This past Wednesday was Yom Kippur, the holiest and most important day on the Jewish calendar. It is a 25-hour fast day observed so that Jews may acknowledge, take ownership of, ask forgiveness for, and forgive ourselves for our past year’s worth of wrongdoings and neglected promises. Despite the fast and the long synagogue hours, for the past few years I have been looking forward to the difficult emotional and physical work necessary to take on the obligation that Yom Kippur demands of me.
In the Dramaturgy and Drama Criticism classes I am taking, we have turned back to the Greeks (for me, a satisfying completion of a theatre-learning cycle begun early freshman year when we first looked at the Greeks). I didn’t realize it until I stepped into synagogue last Tuesday night, but Artistotle’s conception of anagnorisis and peripeteia — recognition and reversal — in Greek tragedy feels particularly resonant on Yom Kippur.
Before I establish this parallel, I do want to acknowledge that I feel I may be bordering on heresy by doing so (please pardon the brief history lesson as I explain why). Hellenistic Judaism during the Second Temple Period (332-167 BCE) in ancient Israel is a key early instance of Jewish assimilation, one which our tradition frowns upon — many Jews throughout our history are never quite comfortable with or pleased by assimilation. For example, Chanukkah is a holiday that celebrates the victory of the Jewish Maccabbean forces over the Greek Seleucid Empire around 160 BCE, a rebellion that occurred in part due to increased Hellenization among some Jews under Greek rule. (Ironically, a holiday to celebrate a military victory is something Jews adopted from the Greeks.) So, the challenges Jews have had for the last 2000 years or so surrounding the Greeks makes me a little anxious to claim a relationship between a core ritual aspect of both cultures, but I will proceed anyway.
Kol Nidre, an Aramaic prayer that is recited at on the evening of Yom Kippur, specifies a request that all vows, oaths, promises, etc. that we took and did not fulfill over the previous year be made null and void. The Hebrew prayers that follow, the Ashamnu and the Al Cheit, are confessional prayers in which we admit to the various sins we have committed, both religiously and interpersonally. To me this series of prayers serve the purpose of establishing recognition (anagnorisis) — specifically addressing and acknowledging how we’ve misstepped. The greater challenge of Yom Kippur is the reversal, the peripeteia — the language of the liturgy guides us toward it but does not spell it out the way it does for our recognition. We cannot only recognize our faults; we must strive to move past them and do better next year.
The differences are many between the average synagogue goer of today and the Greek Aristotelian tragic hero. But what I know of the Greeks this year led me to a greater understanding of the purposes of the liturgy in my own faith and I think that is something worthy of acknowledgement.
Sorry, Judah Maccabbee, but I think the Greeks do have something to offer us.
For more information about Yom Kippur liturgy you may visit this site. For more information about Hellenistic Judaism this Wikipedia page is a great resource, as was Dr. Susie Tanchel’s Tanach class my freshman year of high school. The dates I learned in that class are glued to my memory for life.