Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gahzalnu...Ya\'atnu ra...
or גמר חתימה טובה
The Muffti does not know how to transliterate very well. It’s a sad fact but many Canadians and Americans every year never develop even basic skills in transliteracy.

On most years, your favourite Muffti makes it home for either Rosh Hashanna or Yom Kippur but various obligations and deadlines have kept him away from the home town. Atheism aside, Muffti really enjoyed the time to spend with family on these days. He enjoyed seeing old friends at his synagogue. He doesn’t mind fasting and he even manages to shake off grumpiness when his step father wakes him up absurdly early just so he they can hear p’sukei d’zimrah. He certainly will miss it this year.

In any case, here’s a thought Muffti had regarding repentance. On RH and YK, we repent for a list of sins that is rather long. There are 44 separate statements in the list of ‘al chet’s. We repeatedly ‘confess’ that we have rebelled, been stiff necked, acted lawlessly, turned away from mitzvot, advised evil…The list is rather daunting and to Muffti’s surprise (since he remembers them being rather specific), they are all quite vague. The reason Muffti brings this up is because he is a bit confused about the nature of repentance in two ways.

First, if a friend wrongs the Muffti in a particular way (not that any of Muffti’s wonderful friends would!) then, should the perpetrator want to make things right, Muffti would want him to ask forgiveneness for that very action. What Muffti would not want is for the friend to say ‘I’m generally sorry that I’ve acted badly’. As we all know, that isn’t really sufficient to qualify as real repentance for a particular act. The friend would be asking forgiveness for a type of bad thing he did, in effect, excusing all token acts of the category. What is wanted is an appology for a specific action.

Of coures, this isn’t much of a big deal: just because we ask God for general forgiveness, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t also be asking for specific forgiveness. But it leads to Muffti’s second query. Repentance is an effective tool for keeping ourselves holy and in check. Shame is a response that should be felt when we have done wrong and in the ideal case, one realizes what one did wrong, feels ashamed of it and then tries to make amends (tshuva, t’filah and tzedaka Muffti supposes). However, this doesn’t strike me as the model that the liturgy sets out for us. Imagine, to continue the examples above, that your friend comes up to you and asks your pardon for all the times he acted rebeliously to you. That may strike you as strange if you don’t remember any such occassions and you may well want to ask him what he did that has led him to repentance. Imagine furthermore, that he says ‘nothing that I can remember’. It is a bit hard to take the request for an appology seriously in this case. How can one feel badly about events that one thinks merely might have happened? (Of course, this isn’t impossible: it’s just difficult to see one’s way to feeling bad about things that one merely might have done!)

This strikes Muffti as a case where the ideal of repentance breaks down: the repentance, as it were, isn’t being caused by the feeling that one has done something wrong. They are proceding from the probability that one has done something wrong. However, it strikes Muffti as somewhat perverse to ask forgiveness for a type of activity when one doesn’t have any idea what one has done wrong. The reason is that it is hard to feel bad for something done wrong when one doesn’t have any memory or knowledge of having done it. One reason we extend forgiveness is because we see the other feel badly for what she has done and we see them suffer through shame.

This relates to an somewhat obscure, but interesting argument in the philosophy of speech acts: there is something odd about an appology tendered from a source that doesn’t feel any remorse over the act. The appology is at best infelicitous; at worst, not an appology at all. (Akin to someone with no authority saying ‘I pronounce you man and wife’ at a wedding: a precondition for the act to have the desired effect is left unsatisfied, leaving the speech act a failure). A man who appologizes over something he can’t remember or doesn’t feel badly about isn’t really appologizing, or is doing it rather badly.

If the preceding is correct, it looks like there are two ways to make sense of the intentions of the authors of the liturgy. (1) it may be that it is better to have some attempted by failed appologies in the literature to attain maximal coverage of sinning. This option seems rather unnattractive to me. (2) is more likely in Muffti’s eyes. The confessions and al chets are vague enough that it is likely that if you think hard enough, you’ll find something in your checkered past that will fit the bill. And this doesn’t just extend to matters that you are aware of: you also have the responsibility to ensure that there aren’t events that you are unaware of but were sinful become known to you, to avoid negligence in your repenting. Since you are demanded to pray in a felicitous manner, it is encumbent upon you to seek out your sins that fit the bill of all the various things that the liturgy. This vindicates the genius of viduy: what is striking (for Muffti at least) is the both the sheer extreme number of sins types you confess and the vagueness in their forumlation. The length of the list provides enough guidance to ensure that you can isolate the various things that you have done, and provide you with a roadmap when looking for sins you committed that yoiu weren’t even aware of (perhaps you didn’t realize that being stiff-necked was the cause of wrong actions!) The vagueness ensures that you plausibly CAN find satisfiers. If the list included ‘murder, theft and rape’, in most cases you would have pretty good reason to think that the confession you are mandated to give is an empty one.

Muffti is no scholar on these issues so he puts this forth merely for you edification, not your education.

Have an easy fast.

About the author

grandmuffti

31 Comments

  • Doesn’t this have to do with the fact that we are praying as part of a community and therefore the prayers, while being unspecific, cover the trespasses of us all?

  • Muffti isn’t sure. Doesn’t that just move the problem one level up: how can we repent for things the community as a whole doesn’t realize that it has done?

  • Muffti doesn’t really understand. He realizes that if you thought the community had sinned in some way, that you could genuinely ask for forgiveness for that sin. But how can you ask forgivness for sins you are unaware of, whether they be yours or the communities?

  • I suppose a pertinent question is: How do we define sin? Is sin subjective or objective: If a friend says something innocuous but i take offence, has he sinned? Is an action wrong only when it’s deliberate?

  • Tough q, Joy. Muffti would answer you but why don’t you just go ask your boyfriend 😉

    Just kiddin’. Muffti isn’t really sure what our tradition says; he would imagine that there is some notion of negligence invovled (i.e. if you ha d reason to think that he would take offense but you ignored it, or if you left interpretations open without making it clear what you meant, sounds like you did something wrong.

    but MUffti isn’t sure. Your question doesnt’ seem to be about what is subjective vs objective but about whether or not the sin has to be intended. Muffti was assuming that you could sin and not realize it and then you could go back and reevaluate whether or not you in fact did sin. But that may be the wrong picture.

  • Muffti, I think you hit it with the idea that we’re responsible for thinking of things to fit each one. I think we’re probably supposed to do it ahead of time. Jewish worship is full of homework. We’re probably supposed to be very familiar with the al-chet list, and during the Days of Awe, we’re probably supposed to think back over the past year and get something good in mind to cover everything. And I imagine the authors of the liturgy would probably tell us that if we can’t think of a single instance of any such general sin, we’re just deceiving ourselves.

    Of course, I didn’t do the homework ahead of time, but, still wanting to meaningfully repent, today during the al-chet I was a frantic mess–scanning the Hebrew line to say it, looking at the translation while saying it, thinking about something specific to match it while scanning the next Hebrew line… Mispronouncing the Hebrew, falling behind the congregation, falling down, etc. Well, not literally falling down. Actually, scratch that, I did literally fall down while getting up after the full, deep bow.

    Perhaps all this is intended. Perhaps the consternation is one of our repentant self-afflictions. Or perhaps it’s just me, because I’m out of practice at Jewish practice.

  • I also think that the viduy is genius, and I feel this each year. The breadth of what is covered by the word sin (chet, not to mention, averah, pesha, avohn, etc) is undefined. And although I always thought of the al chet prayer as being highly specific, I guess I’d have to admit that it’s specifically vague. It reminds us that you can sin with every part of your body, whether or not other people discern it as sin. It challenges you to a deeper accounting of your actions, by charging you to categorize your deeds into these obtuse, yet specific, categories…

    As for the issue of apology, I know that there are people to whom I should apologize for my behavior or attitude, or for things I’ve said about them, even though they may be unaware that I’ve thought or said those things. Contrition’s a funny thing, though–in the act of apologizing for things that you perceived as wrong, you might discover that the wronged parties had no idea you were wronging them, and the confession as it were will then have a negative effect on the relationship that, beforehand, was only damaged in your mind. So your conscience is clear, but the relationship damaged. And maybe that’s one of the lessons: that you should think twice about the reprecussions of your actions, even if they only affect you initially. There’s always a price to pay. Whether you believe in G-d or not.

    Big headache. Going to bed now. But first, congratulating Muffti for such an interesting post.

  • What’s wrong with option #1? I think of it as a blanket coverage of all sins one just don’t know about – no matter how much mind-dredging one can do. Y’know? Just trying to cover ALL of one’s sins throughout the year.

  • The list is long – but still not very specific.

    For example, what does “tifshut peh” – “stupid, infelicitous speech” exactly mean, and how is it distinct from the many other mentions of misuse of our power of speech?

    These litanies are meant to point to general patterns and root causes of behavior. The memory of specific acts is, as you say, not perfectly accessible to us – the prayers emphasize that only G-d has such a purview.

    The service of Yom Kippur is to evaluate – and regret if necessary – the gap that has opened between who we feel we should/could be, our role(s) in life – and what we actually do.

    This is emphasized by the repeated phrase “for the error we committed before You” – before You meaning, we are now holding our experience up to the yardstick of our ideal life “before G-d” – the life we were created to live. During the course of the year other, smaller interests obscured that view of ourselves.

    It is therefore necessary to follow up the Yom Kippur service with concrete actions to bring our actual life in closer concert with the ideal self.

    Being “judged” and “inscribed” for life means that G-d sees this positive change as still possible in reality – again something we may not be able to judge ourselves. The judgement is on potential to fulfill oneself in the future.

    All we can to is go forward and make positive efforts to change.

  • To add to what other said, I think that the exhaustive list is in part designed to remind us of the myriad ways we can and do sin. Going over and over a long list of wrongs, even if you don’t fully understand the list items, can quite successfully get you in the mindset of accepting that you have done wrong.

    As for your #2 option…that the vagueness allows it to fit many of our personal wrongs…I have used that idea in running a service for 11-12 year-olds. Not surprisingly, preteens don’t have a wonderful sense of what these sins are. Nor are they likely to view themselves as having sinned. So, the first two times we went through the list in services, we went around the room and for each sin, had one person think of something that he or she had done that year to fit the sin. The kids were somewhat surprised that for almost every item on the list, each person could find one thing he or she had done. Did it change them or their behavior? Probably not. Did it make them realize the extent to which we regularly do immoral, mean, or just wrong things? Yes. I think that that is the point of the list.

  • Vidui means confession, not repentence. I’ve always understood this part of the service to be about confessing that it is the nature of mankind to sin and we are setting the stage to ask G-d for forgiveness. I’ve always interpreted the “Al Chet” to be an almost poetic survey of the many and varied ways that people mistreat one another. I’ve never understood it as an attempt to exhaustively and precisely enumerate all the types of sin.
    A key point of the Yomim Noraim is that you need to rectify any interpersonal wrongdoings by resolving them with the wronged party. I think there are two levels to this. One level is specific conflicts that need to be resolved. I agree, in this case the person asking forgiveness needs to say what it is that they are repenting for. But there can be another level that says, “Maybe I inadvertently said or did something that made you feel bad. I didn’t mean to do it, but if that happened, I am sorry”.

  • After Yom Kippur it is as if you have been to the laundry.

    You ask forgiveness for stuff you are not too clear you did, because, that strips you of your usual complacency that you are sure you are pretty nice, because, you have been keeping score, and you don’t think you have done anything particularly awful.

    It is not about exact accounting, which is done Upstairs. It is about messing with your usual attitude.

    A better year to all.

  • Well, Drew, it may well be. Muffti was thinking that there is something problematic about asking for forgiveness for stuff that you don’t know that you have done. It would be odd in the extreme for you to come to me and say ‘I’m sorry for doing something to you. I don’t know what but probably there was something and I’m sorry for it. I have no great reason to think it happened, but it might have’. Mostly the problem here is that it is hard to feel bad for something that you don’t know happened, and even harder to ensure htat you won’t do it again.

    E-kvetcher, that’s a good point. If they aren’t meant in the way Muffti though, then Muffti is clearly wrong.

  • Look, most of us probably haven’t sacrificed our babies to a Canaanite god this year. But between angelic and demonic behavior lies the rub of human error and sensitivity. If the exercise of apologizing even though you’re not sure what you did wrong gets people thinking about their behaviors with an eye toward improving those behaviors and treating people better next year, then harei zeh meshubakh (it’s [a process] worthy of praise). Your pre-emptive apology to someone may prompt a self-analysis that yields his recommitment to being more careful in the coming year, and that’s a good thing.

    But seriously Muffti, good post.

  • Thanks E! Muffti still thinks there is something funny about pre-appologizing because he thinks it is difficult to appologize for events that either don’t really happen or for events that you don’t know will happen. But point well taken.

  • Pretty thoughtful post for a guy who keeps on insisting he’s an atheist, Muffti.

    First, G-d is not like a person. If G-d is G-d, He knows everything about us, even stuff that we don’t know. And so it is probable, indeed it is highly likely, if not certain, that since the Jewish bar is set so high that we failed to reach it, even if we thought we did a pretty good job.

    So, what do we do? We say “Hashem, we blew it. We’re not completely sure how, exactly, but we’re pretty sure that we screwed up somewhere, so we’re going to apologize for everything and let you sort it out.”

    This might sound like a cop-out, but like JM said, it is a process of messing with your mind, upsetting your normal complacency. Most people think they are decent people. Most people probably are decent people, at least by human standards. Nobody I know beats his wife or kids or goes out of his way to kick the dog for no reason. But by G-d’s standards we always fall short. By recognizing this during the Yomim Noraim, we are stripped of our compacency and are forced to consider how we could do better. Pride goeth before a fall, Muffti. The whole point is to disabuse us of our pride, at least for a few days, anyway.

    The other thing is that the liturgy stresses that we are confessing and asking forgiveness for sins we are not aware we committed. How is this possible? How can you commit a sin and not know it? That’s pretty easy: what we consider a sin is usually something that WE think is bad. But sin must also include what Hashem thinks is bad too, no? And if one is going to buy into the paradigm, we must assume that His standards are higher than ours. So we’re going to sin somewhere along the line no matter what we do. Just consider lashon hara. I don’t know of anyone who is not guilty of this on some level. I mean, just look at how we talk to Mobius (and how he talks to us). If that ain’t lashon hara, I don’t know what is. And we revel in it. A big no-no.

    On apologizing to people: have you actually ever tried to do it, I mean really? Especially when you think that the asshole deserved it? It is just about the hardest thing in the world to do. Why? because you have to swallow your pride to do it, especially if you think that the other person was at fault, or he deserved it, etc. So, by institutionalizing a formula, a person is saved from undue shame and humiliation. Not only can the person apologize without undue humiliation, it allows the forgiver to forgive easily without indulging in the all-too-human desire to say “You damn right you should apolgize after what you did to me, you schmuck”. If people have consideration for one another. this gives everyone a formula for doing gracefully what might never get done at all.

    This procedure of course can be abused, as anything can. But it’s something.

  • Sometimes I am so thankful that i possess a simple spirituality that makes up for it’s lack depth with unblemished purity. Shabat Shalom y’all.

  • Muffti agrees, Ephraim, that we can certainly sin and not know it. That isn’t so surprising. What muffti was taking issue with was the ability to appologize for something that you don’t know about. That’s all; He agrees that it is difficult to appologize and he agrees that that’s why it’s been ritualized. But there is a real question about the role of intentions in appologizing and there is at least a live case for saying that appologies that the person makes for which he doesn’t feel remorse are either not appologies or at least misfired appologies. (This is a famous distinction from Austin in the 60s).

  • Try it this way: it’s not apologizing.

    It’s evaluating reality on a day in which we strive to shed the self-serving interests and assumptions that normally cloud our vision.

    The word used for “sin” is “chet” – which literally means missing the mark, or being absent. This is the same word shouted in Israeli soccer stadiums when a goal is missed.

    We are addressing the gap between the self we have created and lived in the confusing, distracting whirl of our material lives, and the pure concept of our purpose in life that G-d has.

    On Yom Kippur – by leaving our material reality behind as much as humanly possible, and after a week of focusing on G-d’s presence in our lives – we can access that purer concept of who we should be.

    We are not “apologizing” so much as regretting the shortfall in acheiving our life’s purpose. The shortfall is caused by the undertow of mortal being – which can equal “sinful acts” as we normally conceive of them, but can also be more subtle things such as general character traits.

  • Hmmmn…that’s an interesting take, BD. Muffti perhaps was being misled by the idea that ‘t’shuva’ really means repentance, a part of which Muffti took to be (like appologizing) identifying your sins (shortcomings?) and then trying to make amends for them. The problem he was imagining was trying to make amends for things that you don’t know about is difficult if not impossible.

    But Muffti agrees that if the viduy is not intended as a step along the direction of appologizing/repenting and is more of a list of ways that you know you have fallen short, then the considerations don’t apply.

    Thanks, by the way, to y’all. Muffti is learning a lot.

  • It’s like the old addiction analogy: first step is acknowledging you have a problem. In this case, it isn’t immorality as much as it is humanity. This has been an interesting and respectful thread, and it’s giving me hope that the new year will follow suit.

  • I wonder what the symbolism of you using the ‘greys’ (aliens) to tell us to repent. The ‘greys’ are actually fallen angels that live underground and frankly don’t want us to get closer to god.

  • Muffti – your misapprehension is further clarified if you trace back the word “teshuv” to its root: it does not mean “repentance” or even “regret” – it simply means “return”.

    That is, return to the pure, original self-conception that should guide us.

    We also note that “teshuva” uses a noun formation that implies repeated/constant/abstracted action.

    Another example that is conceptually nearby is “tefilla” – which is the same noun formation applied to the root for “judge/evaluate”. So what is translated as “prayer” is thus another form of stock-taking – and here too, the 18 blessings at the core of the amidah (silent prayer) provides a “laundry list” of points to focus on – concenctric rings of self-awarenes starting from the intimate point of mindful awareness (“chonen ha’daat”) through to our physical existence (“rofeh cholei amo yisrael” and “mevarech hashanim”) outward to our communal roles (ohev tzedakah umishpat) and on to national redemption (boneh Yerushalayim).

    There is also room for more specific personal meditation (as per the custom of inserting personal “petitions” or thoughts in the blessing “shome’a tefilah”).

    Similar pattern with the Yom Kippur litany.

    It’s all primarily about us, and refinement of our goals and will.

    Rabbi Dessler writes that people should not think in terms of crime and punishment when imagining the heavenly tribunal. He puts forward a better analogy – that of a heavenly Investor evaluating a business venture. This puts the emphasis less on our guilt and powerlessness, and more on the centrality of our self-concept, action, and stewardship as beings blessed with free will.

  • Ah. That is iinteresting, etymologically. It’s also interesting because the last bit goes against everything Muffti ever learnt about w/r/t Yom Kippur: namely, that you are humbling yourself before God as powerless and helpless (‘adam yessodo m’afar, v’sofo l’afar…’) and begging him to forgive you for being the worthless wretch that you are. Muffti always thought that that was a bit of a strange theme since, qua wretch, why would you expect that we could do any better?

    OK, kewl, that was very interesting. Thank you.

  • muffti:
    the last bit goes against everything Muffti ever learnt about w/r/t Yom Kippur
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    1) Influence from Christian society – Christianity really does posit that we are hopelessly sinful and wretched, and it’s all G-d’s grace.
    2) The “worthless wretch” approach is actually an easy out, psychologically. Less obligation if you’re just a worthless peon, not a capable being in an incredibly loving, empowering yet obligating relationship. Which leads to:
    3) Three-day-a-year Jews frame things this way because they are ignorant, they take their cues from the external culture, AND they have a vested psychological interest in seeing Judaism as heavy, constraining, and unfulfilling (an attitude which is further bolstered by the mirthless slice of the Jewish calendar to which they expose themselves.)

    Happy Sukkot

  • Grandmuffti is a self proclaimed atheist…

    e-Kvetcher always gets a kick out this kind of thing because it reminds him of an old philosophers trick/joke:

    Muffti: I don’t recognize the existence of (fill in the blank, say, G-d).
    e-Kvetcher: What thing don’t you recognize?
    Muffti: The existence of G-d!
    e-Kvetcher: Oh, so you are saying that there is a G-d and you don’t recognize it’s existence?

    e-Kvetcher, of course, has made Muffti look ridiculous since Muffti is both saying that there is something, and that it doesn’t exist.

    e-Kvetcher doesn’t endorse this style of argument either, but wonders why Muffti wonders about the nature of G-d?

  • ehhehe…E-Kvetcher sounds a lot like a guy Muffti knows…

    Since neither E-kvetcher nor Muffti thinks it’s a good argument Muffti isn’t sure what the problem is. Muffti was just curious about how the tradition conceives of a certain phenomenon.

  • Muffti,

    There is no problem. I was just curious about why you are curious. I mean you were polite and respectful in your discussion, but for an atheist it seems like a weird thing to be curious about.
    What I mean to say, without denying you the right to be curious, is that a religious person or a person who may be interested in becoming religious would have a deeper purpose in trying to understand these questions. I was just curious if your curiosity is akin to an anthropologist looking at some primitive tribe and going – “I see, now tell me again why you are waving those branches all around you and chanting as you walk around in circles?”

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