A Christian experiences Yom Kippur

Patrick is Anglican Chaplain and Interfaith Adviser to Brunel University, and has worked with me on a number of interfaith and specifically Christian-Jewish projects. He is writing here in a personal capacity, drawing on a personal engagement (he says, after Lionel Blue, 'love affair') with Judaism, which goes back over 20 years:

Some time ago, and for about a year, I felt led to stop going to church and go to shul instead. I was never part of any formal conversion process, but I needed a full-on personal engagement. So I had what I’d now call the luxury of experiencing the Jewish High Holy Days. I can’t summarise here (or anywhere?) all that it meant and means to me. So I’ll speak only of one part of the Kol Nidre service. I’m not ashamed that what stays with me most strongly is the music, or rather the blend of music and text: ‘Our Father, our King, be gracious with us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds; treat us with charity and kindness, and save us.’ Now, another luxury is that I got to learn some biblical Hebrew as part of my Theology degree. So I know that the Hebrew is (of course) stronger than the English. ‘though we have no worthy deeds’ fails to do full justice. A more literal translation is: ‘for no with us deeds’. Now, the Christian theologian in me could ramble on indefinitely about all of this (Rabbi Debbie will confirm this propensity). One thing is perhaps worth saying. I’d not be first Christian to use Christian language to argue that here we have eloquent proof that Judaism is about ‘grace’ and ‘faith’ and not ‘works’. Yes, Judaism has 613 commandments, and there’s much to learn and do. But Judaism does not believe you have to spend a lifetime working at being good, in order to earn God’s attention. Or God’s favour. You are already assured of those, and you work at the commandments (seeing them as a privilege), in grateful and joyful response. It’s good and important to expose crude Christian caricatures of course. But there’s more to it. It’s vital that - in this prayer, and throughout the Days of Awe - we see that Judaism also knows that life with God is – to put it mildly - full of tensions and paradoxes. We articulate our inarticulacy. We own up to our uselessness (it seems to me that the Hebrew is as strong as that). So, on the one hand, Judaism is at heart optimistic about humanity, and doesn’t believe in ‘original sin’ (though let’s not get sidetracked into the details of that one). On the other hand, it knows that life is not about simply using the commandments to make good people better, placing them on the straight line of spiritual progress. Rather, again and again, we come to God empty, and without any defence of our pettiness and failure to take God’s love seriously. All we can do is ask God to give us what we need to pick up the pieces. ‘Our Father, our King, be merciful to us and answer us’ says the Jewish prayer. ‘Lord, have mercy’ says an equally loved Christian prayer. And indeed both of us might just pray: ‘O God, make speed to save me! O Lord, make haste to help me!’, citing Psalm 70.1. I am a long way from saying we’re really the same, deep down. To jump to that conclusion would be to deprive ourselves of necessary and fascinating conversations along the way. But we may be the same in this: we are free, as individuals and as a community, to recognise that we can fail, be stuck, and get things seriously wrong – and that God is never closer to us than when we have nothing other to say than this. And if we can sing it, plaintively and beautifully, so much the better!


  1. Thank you for this blog post. I know Patrick, and didn't fully appreciate before knowing him, that there is much for me to learn from Judaism.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts