Late on Friday afternoons, all over Israel one feels that things are slowing
down, becoming quieter, preparing for the Sabbath. Yom Kippur is called “the
Sabbath of Sabbaths” (Leviticus 16:31), and in Israel, one feels that
intensified sense of stopping and stillness.
On Yom Kippur, streets and
highways are so empty of cars that strolling adults and young children on
bicycles and roller skates take over.
This scene, taken for granted by
native Israelis, is unimaginable elsewhere in the world.
I recently spent
a number of years studying and teaching in Boston, where despite the sizable
Jewish community, Yom Kippur is a special day only inside the
Out on the streets, there is nary a sign of this holiest of
days. My sense as a Jew heading for Yom Kippur services was that I was moving
against the tide, trying to create a reality of a day which was not really
happening “out there” in public space.
This year in Jerusalem, as I enjoy
the sense of peace and solemnity of Yom Kippur both inside and outside my
synagogue, I am reflecting on the significance of Jewish time in public spaces.
In other words, I am thinking about what it means to have a Jewish
One of the teachers in my Jewish school in New Jersey instructed
us that when we sang the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva,” we should replace
the line “to be a free nation in our land” with “to be a Torah nation in our
land.” As I prepare for my 15th experience of Yom Kippur in Israel, I wonder
again that I ever believed that this would be a good idea.
I am proud to
live in a country in which Jewish values are expressed and experienced in our
But the “Torah nation” for which I sang as a young girl
would be a theocracy, a model rejected by Israel’s founders and rejected by the
government and most of the people of the State of Israel.
The many kinds
of Jews in Israel take different approaches to their Jewish lives, and the
rights of our non-Jewish minority groups must always be protected, as well. No
single sense of “Torah” can safeguard the distinctive needs and wishes of such a
While the Chief Rabbinate does have too much power
in cases of Jewish family law, in most day-to-day issues, no one in Israel is
compelled to observe Jewish law. As a modern democracy, freedom of religion and
freedom from religion must be protected, as is promised in Israel’s Declaration
of Independence and in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.
Jewish calendar is dominant in Israel, as is the Hebrew language. How else do we
express the Jewishness of the state? The Jewish tradition provides models of a
society that all of the citizens of Israel may agree upon, despite our
diversity. The haftorah reading for Yom Kippur comes from the Prophet Isaiah.
There is irony that in the middle of this day of fasting, we read a prophet’s
condemnation of the self-righteousness of the person who believes that s/he is
special to God because s/he is committed to abstaining from food. The prophet
asks rhetorically, “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is
it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will
you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:5).
then answers his own question, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the
pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the
hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted...,” this is the way to be in
The values expressed by the prophet are now shared by most
societies around the world. For Isaiah, however, these are values that the
people of Israel need to understand as expressions of the will of the God of
Israel. Today we might call them Jewish values.
As we enter into the
holiest fast in the Jewish calendar, my hope is that in the quiet of the day we
will all feel that Yom Kippur is truly present in the State of
Dr. Marcie Lenk is a member of the iEngage Project and director
of Christian Leadership Programs at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Learn more
about New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel at newpaths.org.il