September 2001 -- At sundown on September 26, millions of Jewish people begin their religious tradition of fasting on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. The fast continues on the 27th and culminates in a large break-the-fast after the sun has set. It is one of the holiest, and most celebrated, holidays of the year for modern Jews.

The fast is commanded by a passage in the Torah that is often translated as "Ye shall afflict the soul" (Leviticus 23: 23-32). There are other restrictions imposed by Jewish tradition, such as no sexual relations, no work, and no adornments with one's dress. The traditional idea is that on Yom Kippur one must subject himself to self-punishment and self-denial to seek forgiveness and make himself pitiable in front of God.

Yom Kippur is the climax of Yamin Noriam, a ten-day period that begins on Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year. The English translation of Yamin Noriam is The Days of Awe; or sometimes, The Days of Fear. It is a time, according to traditional Judaism, when God makes his judgment whether an individual will perish or flourish in the upcoming year. It is a time when one considers the past year and the deeds one has done. If one has wronged another, this is the time to make sure that the wrong has been righted. Yom Kippur, as the finale of this period of atonement, is the day when one seeks reconciliation with God for sins committed against him.

How could any of this tradition be of interest to Objectivists? Objectivists don't believe in God and we certainly don't think self-sacrifice is appropriate. And this is what Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe are traditionally about.

Ritualization

However, it is possible to take from these all-important Jewish holidays some very important concepts that can be abstracted out of the religious context for a rational, secular purpose. As Robert Bidinotto observes in his " What Objectivists Must Learn From Religion ," there are many rational and valuable needs that religion fulfills. One of the important needs that religion is often successful at is the communication of abstract and deeply held beliefs. Religion ritualizes many of life's activities and in the process is able to concretize these beliefs. Ritualization allows one to experience directly his abstract ideas, and in this way get a deeper understanding of these ideas.

Art serves a similar function. It takes everyday scenes and events, like a landscape or a woman combing her hair, and infuses them with special meaning. The artist concretizes values and ideas in common items like oil, canvas, shapes, and colors and uses them in ways that allows us to experience our deepest ideas and values directly.

Both ritualization and art imbue everyday activities with special meaning. Both use the concretization of values and beliefs to take the ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary. This helps to give our lives meaning by making everyday activities into sacred and special events. And as art shows, we do not need religion to do so; we can make life's activities extraordinary and special without resorting to mysticism and superstition.

The New Year

What is it that Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and the Yamin Noriam ritualize? These holidays symbolize the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. By marking a day (or set of days as Judaism does) as the end of one year, it gives one an opportunity to step back from his life and examine it. By marking a day as the beginning of a new year, one can look to the future with both hope and purpose. And while religious Jews no doubt approach these holidays as a time for God to do the judging about one's life, an Objectivist can use this time for individual judgment and reflection. What did I accomplish in this past year? What good did I do, and how might I have wronged others? What are my goals for this year? How can I improve myself?

Just as the secular New Year can serve as a time to look back to the past year and forward to the new one, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur help focus one's attention on the need for long range reflection on and evaluation of one's life. But there are many differences between these two holidays in terms of what they focus on and what their overall mood is.

These differences highlight many dichotomies—all of them variations on the mind/body dichotomy—that Objectivism seeks to break down. We very clearly see a split between spiritualism and materialism. The secular New Year is about dancing and drinking all night long; it is a time of materialistic and hedonistic pleasures. The tone is one of celebration and joy. The Jewish New Year holidays, in contrast, are somber and solemn. The tone is serious and the mood, one of spiritual reflection.

Another dichotomy that is evident is the moral versus the practical. In the Jewish New Year, there is a considerable, overriding focus on moral self-evaluation that takes precedence over everything else—to the point that one is not supposed to eat or drink. The practical is pushed aside for a whole day as one is completely immersed in the moral. The secular New Year has a self-evaluative component in the form of New Years Resolutions, but these are so pragmatically focused that they hardly ever take a moral focus. We typically make resolutions about losing weight or quitting smoking, not about ways of improving our overall character or integrity.

Objectivism sees no division between spirituality and materialism. The mind and body are integrated to give us spirituality in a secular form. There is no dichotomy between joy and seriousness, between the moral and the practical. Objectivism teaches us that we do not need to push one aside in order to partake of the other. We can be serious and celebrate; we can be self-evaluative without forsaking our earthly needs.

So both kinds of New Years point to something valuable; one needs a time to sit and examine one's life and plan for the new year, and a time to celebrate the past year with revelry and rejoice about the upcoming year.

Forgiveness

Yom Kippur also ritualizes the need to seek forgiveness and make reparations with those one has hurt. In many ways, even for traditional Jews, it is primarily about seeking not forgiveness from God but forgiveness from others. God cannot forgive you, the tradition goes, for wrongs you have done to others. You have to seek the forgiveness from the specific individual you harmed and make the necessary reparations. Because it isn't always possible to do so immediately, Yom Kippur is a time to make sure that one has not forgotten the unkept promise or the trust betrayed.

The moral imperative to seek forgiveness and make reparations, for Objectivists, is largely a matter of pride. Pride, according to Objectivism, is moral ambitiousness; it is the virtue that seeks to make our selves morally worthy of our own lives. In order to achieve this sense of worthiness one must strive to do the moral action, and, if one fails to correct where he has wronged. But, ultimately, the wrong that is done is to one's character and sense of worthiness. It is only through reparations and forgiveness that this damage to oneself is repaired and so atonement is a matter of egoistic pride.

Yom Kippur provides a concretization of this need for moral ambitiousness in making ourselves right again after doing wrong. It highlights the need for moral rectitude and judgment.

Remembrance

The last important aspect that the Jewish New Year holidays ritualize is the remembrance of loved ones who have died. The passing of loved ones is without a doubt one of the hardest parts of life. Something invaluable and irreplaceable has been forever lost and the tear in our consciousness never completely heals.

Because of this, most Jewish holidays have a place for this remembrance, but Yizkor—as the memorial service is called in Hebrew—is particularly poignant during Yom Kippur. The holiday itself is a period of looking back on one's life, and so we are bound to recall those we have lost and to remember the role they played in our lives. A common tradition is for the names of those who have passed to be read out loud by the rabbi or congregation leader. Some smaller congregations have individual members of the congregation speak the name of their lost loved ones. The reading of the names is a moving and cathartic experience for the entire congregation.

Individuals play a unique role in our lives, and deserve a special focus, but there are other vital and central values in our lives besides people. Yom Kippur, reconceived in a secular manner, can also be a time to mourn other kinds of lost values, like the end of a career that played a vital and defining role in one's life.

People and other values that have meaning in our lives need to be remembered, but our daily activities don't always allow for such remembering and they certainly don't allow for us to take the time to experience fully the sadness and loss in a psychologically healthy way. The Yom Kippur Yizkor service encourages us to do just that.

While Objectivist may choose to keep many valuable rituals—from Judaism or other religions—these will no doubt have to change dramatically. For thousands of years, their purposes were religious. But in a rational, secular culture there still is a need for a ritualized period of introspection and forward-looking. There is a need for atonement and moral ambitiousness. There is a need for remembrance of lost values. And there is a need for the celebration of past achievements and the joyous anticipation of future goals. Either a rational culture will have to adapt historically holidays, like Yom Kippur, or invent its own ways in which to meet these needs.


This article was originally published in the September 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.  

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