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Atonement, God’s Love Key to Faith

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The Covid-19 virus has forced the modernization of three of the most populous ancient religions. The extent of the change will be the most evident so far in Judaism, the oldest of the faith groups which trace their origins to the Biblical patriarch Abraham, when the Jewish High Holy Days begin at sundown Friday (Sept. 18).

Even the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn played something like a bugle) will be wearing a mask during the traditional Rosh Hashana (New Year) service in many synagogues usually crowded with among the largest number of worshipers of the year.

Many Reform temples, like New York’s Central Synagogue, will begin the 10-day period known as Yamim Noriam (Days of Awe) with a virtual service streamed to 1,100 members and friends at home watching on the internet by way of Zoom.

Orthodox and other more traditional congregations, where the use of electronics is considered work and therefore prohibited on the Sabbath or other holy days, will have in house services but limit worshipers to about 15 to 20 percent of capacity, and those present will be wearing masks and will be seated at socially safe distances.

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The climax of the High Holy Days is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins at sundown Sunday, the 27th. It is a major theme not only in Judaism but also in Christianity, today the most populous and second oldest of the “religions of the Book,” and in Islam, the youngest of the three faiths which share portions of the Bible as sacred scripture.

No longer does Judaism have a high priest, as in Biblical times, who once a year entered the “holy of holies”  in the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice a goat whose blood was sprinkled on the ark of the covenant symbolically cleansing the temple from the sins brought by those gathered there during the past year.

A second goat, called the Scapegoat, was released into the wild carrying the sins of all the people of Israel ritually placed on its back by the high priest.

Such sacrifices and many of the rituals of those days are performed symbolically in modern societies where copies of Scripture roll-off printing presses by the thousands rather than being produced on parchment individually by scribes whose lives are dedicated to the practice.

But the concept of the human need for atonement — a reconciliation with God and with fellow human beings  — remains the same in all three of the major faiths.  And it always follows a period of self-examination, confession, and apologizing usually accompanied by fasting and self-denial.

In an often-cited 2012 episode of Neil Conan’s “Talk of the Nation” discussion program on National Public Radio devoted to the topic of atonement, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, at the time director of outreach for the Dar Al-Hijah Islamic Center, explained that in Islam atonement (alba in Arabic) is a five-step process.

“First, admit that what you’ve done is wrong; two, detest it in your heart; three, commit to turn away from it and not to go back; four, make restitution; and five, to ask for God’s forgiveness.” Fasting and contributions to charity usually accompany such actions.

While there is no particular day designated in Islam as a time to emphasize that spiritual action, many followers make it a part of their observance of Ramadan. 

Lent, Good Friday, and Easter make up a special period of emphasis on atonement which is at the heart of Christianity. The sacrifice of the “Lamb of  God” — one of the designations of Jesus Christ  — on the cross to atone for the sins of believers and reconcile them with God is the central belief in that faith. 

But it also is a part of the weekly practice in Catholic and some Protestant churches. Confession of sins, whether in private with a priest or corporately during the mass or Sunday service is a regular occurrence.

The danger in all three faiths is that “people have kind of grown up with this sort of rule-based idea of what sin is. If I do this, what is my punishment?” noted the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest on the Conan talk show.

“It’s about being in relationship with God, not simply kind of checking off boxes and kind of paying the fine.”   

Part of the problem is that people in today’s world have a hard time forgiving themselves and believing God could still love them, agreed Rabbi Hoffman and Imam Abdul-Malik.

Quoting a saying from the Talmud (a commentary on Jewish scripture), the then professor of Jewish liturgy at Hebrew Union College stated:

“Happy are you, oh Israel, for God loves you. Happier still are you, because you know that God loves you.”  

So “much of our task (as clergymen) is to help people know that God loves them and that love, in fact, permeates the world,” he said.  

Imam Abdul-Malik added that the view of the Quran is that “if our sins are to the heavens and we turn to God that God is capable of forgiving us.”

Which leads to the notion that “human beings somehow or other need to go through and feel confident that through some process or ritual that they can become whole, that they can be restored again to God’s perfect love.”

(Adon Taft was religion editor for 37 of his 48 years on the staff of the Miami Herald. He also taught social studies at Miami Dade Community College. Now retired in Birmingham, AL, he can be reached at [email protected].)

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