Rabbi Michael Signer of blessed memory (the late Abrams Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame) sent me an e-mail, asking my forgiveness for anything he may have done or said that had given offense over the past year on the Jewish calendar. I was aware of some of the preparations required for the Day of Atonement, including that Jews should try to reconcile with people they had hurt or were estranged from before asking on Yom Kippur for God’s forgiveness of their sins. While friends, Rabbi Signer and I were seldom together and so were not especially close, and he had certainly not offended me in any way. Concerned that I had inadvertently given him reason to think that he had, I phoned him to thank him for his kind note.
Michael’s friends will not be surprised to learn that after clarifying he had no particular incident between us in mind (which he said he would have had to specify), he went on to give the details of the Jewish practice. He cited the distinction made in Mishna Yoma 8:9 between relationships between a human being and God (ben adam lamakom) and among human beings themselves (ben adam lechavero). He explained that sins against other people could not be forgiven except by the offended person and that God might not forgive even sins committed against God alone unless human beings had made efforts to reconcile.
I thought of the passage in the New Testament Sermon on the Mount in which the Matthean Jesus instructs, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:24).
Michael replied with another Matthean passage:
[Jesus taught:] “If your brother [or sister] sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the whole community. If he refuses to listen even to the whole community, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17).
He compared this to the similar procedure described in the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 606:1) that if before Yom Kippur one is refused forgiveness by his fellow that he should return up to three times with three companions as witnesses.
I don’t remember the exact turn of the conversation at that point, but Michael eventually said something like: some interpret these commandments as referring to others within the Jewish community, but I believe they apply as well to relationships between Jews and non-Jews. I knew that the same held true on the Christian side, as for example, in the prayer called the Confiteor at the beginning of the Eucharist, when the individual confesses his/her sinfulness “to you my brothers and sisters” in the congregation. While homilies might encourage it, the Confiteor does not explicitly demand thought about our behavior toward “outsiders.”
I realized then that Michael’s simple note conveyed something quite profound that I’ve thought about ever since. The Jewish reckoning of one’s being, the heshbon hanefesh, that precedes Yom Kippur, is ideally a very self-searching spiritual exercise. The “Examination of Conscience” in the Catholic sacrament of Penance has a similarly introspective nature. I recently came across two short essays that are examples of the deeply reflective nature of the Yom Kippur practice: “Forgiveness” by Jay Litvin (someone afflicted with illness while preparing for Yom Kippur) and “Learning to Forgive” by Sara Debbie Gutfreund (which involves a Jew and a Christian who are roommates: very apt for ICCJ!).
Although Michael was surely not the first person to do this, his little e-mail transcended the confines of his own community and embraced someone in the wider interreligious community. His example has inspired me over the years.
What would it mean for the world if each of us in our respective communities could develop the ritual of considering how our individual or communal actions have misrepresented, wounded, stereotyped, or alienated other individuals or communities beyond our own? What if being a good Jew, a good Christian, a good Muslim before God required working on our relationships with those others? How would arenas of confrontation between peoples be affected if concern for the well-being of the other took on a deeper religious and social significance even in the midst of conflict?
These are the questions that occur to me as I wish, on behalf of the ICCJ family, all of our Jewish friends “a good and blessed year.” Shana tova! And to our Muslim friends whose own new year coincidentally begins on the same day, may the coming year be blessed for you and yours.