Many of us are wound so tightly by the state of the world, we’ve developed a tendency to be reckless with other people’s emotions — yet very protective of our own. Twitter has become the platform for call-out culture, Instagram the medium of choice for the humblebrag, and Facebook a dark den of repressed judgments while tapping “Like.” Yet, we crumble inside — not angry, but fragile birds — when anyone casts these judgments our way.
It seems we have this entire process backward — working from the external to the internal. We judge others until we, ourselves, are called out by neologisms such as microaggression (interpreting seemingly innocent comments as racial or personal biases) and disinvitations (calling off a speaking engagement at college campuses for fear of offending a population). In an all-out race to the finish, it seems no one is left with impunity. So much of the darkness of the world today — broken relationships, anger, repression and depression — is traced to our inability to understand the complex value of judgment in our society and how we can use it as an instrument of growth for ourselves and our community.
To further complicate the loop of negative feedback, we have created institutional systems that inculcate and perpetuate these processes of calling out others before cultivating personal accountability — beginning at the youngest of ages and continuing through higher education. Troubling upticks in depression, anxiety and suicide rates suggest the impact of adopted pedagogies such as Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and higher education’s policies of trigger warnings and emotional reasoning replacing evidence-based theories have not improved the internal process of self-regulation.
As we stand before the holiest of days in our religion, when we are asked collectively to account for our personal sins and transgressions, is it possible to make a spiritual 180-degree turn when the cultural momentum continues to call out others rather than ourselves? How might the Jewish technology of the High Holy Days be the antidote to our national moral decay?
Yom Kippur, our holiest observance of the year, is the perfect example of to’cha’cha, or rebuke, as the space we enter into is modeled after a courtroom.
As we enter the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), the time has come to remember that Judaism demands personal accountability, sobriety and knowledge of oneself. The tasks of these days are ritualized and ordered; a review book (machzor) leads us through ritual behaviors that include praying, reciting poems, recounting legends, public confessing and personal assessing. We consider the days we have lived as well as the limited days allotted to us. Within this short span of 10 days, God and our community require us to judge ourselves as we stand before our ultimate Judge.
It is significant to note that in the Reconstructionist machzor, the Yom Kippur readings for the Mincha (afternoon) service have been changed from the laws of sexual prohibition (which might invite some #MeToo call-outs) to Leviticus 19:1-18, also known as the Holiness Code. This code of conduct expresses essential teachings on human behavior that build upon one another toward the Golden Rule, which implores us “to love your neighbor as yourself.” An essential step in achieving this behavior is in the penultimate verse of the reading, Leviticus 19:17, which states, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account.”
In other words, before we can love others as ourselves, we must look inside ourselves, the homes we are building and the children we are raising; we must look inward, into our own hearts and family systems. In addition to the requirement “not to hate,” we also are required to “reprove,” which is another form of judgment. Is there something significant that this first step — to judge oneself — is a requirement before we can achieve the essential teaching of the Golden Rule?
A Morality Play
The Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a bastion of positivity and a source of Chassidic Jewish wisdom, has a teaching in the name of his father: “Cherish criticism, for it will place you on the true heights.” Indeed, Yom Kippur, our holiest observance of the year, is the perfect example of to’cha’cha, or rebuke, as the space we enter into is modeled after a courtroom. We take the Torahs out of the ark and witnesses hold them as the bailiff, or chazzan, recites the opening words of the ritual courtroom, nullifying our vows. We rise before a judge, we anticipate entering, and are led through a 25-hour communal practice of self-reflection and self-abnegation that demands a chastening of not only the body, but the mind and soul. We subsist on nothing but breath, in a dress rehearsal of our own deaths. We collectively look inwardly, and invoke the presence of our ancestral martyrs, matriarchs and patriarchs, as we stand as a totality of the human experience.
The prolific works within the machzor ask us to reflect upon our promises and nullify them; consider how we will die as well as how we live; and places a collective guilt on our hearts for both our own complicity of as well as the transgressions of our fellows. Yom Kippur requires the nullification not only of our own vows but of our identities, as we attach ourselves to a cosmic community of all those who came before us and all those who will come after. It is a 25-hour near-death experience that prepares us for the final moment of judgment in our lives, so that after going through it (if we are lucky) 70 or 80 times, we are prepared as best we can be when meeting our Maker. The machzor is a morality play of poetry, leitmotifs, biblical allusions, storytelling, prayers and pageantry. We are the primary players. No one is distinguished above another, as our mortality is highlighted as the grand equalizer. But how many of us enter into this ritual theater prepared to do this work?
Today’s Yom Kippur: Escape From Purgatory
“For the sins between man and God — Yom Kippur Atones; For the sins between man and man, Yom Kippur atones only when one has appeased his fellow.” (b. M. Yoma 8.9)
It is a complex time to be a Jewish American. The entrenched bipartisan divide and disdain for one’s fellow in today’s political circus is rooted in the early 1970s and came into contemporary formation in the early 2000s. Political scientists call this dissolution “affective partisan polarization.” Our two major political parties should be thought partners, but instead wield their power to undermine each other. This animus is reminiscent of the rabbinic story of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem due to sinat hinam (hatred of others).
Not insignificantly, Judaism evolved through the loss of temple worship and emerged from the ashes with a renewed commitment toward pluralism. Any Talmud page illustrates the diversity of opinions that became a core value in Jewish thought. This tradition reflects Judaism’s unique example of not only preserving minority opinions but preserving the process of disagreement (machlochet) on the page, as well. Our beliefs ask us to hold many different opinions at once, as a part of a mental and moral calisthenics we cultivate in order to understand others. Our ability to judge one another is a fundamental tenet of Judaism — from Moses challenging God, through the diversity of Jewish voices heard in any café on the streets of Tel Aviv. Disagreement is an essential part of critical thinking. It also is the training ground for our inner moral debate.
Yom Kippur is the day our internal moral debate weighs in on the scales of justice. Following hours of public confession, the climax of the Yom Kippur Musaf liturgy repeats the leitmotif of the Uneh Taneh Tokef prayer — a graphic Grand Guignol horror poem that began at Rosh Hashanah, asking who will be inscribed (in the Book of Life). It returns on Yom Kippur for the final seal of “how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die.”
On Yom Kippur, we return to stand as a flock before our shepherd, none without blemish, all equal in our fated verdict. Through the intermediary days, we engage in acts of repentance to repair what is broken between human and human before we return to the synagogue on Yom Kippur to repair our transgressions between ourselves and God. The authors of the siddur prepare us with valuable soul work of how to lead a good life. Taken together, the three acts of teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah command the power of “removing the Evil of the Decree.” “Repent (personal accountability), pray (self-regulation) and act righteously (have a system of justice). Perhaps these are guideposts for us to find a way back to humanity.
The High Holy Days are a time when we stand together, each of us broken in our own way, and begin to put the pieces back together by acknowledging our personal brokenness is a primary part of what is wrong.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, wrote “The Righteous Mind” in 2012 with the ambition of sensitizing Americans of the biases that affect everyday moral thinking. His follow-up book, co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” identifies the pitfalls in our education system that continue to inculcate a culture of intellectual and moral failings. Together, they studied the impact of the 1980s’ and 1990s’ political-correctness movement on educational systems, and how its commitment to diversity devolved into what has become a cultural movement whose “primary concern is the emotional wellbeing of every student” as opposed to the intellectual development of every student. Haidt and Lukianoff view the political-correctness movement as “a movement which sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), while also challenging the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, and seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives.”
They assert the current movement on college campuses “is largely about emotional wellbeing. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”
The result of today’s political correctness 2.0 is a litany of behaviors working their ways into popular culture from campus life. These include vindictive protectiveness (turning campuses into values-neutral “safe spaces”); microaggression; disinvitations; and trigger warnings (a system of red-flagging students for potentially offensive or difficult subject matter). These and other “values neutral” behaviors are supposed to protect the emotional well-being of today’s students.
These nascent trends over the past decade have found their ways into our national conversation, most recognizably through the #MeToo movement, and disinvitation and call-out behavior. What they share is the willingness to censor and judge others supersedes a process of self-reflection, self-regulation and personal accountability. They also contribute to a public health crisis, as emotional-reasoning behaviors supplanting critical-thinking skills on campus is perceived as leading students to an intrepid belief system. Many students are stringently divided, as illustrated on both sides of the Israel debate on campus, and are resistant to learning from people with whom they dislike or disagree; this leads to limited adaptability and character resilience. Rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide gravely express the negative-sum output of an emotion-based system of reason.
As we near Yom Kippur, could this insight recast the words of judgment in the Uneh Taneh Tokef prayer: Who will live and who will die? If campus statistics of rising self-inflicted harm and the national need for deans of health and wellness are any indications, withstanding, understanding and integrating a system of judgment is a matter of life and death.
Haidt and Lukianoff identify the origins of these anxieties as rooted in the current political climate. An unanticipated impact of “affective partisan polarization,” they assert, is why “students arriving on campus today are more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past.” Entrenched moral biases rooted in emotional reasoning perpetuate the downward spiral of self-interest and moral indignation. When all our attention is about the behavior of others at the expense of our own moral and character development, the result is “teaching students how to think pathologically.”
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
SEL refers to the process of developing social and emotional skills in the classroom. It is a catchphrase for a method in secular education that introduces learning around emotional intelligence. Another way of looking at it is to consider that secular education — not rooted in a religious moral system — requires some kind of structure to teach children empathy, compassion, cooperation, tolerance, diversity and other emotional intelligence.
Over the past five or six years, a trend toward SEL has overtaken core curricula. Many people have children or grandchildren whose schools and teachers are trained in these methods. These methods are steeped in controversy. Some are recasting what might seem a well-intentioned curriculum to teach children about tolerance and empathy as a controversial method of dubious implementation, reinforcing racial biases and ripening the opportunity for intersectional politicking.
The Jewish Response
I contend that SEL and other forms of emotional-intelligence education have their roots in Jewish values — with one clear distinction: While both seek to improve critical thinking skills and the ability to favorably judge others, Judaism adds the imperative to judge ourselves rigorously. Nowhere is this as clearly illustrated as it is in the High Holy Days liturgy, whose leitmotif arguably is the melodies and chanting of the 13 attributes of God throughout the 10 days of observance: “Yah, Yah, God, compassionate and gracious. Slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations. Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and who cleanses.”
Torah teaches these words came to Moses from God as a way to remind of God’s essence after the Israelites’ collective transgression of the Golden Calf. The prayer and its melody are a haunting awakening of the need for teshuvah through a personal reflection of our behaviors as refracted through godly attributes.
So much of the darkness of the world today — broken relationships, anger, repression and depression — is traced to our inability to understand the complex value of judgment in our society and how we can use it as an instrument of growth for ourselves and our community.
Where Judaism espouses a relationship between the community and a God concept, SEL classrooms collapse the hierarchy and create a sense of egalitarianism through teachers and administrators. Lateral and seemingly anti-hierarchical systems of individualism replace traditional forms of authoritative presence; for example, teachers, administrators and students are all called by their first names. Students are tutored and drilled in critical thinking founded in genderless, colorless, distinctionless and impossible neutrality, which perpetuates and ingrains a values-neutral, “bias free” bias.
Education trends have interesting trickle-up impacts. What was a curricular trend in the past becomes a management problem in the workplace 15 years later. While SEL bears striking differences to “participation trophy-ism” (everyone’s a winner!), a latent concern is its impact on education. What are we to make of a practice that asks 5-year-olds to rely on their own inner sense of right and wrong before their self-regulation mechanisms have fully developed? Might these methods escalate the already acute rise of child and teen anxiety?
According to statistics, the youth suicide rate appears to be the highest it’s been since the government began collecting such statistics in 1960. Is this an anomaly? Do we blame it on the usual suspects: social media, broken homes, or access to violent images and technology? Or might this public health crisis be an indication we are missing something essential in the way we educate our youngest citizens? Yom Kippur, as a spiritual calisthenics, an intellectual boot camp, an emotional reckoning, revisits us every year to offer another way.
If campus statistics of rising self-inflicted harm and the national need for deans of health and wellness are any indications, withstanding, understanding and integrating a system of judgment is a matter of life and death.
Congregation Bias: Be. Judged. Now.
But there’s a catch.
Walk into most synagogues and a paradoxical problem arises: Either everyone is speed davening through the service and attempting to say every word, which makes it doubtful the levels and layers in each and every word is conveyed; or everyone is pretending to say every word, with most people not having any idea what is being said, or the congregation is offering immediate gratification vis-a-vis a call to social action — which may or may not have anything to do with what is required of us on Yom Kippur. How can we surmount these denominational quirks to penetrate the essence of what is asked of us?
Surprisingly, the answer to this question is a salve to wounds of depression, a unifier of difference, and a transcendent and loving presence: music. It seems liturgical song captures the most penetrating ritual moments. The music of our liturgy connects us as kol echad — one voice. We sing “Anu Amecha” and we feel a solidarity with others in the room. We chant “Al Chet” and pound our hearts as a rhythmic section of percussion instruments. There seems to be a kind of epigenetic memory switch attached to our goosebumps and tear ducts when hearing the opening notes of “Kol Nidre.” Our inner moral acumen knows why it has come to services as the sun sets into the 10th of Tishrei. We are there to turn and return, and hold ourselves accountable. This truth — beyond calls to social justice, call-outs to disappointing politicians or outcries of inequality — is the grand equalizer.
Judgment Is a Core Jewish Value
The process of going through Yom Kippur completes a circuit that began on the 9th of Av. It began when we looked inward and asked ourselves, “What is broken in my life?” and continued through the 30 days of Elul, when we gave voice to our examined brokenness through the first public cries of the shofar. We are living through emotional times, as the Yamim Noraim ask us to be emotional. We are meant to cry for those who have died, see our society’s shortcomings and understand our complicity in this mess. The High Holy Days are a time when we stand together, each of us broken in our own way, and begin to put the pieces back together by acknowledging our personal brokenness is a primary part of what is wrong. It is upon us — each and every one of us — to get our lives right before turning to fix anything else.
Pirkei Avot 6:6 lists 48 reasons why Torah supersedes the priesthood and monarchy. Among the qualities listed are insights into foundational Torah values: critical give and take with friends, fine argumentation with disciples, clear thinking, loving reproof and judging with the scales weighted in one’s favor. These are values that exercise subjective reasoning, self-criticism, complexity of thought and disagreement. In short, no “values neutral,” emotional reasoning or mental filtering required. Just a sharp “kop.”
Yom Kippur arrives like a crown on this kop and reminds us to use it wisely. We are thrust into a 25-hour ritual that is an action, a doing that completes a circuit of behavior that began with our self-reckoning with personal misdeeds and our agency in them. Between Rosh Hashanah and through Kol Nidre, we engage in teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah to rectify personal wrongs, deepen our prayer and practice charity with one another. Yom Kippur completes the circuit of these behavioral exercises through communal confession, petition, benediction and imploration. We emerge more self-regulated and self-knowing.
It is an internal and intimate self-assessment done in a public choir, a call-out culture in the first person plural. It demands we learn the following words before we learn any others: “For all of these things, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, atone for us.” Only then, can we learn the true meaning of standing before God on Yom Kippur in America in 5780/2019 to be the revelation and embodiment of “e pluribus unum.” Out of many, Echad. One.