Thursday, September 25, 2008

Preaching on UUism and the High Holy Days

This week I've been working on a sermon about what UUs can learn from the High Holy Days observed by our Jewish friends and neighbors during the autumn of the year. Judaism is one of our Sources and we take important lessons from that tradition.

We have a small Jewish community on the island and are lucky to have a few Jewish folks as part of our congregation. I've asked a couple of them to take part in this service because, beyond having read Michener's "The Source" at least five times and having many Jewish friends, I have little first-hand knowledge of Judaism. My admiration for the Jewish people has been strong, to the point where, during one reading of Michener, I wished I had been born a Jew, out of my admiration for their courage and fortitude.

The question that arises for me from my work on this sermon is "what is sin and how do we address it in ourselves, as UUs?" Since I have seldom heard the word "sin" used in our congregations, it has a certain thrill of being an almost-taboo question! We are really schitzy about certain religious words and "sin" is a biggie.

But it's a real question nevertheless because we all do things that are wrong, sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally, sometimes by omission. I think the word "sin" has such an accusatory and self-righteous flavor that we reject it for its tone, rather than its meaning.

The word in Hebrew actually means "missing the mark", according to my studies, which is not a very accusatory/self-righteous definition. But to be accused or to accuse oneself of being a sinner does have that connotation, especially when it is accompanied by pious finger-pointing or breast-beating.

The High Holy Days are a time of looking back over the past year, considering the wrongs one has done, deciding how to make amends for those wrongs, making amends to the humans wronged and asking for God's forgiveness for the wrongs done against God.

According to Jewish theology, God does not forgive the wrongs we do to each other; we have to ask each other for that forgiveness. And that makes perfect sense to me. If I hurt someone, God cannot grant me absolution---only the person I've hurt can do that. And if that person is unwilling to forgive me, I have to let that be okay and move on. God/the Universe/Nature's forgiveness is not guaranteed, either, without some evidence that there is true remorse in me, proven by some act of recompense.

My concept of God has more to do with the Cosmos than with a supernatural being, so my sense of having wronged God mostly revolves around my relationship with the earth; if I damage the earth, pollute the skies, hurt a creature needlessly, I am missing the mark with God and I need to behave differently. I also need to do something to atone for my errors, like stopping a hurtful behavior, repairing damage, healing a creature if possible.

During the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Jews are expected to consider the past year, seek reconciliation with those they've offended, plan for a better New Year, and seek reconciliation with God for the wrongs against God's law. It is a serious business, conducted every year with thousands of years of observance signifying its importance.

It seems to me that it is a worthwhile tradition for all human beings to undertake----acknowledging the things we've done wrong, seeking reconciliation with those persons we've hurt, adjusting our behavior to avoid hurting others or the world, and actively working to avoid future harm to others or the world.

We often dismiss the practices of other religions because they're "Other", not us, without considering the very real benefits of those rituals. Would not our planet be in better shape if more human societies practiced the rituals of reflection, reconciliation, and redemption?

1 comment:

LinguistFriend said...

Even not going as far as the planet, the UUA would be in better shape for more recognition of the Jewish tradition in it. One of my periodic exercises in understanding such a concept as sin is to check such a dictionary of the Jewish religion as Wygoder and Werblowsky, follow out the references (usually in the Babylonian Talmud and the Oxford Jewish Study Bible), and compare the results to Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the NT (e.g. under hamartano, harmartolos for sin). At that point one has a point of departure for thinking about the subject in modern terms, which certainly are not always equivalent, but are given deeper significance by that background.