In ancient times, the High Priest entered the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, prostrated himself before God's Judgement Seat and begged God to forgive the transgressions of the entire Jewish people for the previous year. In the rabbinic era, religious Jews beat their breasts and confessed their wrongdoings to God. By using the term "we," they explicitly accepting responsibility for the sins of the collective and asked God for both individual and collective forgiveness. This concept of group responsibility remains central to our understanding of this most solemn of Jewish holidays. As with Rosh Hashanah, the ethical component is paramount for secular Jews. A basic tenet of humanism is that people are responsible for their own destinies. At Yom Kippur, we ask forgiveness of others we may have wronged and vow to become a better person in the coming year. We assert our belief in the power of all human beings to change for the better. Yom Kippur is for us, above all, a holiday of reconciliation and mutual respect. The holiday imposes the obligation of improving not only the self, but also the Jewish people and all humanity. This approach is consistent with the ethic of human solidarity that is valued so highly in secular Jewish communities.
The blowing of the shofar, fasting, and the wearing of a white robe (kitl) are all ancient traditions associated with this holiday, but no ceremony typifies Yom Kippur more than the singing of Kol Nidre. This Aramaic song, whose haunting melody ushers in the holiday, allows Jews to retract all vows that could not be fulfilled or were made under duress. It performs the crucial psychological function of allowing Jews to clear their conscience of promises of a personal nature that could not be kept. It also has an historical basis. It was created in the Middle Ages to permit Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Middle Ages to return to their ancestral faith. At the same time, rabbinic sources emphasized that promises toward fellow human beings could not be unilaterally disavowed without the agreement of the other party.
Another practice that makes Yom Kippur special is the Yizkor prayer, originally written to commemorate the Jewish communities wiped out by anti-Semitic mobs during the Crusades. It gives families an opportunity to remember their relatives. Many secular Jewish groups have expanded on this theme to create wonderfully moving ceremonies that integrate memorializing deceased relatives with honoring the heroes and martyrs of our people and the righteous of all nations.
Remember the souls O Israel of our lost generations. People of peace, working people who sacrificed their lives For the honor of the people of Israel.
Yizkor am yisrael et haneshamote Shel dorotaynu Anshay hashalom, v'anshay ha'avodah Asher kharfu nafsham Bikh'vode am yisrael
Here is another Yizkor or memorial poem from a liberal religious source:
At the rising of the sun and at its going down, We remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, We remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, We remember them.
At the shining of the sun and in the warmth of summer, We remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn, We remember them.
At the beginning of the year and at its end, We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live; for they are a part of us, as we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, We remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart, We remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share, We remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make, We remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs, We remember them.
As long as we live, they too shall live; for they were a part of us, as we remember them.
Sylvia Kamens and Jack Riemer
Synagogue services on Yom Kippur include a Bible story that secular Jews would do well to appropriate. The Book of Jonah teaches that the lives of all people, Jewish or not, have equal value, and that we have the power within us to renounce evil and lead moral lives. It is truly one of the most humanistic books of the Bible, and is brief enough to be incorporated into our Yom Kippur programs.
Apples and Honey is an indispensable source for creating Yom Kippur programs. It does not, however, make reference to the Book of Jonah, nor does it contain this Hasidic folktale. It illustrates the admirable Jewish tradition of arguing with God, or, as expressed in secular language, "speaking truth to power":
On the evening of the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, 'the poor man's rabbi' asked an illiterate tailor. "Since you couldn't read the prayers today, what did you say to God?
"I said to God," replied the tailor, "Dear God, You want me to repent of my sins, but my sins have been so small! I confess: There have been times when I failed to return to the customers the pieces of left-over cloth. When I could not help it I even ate food that was not kosher. But really, is that so terrible? Now take Yourself, God! Just examine your own sins: You have robbed mothers of their babes and have left helpless babes orphans. So You see that Your sins are much more serious than mine. I'll tell you what, God. Let's make a deal! You forgive me and I’ll forgive you."
"Ah you foolish man!" cried Rabbi Levi Yitzchok. "You let God off too easily. Just think! You were in an excellent position to make Him redeem the entire Jewish people!" [i.e. compel God to send the Messiah]
The classic Yiddish writer, I.L. Peretz, wrote a short story based on this folktale, Berl the Tailor, which can be found in Eli Katz's collection Yitskhok Leybush Peretz--Selected Stories. He also wrote a more cynical Yom Kippur story, Yom Kippur in Hell, included in Ruth Wisse's collection, The I.L Peretz Reader. Sholem Aleichem wrote two stories with Yom Kippur themes, The Day Before Yom Kippur from The Old Country, about the custom of asking forgiveness of those one may have offended, and The Search, from Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg's collection, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, about an unforgettable Yom Kippur scandal. The Search also appears on the audiotape set co-produced by the National Yiddish Book Center and KCRW Santa Monica and broadcast on National Public Radio, Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond. You can also find it under another title, A Yom Kippur Scandal, in The Best of Sholem Aleichem, edited by Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse.