Tag Archives: baal teshuvah

Does God Forgive Jewish Sins on Yom Kippur?

The Torah establishes no explicit association between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The former is briefly described as “a day of blowing the horn” (Num. 29:1), while Yom Kippur is more elaborately defined as “a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord…and ye shall afflict your souls” (Lev. 23:28; 32).

-Max Arzt
“The Fundamental Concepts in the Yom Kippur Liturgy: An Introduction,” p.191
Justice and Mercy: Commentary on the Liturgy of the New Year and the Day of Atonement

Note: I wrote this blog post a number of days before listening to and reviewing yesterday’s Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon by D. Thomas Lancaster, which also addresses issues related to Yom Kippur and atonement.

I know I’ve asked a strange question in the title of this blog post from a Christian’s point of view. The Church teaches that sins are not forgiven unless we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over our lives and convert to Christianity. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or any other sort of person. There is one standard of righteousness and one path to salvation, and that is through Jesus.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

-John 14:6 (NASB)

Of course the Master also taught:

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”

John 6:44

Effectively, this is saying that to come to faith in Messiah is impossible unless God draws that person to such faith, so the ultimate onus is upon God for our salvation, or so it would seem. I think a Calvinist would see it that way, interpreting the verse further to mean that God only draws certain people to Jesus and not others. However, it could also mean that God extends a universal invitation to such faith but that invitation does not automatically override human free will, thus some accept while others reject.

But that doesn’t answer the question I asked in the title of this blog post.

Who, O God, is like You. Who pardons iniquity and overlooks transgression for the remnant of His heritage? Who has not retained His wrath eternally, for He desires kindness! He will again be merciful to us; He will suppress our iniquities. And cast into the depths of the sea all their sins. Grant truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham, as You swore to our forefathers from ancient times.

Micah 7:18-20 (Stone Edition Chumash)
from the Haftarah Portion of Torah Reading Haazinu
when Haazinu falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

This week’s Shabbat, coming as it does between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, bears the name Shabbat Shuvah, “the Sabbath of Returning.” The name derives from the opening words of the haftarah, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God…Say unto Him: give all guilt and accept what is good…Never again will we call our handiwork our god.” (Hosea 14:3-4) The passages from the prophets Hosea, Joel, and Micah, which are joined to make up our haftarah, breathe a worldview far less deterministic than the one that animates Ha’azinu. Without the possibility of righting our wrongs, who needs prophets? Their very mission is predicated on the promise of a second chance, if merited…

…By rejecting fatalism of any sort, Judaism gives us a measure of control over our lives. As we reach for self-improvement and not perfection during the High Holy Days, we find ourselves buoyed both by the prayers that envelop us and by the community that surrounds us. Our struggle ended, we leave the synagogue at peace, cleansed and transformed to start living afresh.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Teshuvah Makes Life Bearable,” pp.632-3
Commentary on Torah Portion Haazinu
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

yom kippurFar from what most Christians think about Yom Kippur, it is not a time of great tragedy among Jewish synagogues world-wide, but rather, a time of hope, when people can take hold of their responsibility to repent in the presence of God, and feel assured that they don’t have to be perfect in order for their sins to be atoned for, but rather dedicated to increased spiritual development, to owning up to their commitment to be better in the future than they have been in the past.

But does God honor that commitment year by year on Yom Kippur? Even if we believe that ultimate atonement and redemption is an effect of the New Covenant, since my understanding of the Sinai Covenant is that it was not designed to permanently redeem from sin, by faith in the accomplished work of the New Covenant mediator, Messiah, what about in the meantime? I firmly believe we continue to live in Old (Sinai) Covenant times, since the New Covenant only enters our world in full upon Messiah’s return and at the resurrection. Thus even though we are taught we must behave as if the New Covenant is completely present, even though it isn’t, then the Old Covenant for the Jewish people, even as many of us long for the New Covenant to be completed, remains fully applicable upon them, for if the New Covenant is not yet totally present, then the Old Covenant, by definition, must remain.

All that being true, and I believe it is, then it is not a vain thing for Jews, Messianic and otherwise, all over the world, to continue to uphold their covenant responsibilities to God under the Sinai Covenant.

For if it [the Torah] is not an empty thing. And if it is, the emptiness lies in you, because you have simply not exerted yourselves in the study of Torah.

-Yerushalmi Peah 1:1

To be counted as a Jew, one ought to have a link of some sort with the canon on which our covenant with God rests. it is a relationship, a measure of engagement that expresses membership. As long as the Torah draws us to explore its sacred contents, the possibility of God entering our lives still exists. A closed book signals the end of the relationship. That is why the Torah is chanted publicly in the synagogue each week, and when at Simhat Torah we have finished the final parasha, we hurry right back to the beginning without a break.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Survival Through Study,” p.635
Commentary on Torah Portion Haazinu
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

You might say to yourself that without the Temple, the Priesthood, the Sanhedrin, and the other institutions that makes Torah observance possible, including the commandments surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that there can be no atonement of sins for anyone, including the Jewish people, without faith in Christ. That would mean, for the past two-thousand years, all Jews who have not set aside their Jewish heritage and the Sinai Covenant along with it, and converted to Christianity (either voluntarily or by force), have died in their sins and are destined to burn for all eternity in Hell, regardless of their utter devotion to the God of their Fathers and their faithful attendance to the mitzvot as commanded by the Torah of Moses.

tallit-prayerYou see, from the point of view of these Jews, they don’t believe that God abrogated the promises of the past as found in the Torah and the Prophets, and replaced them with a Goyishe King who is to be worshiped and which for all the world feels like pagan idolatry and quite possibly polytheism.

Not that we Christians see it that way, but for the vast, vast majority of Church history, that’s exactly how we’ve been “selling” Christianity to the world, including and especially the Jewish world.

But without the Temple, how can Jews atone for sin? We forget that this isn’t the first time in Jewish history that there has been no Temple. Did God forsake the Jewish people and not forgive sin when they entered the Babylonian exile? Did the Prophets and the righteous among their generations, remain in their sins and die in iniquity? What of Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the others among the righteous of Israel? Did the lack of a Temple and the absence of a Messiah result in their damnation?

If not, then why do we automatically throw all of the Jewish people who have lived and died as faithful to Hashem, the God of their Fathers, under the proverbial bus now?

Oh, because in the meantime, Jesus was born, lived, died, was resurrected, and ascended. Something new indeed has been added. But maybe not to the result you’ve been taught to believe.

With the destruction of the Second Temple, its awesome Yom Kippur ritual became a liturgical memory preserved by the synagogue. The theme of owning up to our misdeeds remained central to the tenor of the day as shaped by the synagogue, but it now fell upon Jews to confess their sins themselves. The synagogue eliminated the priestly intermediary.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Assuming Responsibility for Our Actions,” p.670
Commentary on Yom Kippur
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

How heartbroken God must be when He encounters this realization among His people Israel, and that, for a time, the majority of the Jewish people will miss the message provided by the writer of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews that even if they are (temporarily) without a Temple in Jerusalem and thus without an Aaronic priesthood, they still have access to the Heavenly Temple and a higher intermediary in Moshiach. But the day will come indeed when God will fulfill His promises and all Israel will be saved (Jeremiah 31:34; Romans 11:26-27).

What is striking about the confessions of Yom Kippur is that they are all formulated in the plural. By reciting them in unison as a faith community, we are spared individual humiliation. Yet for each of us, the words are highly personalized. In our private space, we confess to God alone. And what of the sins we did not commit? We assume a share of guilt, “for all Jews are responsible for each other.”

-Ismar Schorsch
“Assuming Responsibility for Our Actions,” p.671
Commentary on Yom Kippur
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

The Torah at SinaiAt Sinai, all of Israel answered God as one man (Exodus 19:8) that they would do everything God commanded in His Torah as their responsibility for upholding their covenant relationship with God. God (or Moses) didn’t approach each individual present at the foot of the mountain and ask for their personal acceptance or rejection of the covenant. God has always treated Israel as one, both in the blessings and the curses, regardless of the relative merits of each individual.

Thus if Israel, as a whole, the good and the bad among them, were all exiled, so will they all be redeemed, restored, and gathered back to their Land and their relationship to the Almighty.

How this will happen, I don’t know. I only know that if God doesn’t do it, then He violates His New Covenant promises to Israel that all of their sins will be forgiven.

But then there’s this:

Here, the efficacy of Yom Kippur is limited. Without seeking forgiveness from those we have hurt and without public confession, Yom Kippur offers us little relief or comfort. The ritual of fasting and praying on its own is not sufficient to remove the stain.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Assuming Responsibility for Our Actions,” p.672
Commentary on Yom Kippur
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

Here we see there are individual variables involved, and that man’s free will does play a part in God’s redemption of Israel. Specific Jewish people are indeed responsible. In this rendition, they are responsible to appeal both to God and to their fellow human beings who they have injured, perhaps, at least from my point of view, in response to the Master’s understanding of the essential essence of Torah:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (NASB)

And keeping the individual Jew among all Israel in mind:

Who, O God, is like You. Who pardons iniquity and overlooks transgression for the remnant of His heritage?

Micah 7:18 (Stone Edition Chumash)

How are we to resolve the apparent conflict between the language of Jeremiah 31:34 and Romans 11:26-27 which promises salvation for corporate Israel and the “remnant” spoken of in Micah 7:18?

I don’t know. One theory is that after the great wars, all of the unbelieving Jews will be killed and all of the Jewish survivors will be believers. That doesn’t sound quite right to me although I guess it fits the criteria. Another theory is that upon Messiah’s return, all of Israel living at that time will see him and acknowledge him and in that confession, will be saved. But that doesn’t address all of the Jewish souls who lived and died before the advent of Messiah, nor the Jews who have not accepted the revelation of his identity from that advent until now.

But I’m just guessing, of course. All I know for sure is that based on the aforementioned scriptures, God promised that Israel will be saved in the last days so I know He will do it, even if I don’t know how.

But what about the annual event of Yom Kippur? Are Jewish sins of the past year atoned for on that date without faith in Messiah? Isn’t faith in God (the Father) enough?

Yom Kippur prayers
Yom Kippur Prayers

I can’t see from God’s point of view and the Bible doesn’t specifically address this circumstance, but not being God, I’m willing to be compassionate with merely a human heart and believe that yes, God hears the prayers of the Jewish people, all Jewish people when they pray, when they repent, when they seek the forgiveness of those they have wronged in sincerity, even if some of what they may believe isn’t correct, even if they have not yet come to the realization of the revelation of the identity of Messiah, that God does not callously discard their prayers of repentance and that He does forgive provisionally and annually in the spirit of His future ultimate and eternal forgiveness under the New Covenant promises.

No, I can’t prove that, I can only believe by faith that God will and has continued to keep His promises that He has made in the Bible, that Israel will always be a nation, His nation, and will always be before Him as His special and beloved people.

Thus says the Lord,

“If the heavens above can be measured
And the foundations of the earth searched out below,
Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel
For all that they have done,” declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 31:37 (NASB)

Behold, I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in My anger, in My wrath and in great indignation; and I will bring them back to this place and make them dwell in safety. They shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. I will rejoice over them to do them good and will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul.

Jeremiah 32:37-41 (NASB)

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying, “Thus says the Lord, ‘If you can break My covenant for the day and My covenant for the night, so that day and night will not be at their appointed time, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant so that he will not have a son to reign on his throne, and with the Levitical priests, My ministers. As the host of heaven cannot be counted and the sand of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David My servant and the Levites who minister to Me.’”

Jeremiah 33:19-22 (NASB)

jewish-temple-messiahThus, on the basis of these “better promises,” I choose to believe that God still hears the voices of all of the Jewish people everywhere, as they pray, as they make teshuvah, as they call upon the Name of the Lord their God who made those promises. I choose to believe that their sins are forgiven for another year with the realization that a final judgment is yet to come. But even in that final judgment, God will still keep His Word that He gave in the Torah and the Prophets, and save Israel from her sins through the New Covenant He will make with them through its mediator Messiah, may he come soon and in our day.

If you want to believe I’m wrong, I understand. All I can do now is proceed with hope, for if God breaks His Word and His Covenants with Israel, then the rest of us are also utterly forsaken, and all humankind will perish forever.

One last question. If it is true that God forgives observant Jews of their sins on Yom Kippur based on the promises of the Sinai Covenant as the currently existing agreement between the Jewish people and God, will God forgive those Jews who we call “Hebrew Christians” who are in our churches and who have been taught to forsake the Sinai Covenant and set aside the Torah of Moses?

For another take on Yom Kippur, read the brief article Judgement Day presented by First Fruits of Zion.

The Rabbi and The Taxi Driver

HumbleThe position which baalei teshuvah [penitents] occupy cannot be occupied even by tzaddikim [completely righteous].

-Berachos 34b

A surgeon once encountered difficult complications during an operation and asked his assistant to see if there was anyone in the surgical suite who could help. The assistant replied that the only one who was there was the chief of the surgical staff. “There is no point in calling him,” the operating surgeon said. “He would not know what to do. He never got himself into a predicament like this.”

As far as people’s own functioning is concerned, it might be better not to have made mistakes. Still, such perfection makes them relatively useless as sources of help to others who have made mistakes, because they have no experience on which to draw to know how to best help them correct their mistakes.

A perfect tzaddik may indeed be most virtuous, but may not be able to identify and empathize with average people who need help in correcting their errors. The “position” to which the Talmud is referring may be the position of a helper, and in this respect the baal teshuvah may indeed be superior to a tzaddik.

Today I shall…

…reflect on how I dealt with the mistakes I have made, and share my experience with others who may benefit from them.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Shevat 8”

I love stories. I suppose you know that if you’ve been following these “meditations” for very long. I like the stories the Rabbis tell. Many of them are very inspiring without being particularly schmaltzy.

I like stories that tell a lesson or impart a moral, and one of my favorite movie lines about this comes from an unlikely source:

But there’s a bright side to this, and a moral. I think morals are good for you, I love morals, and the moral of this story is: If you’re walkin’ on eggs, don’t hop.

-Jack Braddock (played by Warren Oates)

I didn’t include that quote randomly. Mr Oates, who sadly passed away in 1982 at the age of 53, often played tough guys and other character roles rather than the “leading man.” In that way, he could be much more relatable to the audience than the handsome and always capable hero-type. The above-quoted line was delivered with his usual Kentucky drawl that, in spite of him playing a rather intimidating character, was like the advice you might get from your father or favorite uncle.

I think that’s what a life of holiness is supposed to be like.

Now I suppose that last statement requires an explanation. After all, how can a tough guy character actor delivering a line in a 1983 action film remind me of a life of holiness?

Time for another story.

I once had this exact conversation with a taxi driver. He was Catholic, and asked me if rabbis marry. I told him that not only are rabbis allowed to marry, they are obligated to marry. “Be fruitful and multiply” is a command to all, regardless of career or position in the community.

The taxi driver shook his head and said, “You Jews have got it good. In my community, when someone is dating and confused, or is going through a rough patch in his marriage, or needs guidance on how to discipline their kids, who should we turn to? Our celibate priest? He wouldn’t have a clue what it means to argue with your wife, he’s never been dumped, and certainly doesn’t have a kid that pokes other kids’ eyes out. If I have a question in theology, or need to know which prayers to say, then sure, I’ll go to him. But real-life issues—he can’t help me!”

This taxi driver’s comments brought home for me an important truth. Judaism does not differentiate between “clergy” and “laymen.” Whether you are a rabbi or a taxi driver, you are expected to live a “normal” life, to be involved with the struggles and pleasures of the mundane world.

But it works the other way as well. Whether you are a taxi driver or a rabbi, you are expected to make your everyday mundane world a home for G‑d. The Torah’s ideal is to create a society of holy people. Sanctity and morality are not the domain of rabbis alone: every individual must live to the same standard, and each one of us can engage in direct dialogue with G‑d and Torah.

The rabbi is there just to help others bridge the needs of the spirit with the realities of life. But he has to do the same in his own life.

Perhaps that cab was a microcosm of an ideal world. What could be more beautiful than a society in which taxi drivers share spiritual wisdom, and rabbis change diapers?

-Rabbi Aron Moss
“Can a Rabbi Get Married?”

taxiRabbi Twerski and Rabbi Moss are almost telling the same tale. In the first story, we have a picture of two “experts,” two surgeons, one who is “ordinary,” and one who is “chief of the surgical staff.” In this instance, although the first surgeon has encountered a problem and needs help, no one believes the “chief,” or in the case of a moral dilemma, the “perfect tzaddik,” will be much help, because they’ve never encountered the problems of an ordinary person.

Rabbi Moss adapts that to the relationship between a married Catholic who has children and a Priest. How could the celibate Priest possibly understand the problems of a husband and a father, at least by direct experience?

But the Rabbi can. Further, not only can the Rabbi relate because he is not only allowed but commanded to marry and have children, but he is, in many ways, no greater keeper of holiness or wisdom than the taxi driver.

What could be more beautiful than a society in which taxi drivers share spiritual wisdom, and rabbis change diapers?

That’s a life of holiness we can all live and pursue. In some ways, maybe that’s the only way we can understand God and other human beings, by being immersed both in a world of spirituality, and in a world of going to work every day, taking out the garbage, and changing diapers. Life has many troubles, but a journey of faith does not serve God if it is undertaken in some ivory tower or study hall where you never encounter pain, frustration, or tears.

In these days especially, when by G-d’s kindness we stand at the threshold of redemption, we must make every conceivable effort to strengthen every facet of our religion. Mitzvot must be observed b’hidur, with “beauty,” beyond minimal requirements. Customs must be kept scrupulously, nothing compromised. It is a Mitzva and duty of every Rabbi in Israel to inform his congregation that the current tribulations and agonies are the “birth-pangs of Mashiach.” G-d is demanding that we return to Torah and mitzvot, that we not hinder the imminent coming of our righteous Mashiach.

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Sh’vat 8, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

The baal teshuvah and the tzaddik both live inside of you, and you will see the return of Mashiach, may he come soon and in our day.