Sins and Social Justice: Yom Kippur at Bet El

This past Saturday was Yom Kippur, the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar and an opportunity to think critically about what we value and the ways in which these values inform–or don’t–our daily lives. I spent the day at Bet El, a Masorti synagogue founded in 1962 as a beacon of pluralism and inclusion in a country where Jewish institutions have often shown remarkably little concern for such things. (It’s the same place I went for passover.) My favorite part of the Yom Kippur service was the Al Chet, a confession of collective sins read aloud by the entire congregation, culminating in a joint plea for God to pardon our failings. Each entry in this lengthy list begins, al chet shechatanu lefanecha, “for the sin which we have committed before thee,” and the traditional entries run the gamut of biblical wrongs, from lying to lewdness. (You can find a typical version in translation here, courtesy of Chabad.) It’s not usually a highlight for me, but Bet El’s version supplements the classic Mahzor (prayerbook) sins with its own homemade appendix worthy of a congregation brave enough to openly espouse social justice and the rights of desaparecidos during the stifling and dangerous silence of the country’s last dictatorship. Like everything else on Yom Kippur, Bet El’s list is long. Here’s a selection of my favorites; if you’ve been to a synagogue on Yom Kippur before (and share my politics), you’ll instantly understand why I like Bet El so much:

For the sins which we have committed before thee…
…by concerning ourselves solely with our own lives and ignoring the giant problems
that surround us.
…by deafening our ears to oppression.
…by allowing poverty and violence to increase.
…by participating silently in xenophobia and discrimination.
…by destroying our natural environment.
…by not showing solidarity with cartoneros [the more than 300,000 people who make
their living sifting through Buenos Aires’ trash] and street children.
…by silencing ourselves before hypocritical leaders.
…by doing nothing except for personal profit.
…by not striving in our daily lives to find the divine spark planted in your being.
…by demanding of others that which we will not demand of ourselves.
…by being too critical of others and not critical enough of ourselves.
…by manipulating memory.
…by creating a divided community.
…by believing that to raise an alternative voice is to divide the community.
…by rejecting our tradition without knowing it.
…by believing that to interpret Jewish law is to destroy Judaism.
For all these sins, oh God of forgiveness, pardon us, absolve us, allow us to atone.

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