Are sinning and atoning old hat?

AS we are now experiencing the most solemn period of the Jewish calendar, I wonder what exactly the High Holy Days mean to modern or secular Jews these days.

My social media feed is bursting with greetings, complete with doves and pretty graphics, from family and friends for a happy and healthy new year.

It is clearly a time to connect with our loved ones, enjoy ritual foods and long lazy meals, but is there any more to it for most JT readers? How many of us really use this period as a time of genuine reflection?

The whole point of the High Holy Days is about atoning for our sins. Yet this concept seems so outdated on at least two levels. No one “atones” these days. And no one sins any more, unless you actually commit a criminal offence.

For the most part, anything goes in today’s society and the idea of stopping, reflecting and trying to improve as a person is not seen as terribly self-affirming.

Yes, society is very big on self-improvement, but that is usually focused on being stronger, better, more confident, happier and more content. We are encouraged to overcome adversity, build resilience and improve our lives.

The bookshops are stuffed with such self-improvement books with titles such as Conquer Your Fear, How to Get Everything You Want!, Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

But where are the books called How to Stop Gossiping About Others, How to be a Nicer Person or How to Stop Bitching About People on Social Media.

They don’t exist because the very idea that anyone is doing anything wrong, sinful or bad is anathema in today’s world where everyone is encouraged to believe in themselves and all that they do.

Recognising your faults and “atoning” for them is not generally part of this plan because that would require the very un-modern concept of self-blame and perhaps even a personality flaw, God forbid.

Self improvement in today’s society is all about building people up, not knocking them down.

Yom Kippur, with all its viduys and al chets, is potentially devastating on the self-esteem (I have done so many bad things! I am such a bad person!) and that just doesn’t sit well in today’s society.

More than this, many of the Jewish sins just don’t exist in the wider world.

Gossip? That’s encouraged with magazines and TV programmes. Being nasty to people? Sure, if they deserve it, let’s all let rip (see what happened to Roxanne Pallett, labelled the most hated woman in Britain for a misdemeanour on Big Brother).

Eating the wrong foods? Well, the only wrong foods these days are those with too much sugar and while this might be a “sin” in weight-watching terms, you are certainly not encouraged to wear sackcloth for it.

Lusting after people? Heck, that’s pretty much de rigueur these days in wider society. Even having an affair is often seen as justifiable (and you can go on Jeremy Kyle to prove it).

The world we live in doesn’t really lend itself to sin any more.

We can't do much wrong. We can do plenty that others disagree with, but actual sinning is a bit too self-hating.

And above all, we are encouraged to love ourselves, to build and maintain our fragile-esteem — not focus on our failings.

Yet, as a psychologist, I believe there is great value in the whole atone-and-forgive cycle. It is one time of the year when we can step out of our self-affirming box and recognise that actually — shock horror — we are not perfect.

Acknowledging our flaws does not have to damage our self- esteem. It is about recognising our faults — and taking steps to become better members of society.

And, most important, there is the belief that come neila at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we can hope that all the past is forgiven and we are free to start again with a clean slate.

We should take the time during the HHD period, between the scoffing of honey cake and the quaffing of the Palwin, to reflect on how we have treated our fellow human in the last year.

Have we made hurtful comments on Facebook? Have we been unkind in a public space? Have we been less supportive than we might have been?

Have we forgotten to ask about a friend’s problems? Could we have helped someone but chose not to? Could we have found more time for other people? Did we judge someone or jump to conclusions about them? Spread gossip or pass comment on another person? Damage their reputation?

To engage in such reflection means stepping out of the modern world where anything goes, everything can be justified and there is very little sin.

It means stripping away all that society-driven self-affirmation that encourages us to focus on how great, talented, clever, kind and brilliant we are, and instead focus on the real self — warts and all — so we can grow and develop as human beings.

Wishing you all a reflective New Year.


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