Yom Kippur is a day different from all others. It, alone in the Jewish calendar, is a “Day of Death,” a time when all the normal teachings about honoring the body are, for one day, reversed. On this day, the sanctification of ordinary life and the celebration of the body and the world are undone, so that layers of self can be meticulously scrubbed away.
Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Ideally, one spends no time beautifying the body: Men wear a kittel, the deathshroud, and no one wears makeup, or even looks in the mirror. In actuality, Yom Kippur is, for some, the time for the most expensive new dress and sharpest suit and tie. Ideally, Yom Kippur is a day of abstention from “small talk.” But in practice, it becomes a day to meet and greet at the synagogue. Ideally, the embodied practices of Yom Kippur lead to an emotional and spiritual catharsis, an emotive prayer and confession that comes from the vulnerable, open heart. But in practice, many Jews spend the day sitting bored and bewildered while a cantor or choir sings a stultifying tune lifted from Protestant liturgy. Finally, the myth of Yom Kippur is problematic for many: Do we really believe in a “Book of Life” in which all our deeds are inscribed — even in a metaphorical way? Do we think that the unrepentant are punished?
All these factors can make the inner meanings of Yom Kippur hard to access. But if we let Yom Kippur happen personally, and experience it with our bodies and hearts, it can work. The personal, after all, is the point: The entire story of Yom Kippur — the sin, the forgiveness, the catharsis — is a psychological drama projected onto theology. All of us have done things that we regret. Yom Kippur is the day to release them. The point isn’t whether you’ll be good enough to be written in the right Book; it’s about turning inward, looking at the dirty stuff and then being washed clean. This isn’t about God judging us; it’s about us judging, and finally loving, ourselves. The myth is secondary. The psychological drama is primary.
Speaking psychologically, teshuvah — return to one’s deepest self — is not an intellectual process. It may make no sense to spend hours in synagogue banging one’s heart with one’s fist — but yearning, crying and begging are not meant to be sensible. Don’t spend time worrying over the literal words of the Yom Kippur liturgy. The important thing is to do the practice of teshuvah, with your body leading and your heart following. Do the fast, the bowing, the banging-on-the-chest; do the standing, and notice as the body gets exhausted. Really, what is liturgy anyway but the verbal expressions of inchoate yearning? It’s not theology, and it’s certainly not philosophy. It’s poetry.
Seen in this way, Yom Kippur is a journey. Over the course of 26 hours, you have the opportunity to turn off the regular world and re-enact the drama of kapparah, cleansing. And the soul-searching and the catharsis are two sides of the same coin, because you can’t release what you don’t first discover and accept. The phases will vary. You might move from apathy to remembering, to regret, and then to reconciliation and release. Or you might drift in and out of the day’s emotions, focusing more on resolutions, concerns and pleas. Wherever the journey goes, though, the body is the central vehicle. The Torah instructs Israel: V’initem et nafshotechem — impoverish your souls. What does this mean? Denial of food and drink, as well as of sex, bathing and wearing leather shoes — but, more deeply, a deliberate impoverishment of the soul; a day of living simply, without adornment, naked.
For example, one highlight of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the Avodah service, which re-enacts the climactic moment of the ancient Temple ritual. The talmudic account of the priestly ritual is interesting, but I like the Avodah most because, where I daven, all the people in the room get on their knees and bow right down to the floor, multiple times. Perhaps because there is little intellectual justification for the bodily re-enactment of the Temple worship, many temples and synagogues have abandoned it. But the Avodah service comes about midway through the day, just when, for me, things are getting difficult, and productive. Bowing down, truly giving up the body and subjugating the ego to the deeper parts of the self is often just the push that breaks me open.
And later, it’s the endless standing of the Neilah service, right at the end of the day. Some years, the whole day will pass uneventfully, but then I’ll finally “get it” right at Neilah. Something will open, whether a current of release or a sudden relevance of a few words of the confessional. And then I’ll find myself moving around, shouting the final selichot and leaving the doubt behind. It’s not that I’ve become convinced of dogma; it’s that I’ve remembered that the dogma isn’t the point.
Kapparah, the root of Yom Kippur, means cleansing — catharsis, if you like. It’s what’s done to the Temple after it is defiled, getting into the muck and grime and scrubbing it away. You’re not meant to feel good, or have an “easy fast.” Rather, you can use the body’s duress to get into the dirty stuff, whatever that may be for you, so that it can be let go. So, may you have a difficult Yom Kippur — one of searching, discovery and release.
Jay Michaelson is the author of “God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice “ (Jewish Lights, 2006), from which this essay is adapted.