On Thursday, Jews across the globe will be observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. A day of revival and renewal, Jews prepare for the Day of Atonement by asking forgiveness from anyone we might have wronged throughout the year. The day of Yom Kippur is devoted to reflecting on the deeds of the past year and prayers asking God to forgive us, accompanied by a 25-hour fast.
And in this social media age of public shaming and the rigorous policing of a new moral purity, the values of Yom Kippur could not be more relevant. Put simply, Yom Kippur is the antidote to cancel culture.
The holiday serves as a model for healing personal divisions like those that have become deeply entrenched in our cultural zeitgeist. But unlike the unforgiving nature of our current cultural moment, Yom Kippur allows us to release the heavy burdens of our past by seeking to repair relations with those we’ve wronged, actively making our lives better for ourselves and others.
Essentially, Yom Kippur is the answer to our cultural reckoning: It’s a holiday that celebrates collective accountability as a means of healing. While its tone is perceived as utterly somber, its message is much more optimistic.
Yom Kippur demands that we be shaken awake. In that sense, it’s Judaism’s wokest holiday. Like social justice at its best, the holiday deepens our capacity for empathy, compassion, and resolve. It’s a holiday that seeks not to reprimand us but bolster personal growth. At its core, Yom Kippur teaches that you are more than the worst thing you’ve ever done, if you accept the call for change.
It’s a message that’s sadly missing from much of America today, which can be deeply unforgiving; all too often, the importance of self-growth and personal development is dismissed in favor of a slash and burn mentality.
The current social climate is sometimes described in religious terminology; our reflexive tribalism makes us evangelize some as “good faith” and demonize others as “bad faith.” We’re quick to dig into shame, but much less willing to extend the same grace toward those seeking redemption or forgiveness, or creating a culture of positive reinforcement that gives meaning to our failures.
Instead, our mistakes of the past become the defining part of who we are.
Yom Kippur teaches us that we must acknowledge our shortcomings and moral failures, but that failing is different from being a failure. It teaches us to build personal resilience to shame by cultivating a mindset for making the world more whole. And that mindset begins with how we see ourselves.
If you tell someone they are an irredeemably bad person, they will either believe that about themselves or double down and embrace their offense as a rebuke to those who tarnished their reputation in the first place. With exception for the most extreme circumstances, alienation and anti-normalization can’t be the answer to bridging our societal ailments.
I came to this understanding from a personal point of view. In 2019, I was formally diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum at 25 just a few weeks shy of Yom Kippur. The diagnosis helped me understand why I so often feel like a walking social blunder, and why I so often misjudge where irreverence fits within social codes. It’s also made me keenly aware of the dangers of transgressing in a world that places little value in forgiveness.
The intense experience of Yom Kippur the year I was diagnosed brought clarity to my many foibles. It gave me the headspace to contextualize some challenging aspects of myself more graciously.
It was then I realized Yom Kippur is a holiday about seeking resolve and renewal; at its best, it’s about transcending pain.
And it’s helped me navigate my reality better. In the digital age, we’ve become less people and more personas, brands with social currency. If your brand is under attack, so is your humanity. Your very being becomes disposable. Yom Kippur says, to the contrary: Your worth is deserving of constant renewal.
Yom Kippur teaches us how to transform our pain into purpose. To heal the world, first you must first heal yourself.
It’s exactly what America needs to repair the growing social chasm.
Peter Fox writes social commentary on anti-Semitism and is a founding member of the American Jewish Committee’s Alliance for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Follow him on Twitter @thatpeterfox.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.