Strange Atheist: Reconciliation

WhScreen Shot 2013-09-13 at 10.40.09 AMen the sun sets tonight, the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, will begin. It’s a dark day, marked by fasting and the repeated confession of our sins against god.  It’s also one of this atheist’s favorite holidays.

On the surface, it makes no sense that an atheist would be so moved by standing in a temple full of hungry, cranky people with bad breath singing prayers that sound like dirges. In some temples, including the one in which I grew up, people beat their breasts as they recite a liturgy of sins known as Ashamnu, which starts with “We have trespassed” (sinned), and moves on to “We have been violent,” and “We have had evil hearts,” and the like.

As a child, I liked the ritual but was confused that I had to confess sins I didn’t feel I’d committed.

As an adolescent, I was annoyed that my religion required me to publicly prostrate myself before god for any reason. It felt like ass-kissing.

As a young adult, I realized I didn’t have to confess anything to anyone, and I thought people who recited Ashamnu (or any other prayer) were mindless sheep, baa-ing into a cosmic emptiness to relieve themselves of guilt both accurate and inflicted.

As I aged, though, and as I came to grips with both my atheism and my Juadism-oriented spirituality, I began to see Ashamnu, and Yom Kippur as a whole, as a guided meditation. Ego is a driving force in our lives. It’s important to slow down occasionally, take a step back, and see how we’re doing in the larger scheme of things.

I realize now that I am deeply flawed, and I have committed transgressions against the greater good. I have been selfish. I have stood by while others did harm.

I have been complacent in a world rife with injustice.

Few people in my current temple beat their breasts with each sin in the Ashamnu, but I do. The thunk of my closed fist against my chest reassures me that I’m taking seriously these reminders of honesty and decency. Not for god or someone who’s keeping track of my permanent record, but for me as one tiny but accountable part of humanity.

And, oddly enough, it makes perfect sense that I love Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Merriam-Webster defines atonement first as “reconciliation,” and reconciliation as “the process of finding a way to make two different ideas, facts, etc., exist or be true at the same time.”

Like having an atheist brain and a Jewish soul.

And so, to everyone: If I have done anything to hurt or harm you, if I have let you down in any way, I am sorry. I promise to try to be a better human next year.

L’shana tova (Happy New Year).

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