also given a new momentum to relations with Judaism. Never in the past 2,000 years have relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people been so good. The leadership of successive popes over the past five decades has helped to overcome a lot of prejudice. This allows us now to work together in defending religious freedom wherever it is under threat and whichever community is affected.” (Communication issued by the World Jewish Congress)
This past week, in a lengthy letter to the former editor of the Italian daily ‘La Repubblica’, Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis urged non-believers to engage with Christians in an open and sincere conversation. Reflecting on the originality of the Christian faith in relations to other religions, the Pope stresses the role of Jesus who renders us all sons and daughters of God, therefore also brothers and sisters to each other. Our arduous task, he says, is that of communicating God’s love to all, not in a superior way, but rather through service to all people especially those on the margins of our societies.
In that letter, the Pope also spoke of his deep respect and friendship for people of Jewish faith – especially those with whom he worked so closely in his native Argentina. Reflecting on the terrible experience of the Shoah, he said, we can never be grateful enough to the Jews who maintained their faith in God, thus teaching us too to remain always open to his infinite love.
As our Jewish brothers and sisters prepare to observe a day of repentance and reconciliation this year, and come before God with fasting and prayer, we join with them in expressing our fundamental solidarity of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. With them we recall our common trust in God’s grace and mercy, which we have inherited from the Jewish experience of God. With them we honor the richness of Jewish prayer that is at the core of Christian prayer. With them we confess our sins, both personal and corporate. With them we name with sadness and shame the sins of the Christian churches towards the Jewish people, especially our contempt for their spiritual traditions. In solidarity with them we seek forgiveness and reconciliation and pray for peace among all people, cultures and religions.