It always bothered me that the whole of Ellul and the entire yom kippur davening was about penitence, shame, guilt and contrition. Still now I find these concepts very challenging, and in many ways very ‘non Jewish’. But just recently I was reading an article by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg that made me reconsider this whole idea and see it in a different light. All of us are broken in some way. Some of us are brave enough to come face to face with that brokenness and find ways to either fix it, live with it, or transform it into something meaningful, others bury it deep and pretend to be whole. Greenberg speaks about the idea of a post Holocaust world as a world in which we must recognise our limitations. The Holocaust and the breakdown of modernity’s absolutes, means we are forced to admit the partiality and errors in our system, whether it be our religious value system, our cultural system, our ethical system or our own self-perception. The Holocaust, as is most violence and religious persecution, was caused by a belief in the perfection of the system and self. As a preventative measure to its reoccurrence, and as an ethical imperative in a post-Holocaust world, we must act with and be cognitively cognisant of our limits. Everything we do must be tempered by humility, and openness to error as well as in Greenberg’s words a sense of ‘shame’.
He writes “the question was asked: if so in light of the Shoah should one be Orthodox, Conservative or Reform? My reply was: after the Holocaust, it is not so important whether you are Orthodox, Conservative or Reform (let me add secular) as long as you are ashamed of it”. That shame is a sign of brokenness or flaw. This shock of recognition should not be confused with rejection or distancing because one must love a system at its best enough to notice its shortcomings. One must respect a weltanschauung enough to be ashamed if it, and one must be committed enough to stay with it and be motivated to work to correct its faults”. Perhaps this helps me to reframe my idea of teshuva and the ‘shame’ factor that accompanies it. Rather than ‘break ourselves down’ and become obsessed, overshadowed and crippled by our guilt and self- reproach, this whole period is meant to humble us; To remind us in the words of Rav Nachman, ‘there is nothing as whole as a broken heart’, or as Leonard Cohen sings ‘there is a crack in everything that’s how the light gets in’. To construct we occasionally need to deconstruct. To become whole, we need to break. To rebuild ourselves into authentically, deeper, more spiritually motivated human beings we need to be ‘shocked’ (through the sound of the shofar and a smattering of some chest beating) into loving ourselves deeper, committing ourselves religiously and ethically more completely and respecting ourselves enough to know that sometimes we also need to be ashamed. Chodesh Tov.