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Ashamnu - We Have Sinned

John D. Rayner
Winter 2004

(This sermon was delivered by Rabbi John D. Rayner at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London on Yom Kippur, October 5, 2003)  


There was once a preacher who, no matter what his subject, always managed to come up with the ideal quotation to clinch his point. How did he do it? By following the example of a certain archer who would always shoot his arrow first, then walk up to the target and draw a series of concentric circles round the point where it had landed. In other words, he chose his text first, then built his sermon round it.  

Tonight let us do the same and take as our text - because it is uniquely characteristic of the liturgy of Yom Kippur - the ‘shorter confession’ beginning with the Hebrew word Ashamnu which, if you would like to turn to it, you will find on page 197 of our beautiful new prayerbook. It is, as you will see, an alphabetic acrostic, which is a symbolic way of saying that we have committed every sin in the book, from A to Z. And that, of course, is rather shocking. Have we really done all these things? Surely not! How then can we truthfully say that we have?  

What Is Meant by “We”  

That depends on what is meant by ‘we.’ It could mean ‘we as individuals’ or ‘we the Jewish people’ or ‘we the human family.’ In fact, it means all three. The point of the Ashamnu, then, is not that each of us is guilty on every count, Heaven forbid, but that we take responsibility for what is done by others within the group to which we belong. And how can that be? Jewish tradition tells us.  

There is, for instance, the talmudic teaching, Kol yisrael arevin zeh ba-zeh, that ‘all Jews are answerable for one another’ (Shevu’ot 39a), the idea being that at Mount Sinai our ancestors pledged themselves as a people - that is, as a collective continuum in space and time - to live by God’s Law, and that, in doing so, they stood surety for all future generations. In other words, being Jewish, as well as a privilege, is also a burden, and by becoming members of the Jewish people, whether by birth or conversion, we take on ourselves the burden of the trust our ancestors placed in us.  

Even so, it still seems unfair. How can we reasonably be held responsible for what others do or don’t do? But here another talmudic principle comes into play: Kol mi she-efshar le-machot, ‘Whoever is in a position to dissuade a member of his family from committing a sin but fails to do so is punished along with his family - of his city, along with his city - of the whole world, along with the whole world’ (Shab. 54b).  

Ethos of the Group  

The implication is that we all contribute in some way, however slight, to the ethos of the group to which we belong, and therefore must accept a share of responsibility, however small, for the modes of behaviour which it promotes or tolerates. It is a sobering thought.  
If we think of ourselves only as individuals, what has been our chief failing? Perhaps we have been too self-absorbed or self-indulgent or unforgiving, or insufficiently courteous and considerate towards one another. There are many possibilities for us to ponder during the next twenty-two hours.  

If we think of ourselves as citizens, we must wonder how we may have contributed to the yob culture that is bringing shame on our national life, or to the widening gap between rich and poor, or whether we were right to go to war in Iraq, and whether we could have avoided it by pursuing a more ethical foreign policy years ago.  

World as a Whole  

If we think of the world as a whole, we are bound to reflect - especially after the recent heat-wave - whether by the relentless destruction of the environment through the shameless pursuit of national and commercial self-interest - in which we are all complicit - we have not already pronounced the doom of future generations.  

But this evening let us focus our attention, not on any of these but on the one collectivity that is directly responsible for our being here tonight: the Jewish people. Let us, in other words, take Ashamnu to mean that we, the Jewish people, have sinned. But have we?  

Two years ago, The Jewish Quarterly published an article entitled ‘Have We Sinned?’ It never answered the question, but clearly implied that the answer is ‘No, not to any significant extent, at least not where the Middle East is concerned.’ And that seems to be the general attitude of our people at the present time. Let me describe it to you as it comes over to me.  

Look at Truth  

As individuals, we Jews are like everybody else. We may be less prone to drunkenness, we may be more prominent in certain professions, and we may have produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other people; but we don’t boast about these things. For we know that fundamentally we are no different from the rest of humanity. As individuals, to quote from the prayer immediately preceding the Ashmanu, ‘we are not so arrogant and stiff-necked as to say before God that we are perfect and have not sinned’ (ibid.).  

But as a people we are not so much sinners as sinned against. All through our history we have been misunderstood, maligned and persecuted, yet we have maintained our dignity and our creativity. Even from the ashes of the Holocaust we rose again and created one of the miracles of modern times - the State of Israel - which ought to be the admiration of humanity but which, instead, is constantly subjected to physical and verbal attack. As individuals we may have all kinds of faults, but as a people we have nothing to be ashamed of or to apologise for. That is the common perception, and there is more than a little truth in it. However, tonight is not a time for self-congratulation, but for taking an unblinkered look at the truth, however uncomfortable it may be.  

Forsaken Prophetic Heritage  

What then is the truth? Let us take our cue from the prayer of the hero of the book of Daniel, which is one of the sources of the Ashamnu. ‘Eternal, great and awesome God ... We have sinned, we have done wrong. ... We have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name ...’ (9:4ff). Do we recognise ourselves in that confession? We should! For we have largely forsaken our Prophetic heritage.  

If the Prophets taught anything, it is that our overriding loyalty belongs to God. But in modern times religion has retreated in the collective Jewish consciousness. In Israel the great majority consider themselves ‘secular,’ and even in Britain, as a recent survey of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research has shown, the same holds true for around 50 percent. By any standard, that amounts to a wholesale abandonment of the religious commitment which was the driving force of Jewish existence for over two thousand years. Most Jews have come tacitly to accept the viewpoint of secular Zionism, that we are a nation like other nations, with a national language, Hebrew, and a national home, Israel, and a national culture in which religion is only an optional element. In short, it is no longer God but the Jewish people that stands at the apex of our hierarchy of loyalties. The Prophets would have called that idolatry.  

Dethroning God  

Furthermore, in dethroning God we have diminished ourselves. The Prophets loved their people with a passionate love, but they also exhorted them to be ‘a light to the nations’ (Isa. 49:6) and reprimanded them when they failed to live up to that challenge. Today this universalistic vision of our role in history has all but vanished. Instead, we have become an ethnic minority among ethnic minorities. As a people, we have become inward-looking and self-righteous.  

This self-righteousness - which stands in the way of repentance like an impenetrable barrier - manifests itself in many ways, but most obviously in relation to the Middle East conflict. Whenever Israel is criticised, we immediately cry anti-Semitism. There is indeed an alarming resurgence of anti-Semitism, and some criticisms of Israel - though by no means all - are motivated by it or tinged with it. So we like to think that we are hard done by, that the whole world is against us, and there is, alas, much that feeds our victim mentality. Our memories of the Holocaust are still raw, and every suicide bombing of Israeli civilians hurts us almost like a physical pain because the dead and injured are our kith and kin. What happened yesterday in Haifa weighs on our hearts and minds so heavily that we can hardly bear to think or speak of it. Therefore, too, whatever we can do to assure our people there of our sympathy and solidarity in this terrible time of agony, anxiety and insecurity, we should do.  

We Are Not Innocent  

Nevertheless, we, the Jewish people, are not innocent where the Middle East conflict is concerned. Through the Zionist movement which we have embraced, and through successive Israeli governments which our fellow Jews have elected, and through their policies which we have defended or condoned, we have a share of responsibility - not all of it, perhaps not most of it, but certainly some of it - for the causation, exacerbation and perpetuation of the conflict, and for the failure of numerous peace initiatives, including the Oslo Process and now the Roadmap.  

All that, in our self-righteousness, we deny, as, in our paranoia, we are blind to the positive evidence of good-will towards us, such as the new respect for Judaism in interfaith dialogue, or the fact that the United Nations and most of its Member States have consistently upheld the right of the State of Israel© to exist in peace and security within internationally recognised borders.  

Redemptive Role  

And because we see the world as negatively disposed towards us, therefore we, in our turn, take little positive interest in it. The Prophetic view, that we have a redemptive role to play in human history, has gone out of the window. No wonder that so many of our young people abandon Judaism in search of spirituality or social idealism elsewhere.  

The time is long overdue for a revival of the universalism that is inherent in Judaism. Instead of indulging in self-pity and shouting conspiracy, instead of representing one more strident militaristic nationalism among other strident militaristic nationalisms, instead of demonstrating expertise in the manufacture of fighter aircraft and cluster bombs (designed to kill and maim as many innocent bystanders as possible), let us set to the world an example of humility and restraint, of tolerance and magnanimity, of respect for international law and for the rights of other peoples as well as our own. Let us be builders, not of walls of separation, but of bridges of understanding across racial, national and religious boundaries.  

We Have Fallen Short  

Surely that, as taught by the Prophets, is our true role in history: the role which alone accords with our genius and which alone is commensurate with the heavy price we have paid for our survival. Surely that is the standard by which God judges us and by which we must judge ourselves. Therefore, when we recite the Ashamnu, let us confess how far we have fallen short of God’s expectations, not only as individuals, and not only as a species, but also as a people. Let us re-engage in the struggle of all humanity for a world of freedom and justice, love and compassion, reconciliation and peace, and so prove ourselves worthy of our heritage. Amen. •  

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