At the Intersection of Love and Mercy, the High Court of Yom Kippur
October 5, 2022
We have spent much time this year grieving a Supreme Court whose unelected justices have taken away the right to privacy and bodily integrity. We fear that they may move from undercutting reproductive rights and voting rights to undercutting LGBTQ rights and other fundamental freedoms.
Many scholars have reflected upon how we can reform the Court. Some have suggested term limits for justices, others have spoken of the benefits of expanding the size of the Supreme Court, and still more recommend removing justices who have ignored their ethical obligations to our country.
To be sure, we should study these options with care. But we should also cultivate the moral imagination to explore a fuller range of thoughtful responses.
We are blessed that our tradition encourages us to imagine anew the institutions of justice each year on Yom Kippur.
For the Supreme Court may be the highest court in the American legal system. The court of public opinion may be the most captivating. But today as a community, we convene a still higher court; one that has been gathering for thousands of years. It is the court of ultimate judgment for our lives. It forces us to confront whether we are leading a life of purpose or a life of whimsy, a life of beauty or a life of brutality. It also encourages us to reimagine the institutions we need in order to create a just society.
For in the court assembled today, we simultaneously are its judges and its jurors, its prosecutors and its defense attorneys, its victims and its perpetrators. This is the high court of Yom Kippur, the human court that mirrors one we imagine may be taking place within the Divine realm. It exists only within our minds and our hearts – but it is very real to all of us, and to Jewish communities around the world.
Before reciting Kol Nidre on the eve of Yom Kippur, we convene this special court. The legal code known as the Shulchan Aruch directs us:
נוהגים שאומר שליח צבור בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מטה
We begin by petitioning the courts to hear our case. We seek Divine permission to form this human court, even though it is composed of people who have committed wrongful acts – including ourselves. In acknowledging our court’s shortcomings, we create space for its continual improvement and publicly recognize the fallibility of its rulings.
From there, we proceed with a fearless honesty that has become a hallmark of Jewish tradition itself.
Rather than calling witnesses against ourselves or each other, we stipulate to our own wrongdoings – and wonder about still more that we might have committed unwittingly.
We calculate damages and deduce intent, but focus still more upon whether we have repented and changed enough to merit absolution. We seek Divine forgiveness, but ultimately stand before our most fearsome temporal judge: ourselves.
The classical rabbinic text known as Avot d’Rabbi Natan categorizes four kinds of wrongdoing, three of which are eligible for pardon:
- When a person violates positive commandments – commands to do something good, such as giving charity, sincere repentance leads to immediate absolution.
- When a person violates a negative commandment – such as “do not covet” or “do not steal” and repents sincerely, she is granted absolution on the following Yom Kippur.
- If a person commits a serious wrongdoing, for which they incur something of a communal timeout – a temporary ban from community life – the repentance is held over until he both repents and experiences a sense of loss at being kept away.
- If a person profanes God’s name – namely through sexual violence, murder, or idolatry – these wrongdoings stay with a person for their entire lives. They can and should change, repent, and seek to make amends. But the severity of such actions speaks for itself.
We may immediately consider ourselves for absolution of first two categories of wrongdoing – that of violating a less serious positive or negative commandment.
If we have felt genuine suffering at being distanced from family or community because of more serious misdeeds, we can also seek absolution.
Even the most egregious offenses, which live on with us for the duration of our lives need not be our only legacy – if we turn from them and fundamentally change as people.
Our communal court transforms the typical, adversarial legal process into an exercise of profound empathy. Our goal is to summon the strength to expunge our own records and move forward with the keen knowledge of how we might live differently.
We judge ourselves, not each other. We grieve together, not by ourselves. We bear witness to each other’s remorse and take responsibility for communal misdeeds, even if we did not initiate them. We sustain the belief that change is possible, until the very last moment of our lives.
Our holiest of courts models a system of justice that both restores others and is restorative of our own humanity. It enables us to disgorge the painful memories that we have repressed all year long and transform them into a font of remorse that inspires our growth.
We lie. We cheat. We steal. We covet. We disrespect our parents. We curse the deaf. We place stumbling blocks before the blind.
But we also acknowledge, admit, confess, and comfort each other in an act of love and mutual support. Our courtroom is a veritable sanctuary.
Our outward characteristics melt away and inner character rises to the fore. The Divine and temporal meet at the intersection of justice and mercy. We temper justice for others with mercy for ourselves. Ours is a fundamentally different notion of a court – one whose goals are truth, change, healing, and return.
Through our minds and our hearts, we elevate our communal court to the heavenly realm so that we can bring renewed understandings of justice back into our lives, to our community, and to our country.
The High Court of Yom Kippur is no replacement for our temporal courts, but rather an essential compliment. For in living out this exercise of moral imagination, we can prevent future wrongdoing and empathize with the many different roles inherent to a court of law.
Our Yom Kippur observances keep us from throwing up our hands in dismay at injustice in our world – and even in the American legal system. Instead, they impel us to engage more fully with the complexity of guilt and innocence, change and recidivism, judicial perspective and the limitations inherent to positions of power.
May we find ourselves worthy of absolution and work tirelessly to change, so that we need not face these same wrongdoings when our court resumes next year.
May we spend these sacred hours of Yom Kippur cultivating our moral imaginations so that we can encounter with greater thoughtfulness the ethical problems posed by America’s Supreme Court.
Ken y’hi ratzon.
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