Yom Kippur, though considered the most religious day of the Jewish calendar, no longer reflects historical or agricultural antecedents as are associated with other holidays like Pessah and Succot. It is paradoxically therefore also the least observed by the secular majority.
During the rabbinic period, the agricultural connection diminished and the High Holy Days assumed a more religious significance, where the earlier appeasement of a rain god grew into "atonement." The majority - Jewishly untutored secular Jews - totally eschews the concept of atonement, fasting, standing (for men) in a white kaftan all day in synagogue, reciting formulas of all kinds of sins committed or not, etc. There are, of course, huge variations with less stringent observance among the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Liberal movements compared to the Orthodox, let alone haredim.
Most secular Jews hardly take notice of Yom Kippur as its formulation is primarily religious. In Israel, it is a day for outings, beaches, bike riding and partying toward the end of the day - a sort of secular way of breaking the fast which they did not participate in. Some, like myself, who had religious upbringing and learning, try to use the day for reflection about life, one's own behavior.
I will dip into some of the traditional as well as related literatures I recall from my youth if they have a universal ethical message which they often have. For instance the well-known Al Het prayer lists mainly secular sins which are worthy to remind oneself of at least once a year; general reflections on life and death, one's own questionable behavior in this or that situation within the family, with friends or vis-Ã -vis the community at large, deeds done wittingly or unwittingly, reflections on humility and self-control.
The ethical components in Jewish prayers are often strongly secular/humanistic, including issues of doing good or evil, repentance, forgiveness, responsibilities of one human for another are primarily in our own hands. About 35 percent of Pirkei Avot is similar to Confucian writings. The late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former chancellor of Bar-Ilan University (who officiated at my wedding), taught that no matter how low you sink, you can rise again. For instance, we have it in our power as free moral agents to choose between right and wrong. This is in fact a primary belief of secular humanists. Even Maimonides wrote that the power of doing good or evil is in our own hands.
To interest the majority in Yom Kippur, it needs repackaging and reformulation in humanistic and secular language on universal ethical topics. Seen from its deep humanistic underpinnings it can in fact also be a rich source of annual reflections for doing good, thereby living a fuller, richer and happier life.â€¢
The writer, a proponent of Cultural Judaism, is the head of the Posen Foundation. www.posenfoundation.com