The Religious Effect: On Yom Kippur–Exploring the meaning of forgiveness

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From one sunset to the next, a certain day in the year is revered and honored by millions of people across the world. It is a time of memory and understanding, repentance and forgiveness, as well as reflection and rejuvenation. Last weekend, students and faculty gathered and began their preparations for the holiest of holidays on the Jewish calendar — Yom Kippur.

With this in mind though, the answer still seems vague to those of non-Jewish descent. How does such a holiday apply to modern day? To college life, even? These answers, of course, vary in terms of religious branch, history, culture and geography.

Allow me to turn your attention to a brief conversation I had with Muhlenberg student Mali Goller ‘19, an active member and leader of Reform Jewish Services:

“Yom Kippur is a day of atonement where you ask God for forgiveness, for any sins you may have done in the past year… you fast in order to contemplate the hardships [of] the past year and the years to come so God understands that you feel true forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness” is the key word that this article is primarily about — what does it mean to truly forgive someone? Meaning and understanding vary of course, but the two definitions I wish to discuss are mercy and absolution.

Mercy is often described as a gift to bestow on one another. To quote a favorite play of mine, William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” mercy is but a “quality” or a drop “as the gentle rain from heaven…It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Before I continue, I must make clear that I am fully aware of the anti-semitic plot and vocabulary used in this particular play — and by no means am I condoning any action to support such claims or otherwise. No, my point in quoting “The Merchant of Venice” is to stress the meaning and value that Yom Kippur stretches beyond the religious scope and mindset. Mercy, in the form of an act or otherwise, is a concept that religious and nonreligious individuals understand as well as hold in high esteem.

An interesting talk I found on the BBC website, from the radio show “Beyond Belief,” discusses ‘mercy’ conceptually with three religious leaders: Father Daniel O’Leary to represent Catholicism, Asad Zaman of the Muslim faith, and Buddhist Alison Murdoch. Mediating the discussion is Ernie Rea, a freelance writer and member of the interfaith organization Three Faiths Forum.

The program begins with a question of what ‘mercy’ means to the various religions and philosophies represented. Father O’Leary describes mercy as the “heart of Christian tradition” and, he believes, is always regarded of “the flesh…” and the human condition.

Asad Zaman continues his analysis of mercy through the lens of the Muslim faith, the idea that mercy is split into “one hundred parts, and [God] has distributed one part of that to the whole of humanity, and has kept ninety-nine parts to the self.” To clarify, there are two words in Arabic that can be used to mean ‘merciful’ — rachman and rahim.  Both, however, refer to different aspects of mercy that are valued equally in the Islamic faith.

Zaman says: “One of those attributes of God applies to the whole of his creation, every man, woman and child on the planet — in fact, every living thing. And the other word, rahim, refers particularly to those that believe in God.”

When Alison Murdoch was asked about mercy, she clarified that Buddhist tradition does not practice mercy itself, but rather emphasizes “kindness and compassion. The Buddhist definition of compassion is very precise; it’s about wanting our own and other people’s suffering to end.” She then further clarifies that suffering is not necessarily about pain alone; but discontent, and “disturbing thoughts” that “[get] in the way of our happiness.”

The discussion continues, going deeper and deeper into the parallels and discrepancies from faith to philosophy. I highly suggest you visit the BBC website “Beyond Belief” to not only watch the episode, but also to check out other interesting, and controversial topics.

As I mentioned previously, the theme of “forgiveness’” in Yom Kippur also refers to the term absolution. While mercy can be described as a gift among humanity, absolution is described as a promise of release — and, more interestingly, “freedom.”

Unlike mercy, forgiveness holds a weight of contract; it is an agreement of understanding between parties in hopes to move on and uphold their futures. This applies not only to religious life, but secular understanding and law.

With the end of Yom Kippur, the world renewed and reborn, we come to the realization that not only are we forgiven, but that we are free to live and be. We are only human; sometimes, that is all we can say — and that is beautiful.

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