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Are We Guilty? Are We Traitors?

Israel’s national clock is about to strike on the ‘Days of Awe’, a time of soul searching and reckoning. This is most clearly expressed in the classic confession – “We have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have slandered” – the main theme of the Yom Kippur service. The confession, a deliberate self-criticism, is based on two thought-provoking assumptions:
First, that this self-criticism will not end well and will not result in our receiving high marks for our behavior over the year. Indeed, the text assumes that we are guilty, having betrayed, robbed, you name it. We are thus commanded to exercise self-criticism in all areas of human relations: between an individual and him/herself, friends, society, and God. This confession period ends with a collective, difficult, existential assertion: We acted wrongly and wronged others. Guilt and betrayal – like breathing, eating, and sleeping – are intrinsic to the human condition, inherent within each of us. “There is no righteous individual in the land who will not eventually sin”.

Second, confession by its very definition is a revelatory act and hence an intensely private experience. Since a person does not normally publicize his misdeeds, confession is made in the privacy of prayer, and with a broken heart. How surprising then, that the confessional prayers are phrased in the plural form: “We are guilty.” This reflects the group consciousness of the confessor. The sin of one is also imputed to the duty of the other – a reciprocal responsibility of the group for the actions of the individual.

These two characteristics – obligatory guilt (not necessarily based on facts) and mutual responsibility – arouse resistance in the liberal minded person. After all, as we all know, a person is innocent unless proven guilty. How then can one determine a priori that each and every one of us has in fact stolen, lied, acted wickedly and maliciously? When each one of us looks in the mirror, do we see a clown, rebel and adulterer – as the confessions indicate? The same is true of the second assumption: In a liberal world, every person is responsible for his actions and his actions alone. Collective guilt is obscene.

As such, is confession just empty speech at best, and hypocrisy at worst?

Yom Kippur`s confession is meaningful and can be recited in a sincere way if the prayer reflects a liberal, communal worldview – one that fuses nicely with Jewish tradition. According to this tradition, the individual who confesses is not a single person facing God, but rather part of the collective to which he or she belongs. As our experience proves, we relate to others and they to us via the context in which we exist together. I am not only an individual, but also an “Israeli”, “Jew”, “jurist” and so on. The fact that I’m a member of a group classifies me – sometimes to my delight and sometimes in ways that do me harm – in ways that are independent of my actions and desires.

However, group affiliations do not blot out the individual or his individuality – that is, what makes him unique – but rather colors him with a range of shades, depending on the context.

The use of the plural form in confession reflects this perception of the human condition. The “I” criticizes not only himself as an individual, but also the group to which he belongs and in which he is a vital organ of.
This explains the wide range of actions that are subject to criticism. Confession relates to the totality of human behavior, because the all-embracing context of an individual’s sense of belonging – in this case, belonging to the “People of Israel” – demands it. And the fact is that the group contains wicked, malicious and adulterous people – hence the confession.

Shared responsibility, engraved in Jewish tradition, is one of the secrets of the State of Israel’s success. In contrast to our prickly sabra exterior, what’s on the inside is sweet. According to the Israel Democracy Institute’s Israeli Democracy Index, about three-quarters of Israelis trust their fellow citizens to come to their aid in times of trouble. This is an expression of solidarity, unique to Israeli society
Indeed, whoever shares the burden of his brother’s responsibility is also there to help that brother in his hour of darkness.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Report.