Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur and our own atonement as Christians

Tonight at sundown begins Yom Kippur, the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, the day to ask God's forgiveness and to forgive all those who have wronged us.

Christian concepts of Lent and atonement come directly from these ancient Jewish theological concepts, and some might argue (as I would) that we ought to understand these Hebrew concepts to better understand our own.

To do that, I would also argue, requires our own atonement for the terrible atrocities committed by Christianity and Christians against Judaism and Jews for two millennia. The Nazis were not Christians, but there is a direct line from the anti-semitism of popes and Martin Luther to the genocide of the Holocaust. Christian bigotry made it possible.

Below is a commentary posted today by Stanley Abramovitch on CNN's website. Mr. Abramovitch was born in Poland, and he lost his mother and two brothers in the Holocaust. He worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for 63 years before retiring in 2008 and he continues to consult for the organization. Mr. Abramovitch is seated second from the right in the photo above. This is a tough read, but I commend it to you today:

My Faith: Yom Kippur 1945, in a camp for Holocaust survivors

By Stanley Abramovitch, Special to CNN

In October 1945, I spent Yom Kippur in the displaced persons camp in Landsberg in Bavaria, Germany, as the representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), working with displaced persons.

The liberated Jews who had been imprisoned in the nearby Dachau concentration camp, as well as those who had been forced to work in ammunition and other factories in Bavaria, were gathered into Landsberg and nearby Feldafing camps. Many Jews from other concentration camps had been forced-marched to this part of Germany, where the U.S. Army liberated them.

In Landsberg there was a spacious German Army barracks confiscated by the U.S. Army, in which some of the liberated Jews were housed. Basic food and medical care were provided by the Army, supplemented by assistance from JDC.

The Jews elected a committee which assumed responsibility for the internal administration of the camp. Synagogues were organized for the high holidays by different groups, often on the basis of the origin of the participants. There was a synagogue for Jews from Poland, another for Hungarian and Lithuanian Jews.

Smaller groups - Hasidic Jews or those from Marmarosh, an area on the border of Rumania spilling into Hungary and Slovakia - had their own places of prayer.

I attended morning services in the synagogue for Polish Jews. The prayers were charged with emotion, very moving, very painful. The tears shed came from the depths of their hearts, mourning those who were lost, murdered in the camps. It was rare to find among those present individuals whose siblings or more distant family members had survived.

The older generation was almost not there. They were the first victims, since they lacked the physical strength to withstand the horrors of the camps. Few children survived. They, too, succumbed quickly. The survivors prayed, remembered, wept and found a little comfort in those tears.

After morning prayers, I decided to visit other synagogues and spend some time with other groups. I left the synagogue and walked across the half empty streets. There were many people who remained in the street and refused to attend services. They were angry at G-d.

Among them were formerly religious Jews who could not accept the apparent indifference of G-d to the suffering; the torture, and the tragedy they had both witnessed and experienced in their homes and in the camps.

They could not reconcile their former beliefs and convictions of an All-Merciful, Almighty Divine Being, with the catastrophe that had struck their communities. They would not pray. When they heard the recitation of the Kaddish, the special prayer of mourners expressing praise of the Lord, they reacted angrily that G-d did not deserve the Kaddish.

They were broken in spirit. They could not reconcile recent events to which they were witnesses with the contents of the Hebrew prayers.

These Jews roamed the streets. They wanted to express their anger, to show G-d that they defied Him, as he seemed to have abandoned them. Some ate their food on the fast day publicly in the streets, as a gesture of defiance – of revolt.

In one of the streets, I saw a large group of people standing in a circle. I approached nearer to find out what was going on.

In the middle of the circle stood a seven-year-old girl, embarrassed, perplexed. She could not understand why all these people stood around her.

She, of course, could not know that they were surprised to find a Jewish child. So they stood, silently, and just looked at this miracle of a Jewish child in their midst. They could not tear themselves away from this one child who said nothing and to whom nothing was said. They just stood and gaped.

A special prayer is normally recited on Yom Kippur for the departed members of one's family. It's called Yizkor, the memorial prayer.

As those people looked at the little girl, they remembered their own children, or their younger brothers and sisters, the nephews and nieces who at one time were their pride and joy, and who were no more. Each one of them looked and remembered, recalled the beloved children who were cruelly exterminated.

As they remembered, they recited without any words the Yizkor for all those who once were part of their lives and now were gone forever. This was a silent, most moving Yizkor, without words, without prayer books, recited in that street in Landsberg, by a group of Jewish survivors, watching a bewildered little Jewish girl.

It was the most moving, most eloquent, most heartfelt, most silent Yizkor I have ever heard.


Paula said...

God always provides, even in our anger it would seem.

I hope you don't mind me asking you for some help. I've been looking for a term, akin to Moral Theology about abortion and capital punishment - as well as other issues - and was wondering if you know what I'm talking about. I wanted to explore it further and can't find the right words for a Google search. I don't think it's Moral Theology alone because that's a Catholic term and this was something Episcopalians espouse. Thanks for any help you can give me - or not!

The Rev. James Richardson said...

I did a google search on "abortion ethical issues" and came across quite a few sites. Ethics might be the word you are looking for. Here is an item on wikipedia which seems to explore the ethical nuances. I am not endorsing the site, but it might be a starting place: