Rabbi Michael Lerner | Americans Need National Repentance and Atonement

Now that the Iraq war is supposedly winding down, America needs a period of reflection, repentance and atonement before rushing into more of the same mistakes we’ve been making globally and domestically. So I’d like to invite my non-Jewish neighbors and friends and allies in the struggle to heal and transform America to join with Jews to use the ten days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah (Sept.9) through Yom Kippur (Sept. 18) for that purpose-to create an All-American version of the Jewish High Holidays!

What makes the Jewish tradition useful in this regard is that it focuses not only on our own individual lives, but on taking collective responsibility for our larger world. The formulations of repentance and atonement use language like “Our father, our king, WE have sinned before you” and “For the sins WE have committed by….” (and then the community fills in the blanks).

The notion of collective responsibility means that we acknowledge how impactful the community, its institutions, its worldview, its shared understandings and assumptions, and its daily operations shape the behavior and consciousness of each of us. In contemporary terms, this means: Don’t expect a society that privileges money, fame and power and ridicules idealism, prophetic critique and anything not judged “realistic” by the inside-the-beltway commentators and power-brokers to then produce human beings who can look beyond their own immediate self-interest and concern themselves with the well-being of the rest of the world and with the survivability of the planet.

The notion of “sin” in this tradition is also relevant. The Hebrew word for sin is cheyt, and derives from archery-the arrow shot toward the target has gone off course. In my own Jewish Renewal synagogue we expand on this notion by singing the atonement prayers this way: “Who are we? We’re God’s image and truth and infinite wisdom, eternal goodness. Yet we’ve abused, we’ve betrayed, we’ve been cruel, yes we’ve destroyed.”

Rather than see ourselves as at the core evil, the Jewish tradition sees us as created in the image of God and hence intrinsically good and worthy-and it is with this understanding that Americans can then feel safe to explore where we’ve gone off course, missed the mark, and hence need a mid-course correction.

It won’t take long to help each of us to construct a list of the areas that we need to address in our repentance.

We could start with the easy ones: our inability to stop deep ocean drilling for oil and gas even after the Gulf oil disaster; our inability to limit carbon emissions even though the scientific evidence is clear that rising emissions are above the level consistent with continuing human life (and possibly all life) on earth; our inability to acknowledge the pain we’ve inflicted on the Iraqi people by our invasion, pain manifested not only in having let loose a war that killed over 100,000 Iraqis and caused hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of people fleeing their homes and becoming permanent refugees; our ruthless attempts, aided by drones, to kill or imprison immigrants who have been driven to our country by the economic devastation brought by American trade agreements that wiped out local agricultural competitiveness for small farmers in South and Central American countries; our continuing legacies of racism, sexism, and homophobia which have not decreased even when prominent women and blacks assume national office or head major corporations; our growing Islamophobia leading some to participate in public burning of the Koran; our dedicating huge national resources to bailing out banks and investment companies while refusing anything comparable to the unemployed, under-employed, and those facing impossible-to-pay mortgages whose prices escalated dramatically when lenders invoked their small-print “rights” to raise monthly payments without limit; and the continuing degradation of the human rights fought for by the American Revolution but now being undermined in the name of a war on terror.

We have plenty of communal sins to address. Yet the cultural speed with which we forget and rush ahead, accelerated by the internet and by our sound-byte politics, makes it unlikely that we will ever have this badly needed community reflection and atonement unless we create a common ritual for doing so. President Obama is unlikely to help us do that-so this is one reason Americans might consider using the spiritual technology of the Jewish High Holidays to create public events in which we engage each other in public in this kind of a process.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (the interfaith organization, open to atheists as well, which is leading a campaign for a Global Marshall Plan and for the ESRA—Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and author of 11 books (most recently the 2006 national best seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. He is also rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley, California. Please feel free to circulate this to your friends and everyone on your email lists or to post it on your websites. And if you or they want these kinds of messages to continue, please make a tax-deductible donation to Tikkun or join the Network of Spiritual Progressives.