Thursday, September 13, 2007

The 10 Days of Awe:


What I find very useful about Judaism is a certain "pagan" ethic which makes demands upon people to act virtuously towards one another, in a way that God does not necessarily have to be factored in. In the ten days that extend from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, Jews are called upon to express regret for their wrong-doings, ask forgiveness of each other, do charitable acts, before they even think of applying to God for His forgiveness. It is assumed (I think) that genuine remorse over past misdeeds, bad thoughts, and unkindness to one's fellow-beings is automatically rewarded by the Master of the Universe.

But of course the asking of forgiveness is so terribly hard to do. And Judaism does rather insist that before forgiveness is doled out, forgiveness must be asked for. Judaism, very much people-oriented, accepts the limitations of the human spirit even as it asks the human will to transcend such weakness, has designed a procedure for forgiveness.

The offender must approach the person he harmed and ask for his/her forgiveness. And the person is supposed to respond favourably to this behest. But if the injured party does not relent right away, the offender needs to keep asking for that forgiveness, but no more than three times. If, after three attempts, the offended remains adamant in his refusal to forgive, the person who seeks forgiveness is no longer obliged to pursue this matter. The onus is shifted on to the offended.

The principle at the heart of this application of ethics is that anger is an emotion which is partly rational and partly irrepressible. The rational part points to a wrong doing which demands some sort of redress. The irrepressibility of the emotion is the risk that the emotion will take over completely over the rational, useful part, turning what is a measure, an instrument of moral judgment into a poisonous purity which cannot be undone. Therefore, anger must be neutralized by action while it still retains its rational core. The action that is needed is the acknowledgement of the harm done to the person who was at the receiving end of another's malice. Without recognition of that harm, anger cannot dissipate and genuine forgiveness cannot be offered.

The ten days between the first and tenth of Tishrei are a period when people must dwell upon these issues, and mend, stitch together, the many small and large tears that their actions have caused in others' hearts, life, well-being. This is mandatory not just for the two parties involved in an incident of harm, but for the restoration of harmony in the general fabric of society.

Asking, and giving, forgiveness can be done in many ways, without the word "forgiveness" actually being used.

"Unetaneh tokef" is a Jewish "piyut" (a liturgical poem recited/sung next to prayer) which is chanted twice, once on Rosh Hashanah and then again on Yom Kippur, at the beginning and end of the ten days of awe.

The origin of this poem is attributed, in a myth, to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. However, many scholars have pointed out that "this poem was not written in medieval Ashkenaz...: "its simplicity of style and lucidity of expression are reminiscent of the most ancient prayers" and place its composition in much earlier times, in Byzantine-time land of Israel.

The climax of this piyut is in the sentence: "but repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the severe decree", that is to say, that a person's genuine remorse, expressed both verbally in the acknowledgement of one's misdeeds and in deed, through the doing of charitable acts, will avert, dissipate God's displeasure. Because the God that Jews believe in is "hard to anger and easy to appease". Which seems to re-inforce the Judaic principle of forgiveness: anger must be slow to appear and easy to dispel. Jews expect their God to abide by the very principle which they expect their fellow Jews to follow.

Leonard Cohen, a descendant of Rabbi's, wrote and composed this song, based on "Unetaneh tokef". Listen to this mind-blowing performance, beauty and terror, sheer poetry:

Who By fire

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