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Atonement In Judaism, Christianity And Islam


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, begins at sundown next Tuesday. It's one of the holiest days of the year and marks a time for reflection and repentance. People of many faith backgrounds, and also those who are not especially religious, think about atonement, what it takes to achieve it, and how it affects their lives.

In a moment, three religious leaders on the role, rituals and meaning of atonement. We'd also like to hear from you. What place does atonement play in your life? We'd especially like to hear from faith leaders in the audience. Our number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, how to weather a hurricane. It takes a village. But first atonement. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman is a professor of Jewish liturgy at Hebrew Union College and editor of the book "We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism," and he joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

RABBI LAWRENCE HOFFMAN: What a pleasure being here, thank you.

CONAN: I wonder: What are your earliest memories of Yom Kippur?

HOFFMAN: When I was a child, I walked with my father, holding his hand, and I'll always remember how people lined up outside this tiny little synagogue in a tiny little town in Southern Ontario. And before they went in to pray, they emptied their pockets of money and dropped it into little baskets of charity.

And I learned then as a little kid that before you pray, you've got to take care of the world. My father never explained it to me exactly, but the look on those people's faces, figuring this is what they really had to do, has stayed with me to this very day.

CONAN: Was this one of those occasions where you felt, oh, I've got to do this?

HOFFMAN: Absolutely, and you know what? I still do it.


HOFFMAN: Other people give money, you know, at the end of December because of the tax write-off. I've done that with my taxes, but I make sure I do something before Yom Kippur.

CONAN: You of course then go on to become a rabbinical student, and then there's the day when you're called upon to conduct your first Yom Kippur service.

HOFFMAN: That's exactly right. Again a small town. I must confess that most of that day is a blur. They sent me into the little town with very little preparation, and I simply went through the prayer book as best I could. In those days I thought it was all about the prayer book, and I really knew very little about worship and about people.

Finally by the end of Yom Kippur, it was a long, long fast day, of course, and by the end of Yom Kippur, almost a miracle happened. I suddenly looked out at the people and realized that they really didn't care what I was doing. They were there just because they wanted to - I would like to say now, using a new word - reboot their lives. And that's what Yom Kippur is all about.

It's a sense of getting in touch with your life. I remember an old program on television I think called "This is Your Life," and somebody would come on and a parade of people would come by, and...

CONAN: Yeah, this is your third-grade teacher, Mrs. Lewis, yeah.


HOFFMAN: That's exactly right. Well, I kind of think of Yom Kippur as being "This Is Your Life." People come to synagogue not really realizing it, but actually from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, those 10 days, it's a time to review your life, and you get a parade of memories that pass you by and remind you of what you were like when you were a kid, what dreams you had and whether you've made them real and what you're really making of your life and offer you the chance to start again.

CONAN: Is it a day to catalogue sins and ask forgiveness?

HOFFMAN: It is a day to catalogue sins and, as you say, ask forgiveness, and that's where atonement comes in. In the very early days, in the biblical days, however, confession was not simply confession of sins, interestingly enough. It was - actually the Hebrew word really had to do more with a combination of confession and profession.

In the vernacular, it was sort of getting right with God. I mean, you went through your life and you said, OK, God, I did this all right, this all right, I slipped up there. It was more of a balanced view than we have today, but sometime by the first century, that balance was thrown off, and we began emphasizing sin more than anything else.

And that stayed with us really for some 1,700, 1,800 years. Now, of course, the balance has swung the other way. People have a lot of problem with the word sin. They don't like it. It sounds too medieval for them. It runs contrary to what they think the human potential is all about.

So nowadays our problem is to look at the word sin and give it some meaning in people's lives. So you need metaphors in order to do that.

CONAN: Well, as I go through the introductions, it's going to sound like an old joke: a rabbi and a priest go into a studio in New York.


CONAN: Reverend James Martin is a Jesuit priest and the author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: With Joy, Humor and Laughter" - "Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life." He's with us now, also at our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us.


CONAN: And sin, has it gone out of fashion in the Catholic Church?

MARTIN: Oh, not at all. I think as the rabbi was saying, people tend to be so focused on sin that they miss the point of something like the Sacrament of Reconciliation, you know, a.k.a. confession. I think many Catholics are very aware of sin. Some are not as aware as they should be of sin, but it's certainly not gone out of fashion, that's for sure.

CONAN: So the rituals, though, are different, obviously, in the Catholic faith.

MARTIN: Yeah, they are. I mean, there are seven sacraments. One of them is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which consists of confessing your sins, receiving forgiveness from the priest on behalf of God and the church and then doing penance, and that's where the atonement comes in. The atonement is usually seen as reconciling yourself to God and reconciling yourself to other people.

So it's not simply a punishment. It's a way of restoring one's self. You know, there's a great little mnemonic device: Atonement really means atonement, this idea that, yeah, we become one again with God and one again with our individual. So there's a much more - there's a much greater emphasis on the kind of communal aspect of penance and atonement.

CONAN: There are - these's sort of a mechanical aspect to some forms of penance: so many rosaries, so many Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

MARTIN: Yeah, and it's unfortunate because people kind of expect that. This is not breaking the seal, but a lot of people, when you give them something that's more substantive or more real, you know, I mean, if you've hurt somebody, to apologize to them, they don't want to do it. They say, well, just give me, you know, five Hail Marys and five Our Fathers.

But it's really about reconciliation with the community, and reconciling with God means reconciling with one another, and that's one of the prayers of the mass. So yeah, I think people have kind of grown up with this sort of rule-based idea of what sin is. If I do this, what's my punishment? You know, and that, that sort of, I think, distances people from an actual adult relationship with God, right?

I mean, it's about being in a relationship with God, not simply kind of checking off boxes and, you know, kind of paying the fine.

CONAN: Rabbi Hoffman, I wonder, is there an equivalent, you know, this is how you atone?

HOFFMAN: There is an equivalent, but it's not so clearly laid down. Essentially, atonement is a process of first coming to terms with what you've done wrong and fully admitting it. Admitting it to God is insufficient. You're supposed to admit it to people who you've actually harmed. And in fact in Eastern Europe, people write us memoirs of how they used to knock off work early before Yom Kippur because they had to spend a whole day hunting down the grocer or the street cleaner to tell them they were sorry because they remembered they did something two months ago to them.

So expressing sorrow is part of it. People to whom - who express their sorrow to you, you're supposed to forgive them. That's all part of it as well. And then finally when that's all done, then you come to terms with God, and you fast throughout the day.

Actually, Yom Kippur is sort of a dress rehearsal for your death. It's as if that day you say to yourself I might really die today. What if I've been - I've really sinned too much? And so here's your one chance then to come to terms with what you've really done.

And then of course one has to be committed to never doing it again.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in the audience, particularly those of you who are faith leaders. What's the role of atonement in your life? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Justin is with us from Fayetteville in Arkansas.

JUSTIN: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead, please.

JUSTIN: Well, I would start by saying that to be repentant is the turning of the heart completely, 100 percent, but that is only by the hand of God. And once you do that, you see the signs of it, but it has nothing to do with you. And you end up eschewing evil, as it says in the Bible, the Holy Bible, and cleaving to good, as it says in Romans 12:9, to abhor that which is evil and to cleave to that which is good.

And in the Old Testament, Amos 5:15, which I'll just throw in there, which means - it says hate the evil, love the good, establish judgment in the gate, and maybe that you will be accepted into the state of repentance.

CONAN: And in practice, how does it work? Is it a matter of prayer, individual prayer, or does confession play a part in it as well?

JUSTIN: Yes, it is a matter of prayer, and - but I have to - well, let me describe it just a little bit. It has to be sincere, and it has to be earnest. And a lot of what I see and what I've seen in my life is people do not even focus on that at all. They don't even try to focus on that. It has to be, as Jesus Christ said, with your entire being. You have to give your all to Christ the anointed.

CONAN: And can I ask what denomination you belong to?

JUSTIN: Well, I just call myself a Christian. But I guess you could call me a primitive Baptist also.

CONAN: All right, Justin, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

JUSTIN: OK, thank you.

CONAN: Bye. And I wonder, Jim Martin, I wanted to ask you about this process as you look toward it and look toward how other faiths handle this. What do you think we can learn as we look at other religious practices?

MARTIN: Well, I mean the Christians need to learn from the Jewish practices because that's where most of our practices came from. So, you know, and Jesus was a Jew and was called rabbi. So I think without an understanding of the Jewish traditions, you know, the Christian understanding of confession and forgiveness is, you know, almost meaningless.

I think Justin is right, though, in terms of this idea of conversion. Conversion means to turn back, and it is a turning back to God. But I would add that it's also - it's a daily thing. It's not a once-for-all thing. Conversion is a lifelong project.

And as he said it's, you know, it's thanks to God's grace. But, you know, I have to say, I don't know too much about the traditions in Islam, so I'm looking forward to hearing about them, but I do know that the Christians need to learn and have learned a lot from Judaism, which is something of an understatement.

CONAN: And Rabbi Hoffman, I think the Jews know that.

HOFFMAN: Well, I think we're at a stage now in human history where we do a good deal of learning from each other. I would say that Christianity as we know it arose in the first century and beyond, but that was the same period when rabbinic Judaism was emerging.

So it's helpful to see - to think not of Christianity as emerging out of Judaism but of Judaism, rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerging side by side out of the Hebrew biblical background. I think of Judaism and Christianity from that moment on as kind of a double-helix, circling each other in history and in dialogue with one another, sometimes happily, sometimes not so.

But I think this double-helix in history continues, and now of course we're joined by Islam and by a sense of world religion.

CONAN: Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman there. Also with us, Reverend James Martin. In a moment, we'll be joined by an imam who'll tell us about the role of atonement in the Muslim faith. Call and tell us: What place does atonement play in your life? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking today about atonement and the role it plays in various faiths and in the lives of those who aren't part of any religion. What place does atonement play in your life? We'd especially like to hear from faith leaders in the audience, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are: Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of Jewish liturgy at Hebrew Union College, editor of "We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism"; and Reverend Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest, the author of "Between Heaven and Earth - Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life," contributing editor for America Magazine, the national Catholic weekly. Both are at our bureau in New York.

And joining us now is Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, who serves as director of outreach for the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, former Muslim chaplain at Howard University. He's on the phone with us from Fairfax, Virginia. Nice of you to be with us today.

IMAM JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK: Excellent, Neal, and you've got a great hour of conversation.

CONAN: Oh, thank you very much. Let me ask you, though, I know you've been listening: How is atonement achieved in the Islamic tradition?

ABDUL-MALIK: Well, there really are five fundamental steps in what is called, in the Arab language, alba(ph).

CONAN: And the steps are?

ABDUL-MALIK: One, to admit that what you've done is wrong; two, to detest it in your heart; three, to commit to turn away from it and not to go back; four, to make restitution; and then five, to ask for God's forgiveness.

CONAN: And this sounds awfully similar to what we've been hearing from our rabbi and our reverend, wouldn't you say, Imam?


CONAN: Yes, wouldn't you say that this - the principles that you're talking about seem to be shared by all three faiths?

ABDUL-MALIK: Indeed, but there's something that I want to share that hasn't been mentioned, and that is that Miguel Ruiz in his "Four Agreements" said that one of the things that separates humans from other animals is that we punish ourselves over and over again for the same harms or sins or crimes. And so self-forgiveness is an important part of this process of atonement.

CONAN: I see, self-forgiveness, that's an interesting aspect. I wonder, Reverend Martin, what do you think?

MARTIN: Extremely important. Oftentimes people come to me in confession, and they've been forgiven for a sin, and they don't feel that they can forgive themselves. And it's - you know, it's sometimes called scrupulosity. And it's a very difficult thing for a lot of people, but it's very necessary.

And one of the things I always say to people to help them over that, is to say that, you know, God's love is, you know, greater than you can imagine. And even if you can't imagine yourself being forgiven, God's love, you know, as exemplified for example in the Parable of the Prodigal Son - you know, where the father welcomes the wayward son home - is greater than you could imagine.

But it is a difficult thing for a lot of people, self-forgiveness, and I think it's essential to move out of this idea of shame, you know, the difference between guilt over a sin and shame as in I am a bad person, so very essential.

CONAN: Rabbi Hoffman, I know Jews have no experience with guilt whatsoever.


HOFFMAN: Wouldn't that be wonderful? Actually, I'm quite moved by what I've just heard from those who are joining me in the panel because the notion of God's love is quite central to Judaism, as well. There's a saying that goes all the way back to the Talmud that says: Happy are you, oh Israel, for God loves you. Happier still are you, because you know that God loves you.

So the problem today is not God's love; the problem today is do people really know it. Much of our task, I think, is to help people know that God loves them and that love, in fact, does permeate the world.

CONAN: Imam Johari, I heard you trying to get in there?

ABDUL-MALIK: Indeed. This notion that - the Quran describes it: If our sins were to the heavens and we turn to God that God is capable of forgiving us. So this notion that human beings somehow or other need to go through and feel confident that in going through some process, some ritual, that they can become whole, that they can be restored again to God's perfect love.

CONAN: Let's get Nick(ph) on the line, Nick's on the line with us from Portland, Oregon.

NICK: Hey, Neal, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

NICK: I'm representing, well, I wouldn't call it a religion, more of a group that friends of mine and I started in Portland called the Church of Hype.



NICK: Our motto is we lounge for the light. And, you know, similar to some African cultures who don't have a word for music, we don't have a word for atonement. It's kind of something that happens every second of every day.

CONAN: And so is there any mechanism by which you bring your faults to light?

NICK: Well, you know, honesty and honesty in how you live; and what you do and the ability to make a mistake and know that that's OK, which is not something that you should be afraid of. Because as our group, the Church of Hype, likes to take risks, we know that, you know, mistakes are going to be made, and that's OK.

CONAN: All right, Nick, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

NICK: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Steve(ph), and Steve's with us from Elkhart, Indiana.

STEVE: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

STEVE: I wanted to just make mention of, you know, 12-step programs have become enormous worldwide, beginning with Alcoholics Anonymous, which published their book in 1939. And as a recovering alcoholic, I have to say that steps eight, nine and 10 very much formalize atonement. Step eight requires that I make a list of all people that I'd harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step nine, make direct amends to such people wherever possible. And step 10, it's to continue to take personal inventory. So I was interested that the rabbi had mentioned that - I mean, I'm a Jew myself - that Yom Kippur is often like looking at yourself, what would people say at your funeral, what would you do if this was your last day on Earth, and how would you be judged.

And as a guy who wrecked a lot of lives through my drinking and my behavior, this formally gives me the opportunity to atone for those sins, the behavior, the recklessness, sometimes even endangering people. So it is - I think it's profoundly changed American culture, but this is - Alcoholics Anonymous is worldwide, and I just wanted to know kind of how that brushes up against formal religion and how that's seen by one of the world's oldest religions, Judaism.

CONAN: Well, Rabbi Hoffman, can we get a response from you?

HOFFMAN: Sure, absolutely. I have a very high regard for the 12-step programs. The key to the 12-step programs is spirituality. And what we're seeing now in America, actually, is something of a problem in that synagogues and churches ,and I presume this is true of the Islamic experience, as well, I'm assuming that the problems exist throughout America, that the established, organized religious institutions are accused of not being spiritual.

So in fact what we're discovering now is that there's a huge search for spirituality everywhere across the country, and a lot of that has to do with the sense of self-worth and a sense of the reality of what we are as human beings. So I think in fact there's some catching up that religious institutions have to do towards the 12-step program to learn what spirituality is all about.

That I think is happening all around, but it's not happening fast enough, as far as I can see.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Tim(ph): It certainly doesn't take belief in one of the religions to learn to know the importance of forgiveness. It's just one of the most essential lessons of human experience, as is kindness, and it is just as important long - it was just as important long before the religious were created.

We are all flawed, and we make mistakes as we learn how to live our lives well. We grow in profound ways each time we draw ourselves up to forgive someone and also to forgive ourselves. Let's go next to Theo(ph), Theo's with us from Sterling, Virginia.

THEO: Yes, (unintelligible), I'm a rabbi of Jewish renewal, and I have a different outlook. First of all, we don't have an unforgiving God. We have a very trusting, loving God. And spirituality is a factor in all denominations today. Jews are flocking to other things, more Eastern. We are Eastern. I relate more to Judeo-Sufi than I do to Judeo-Christian, because there's nothing Christian about Jewish-ness - at all.

For me, it starts in the month of the Elul, which is before Rosh Hashanah, to make my list, to think about who I've hurt. Sin is not an awful thing, and God is a very forgiving God. So I start the month before Rosh Hashanah into Shanah(ph), which is a cleansing period. It's almost like going to a Mikvah.

It's a cleansing period for me, spiritually, to know that what I've done in the past is something that I need to be aware of in the future. And I wish that more Jews could be in this forum. I wish that more Jews could learn the things that Reverend - Rabbi Hoffman knows and the things that I know, the things that I teach, because it's really sad. It breaks my heart.

But I start very early in making my amends, and that's what I believe in, preparing my life and my home. And Le-Shana Tova. Shalom.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Theo. Imam Johari, I wanted to ask you: Is your God a forgiving God or a harsh God?

ABDUL-MALIK: You know, the common phrase in the beginning of any reading of the Quranic scriptures is Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, in the name of God, the most gracious and the most compassionate, that one of the attributes of Allah in the Arabic language is called Al-Wadud, the loving. So although God punishes, the verses in the Quran say that God's mercy exceeds God's wrath, that God is a loving God and created human beings to be loved.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. And let's go to Phil(ph), Phil with us from Montrose in Colorado.

PHIL: Hey, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

PHIL: I got lost in the sideline on that, but I wanted to agree with the imam about - I'm in a 12-Step Program, and I think you had one caller already...

CONAN: Yes, we did, yeah.

PHIL: The idea that we have to forgive ourselves is one of the key things in the 12-Step Program in AA - that usually is in four and five - and that forgiveness of ourselves comes first because we can't forgive other people, or, I mean, we can't ask other people to forgive us if we don't understand and return to our own integrity, which I think is another translation for the word righteousness. That in - when we find our integrity through the fourth and the fifth step, then we're able to make amends, which is not the same thing as saying I'm sorry. It's saying I want to repair the harm done. Thanks.

CONAN: Reverend Martin, I know you have some experience with AA.

MARTIN: Yeah. I also wanted to say that a lot of the spirituality of AA - or at least some of it - is, you know, sort of influenced by Christian spirituality. The spiritual director of the founder was a Jesuit, and so you see a lot of parallels in Jesuit spirituality.

But also I think there's a real insight in the kind of formalization of the confession. I've heard a lot of the AA kind of - what we call in the Catholic Church, general confession, but that step where they have to make a kind of real accounting of their sins to someone.

And I think it's - it sort of dovetails with our understanding of the ritual of confession. It helps to do it to another person. It makes it real. And to force a person to, kind of, say those words, I think, can be really healing for somebody, and it really concretizes it.

So I work with people who are Christians, who are going through the 12-Step, non-Christians, nonbelievers, Catholics, and it can be very powerful. And it really is, to use the word of one of our previous callers, it really is a conversion. It's a real turning back.

CONAN: Thanks, Phil.

PHIL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about atonement. Our guest, you just heard Reverend James Martin, author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of Spiritual Life," a Jesuit priest. Also with us, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of Jewish liturgy at Hebrew Union College, editor of "We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism;" and Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of outreach for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, and he's with us by phone from Fairfax, Virginia. The other two guests are with us from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Caroline's(ph) on the line with us from Marshall County, Illinois.


CONAN: Hi, Caroline. Go ahead.

CAROLINE: I just wanted to share my own experience. I'm a minister in a Protestant church. And out of the blue, one day, I received a phone call from another minister who had been very sorrowful about something that had happened 15 years before. And it was something that we both had individually sought forgiveness for. But it wasn't until he called and we were able to apologize and seek forgiveness from one another, that we were really able to heal and to move on from that.

And it really changed my - not only my personal experience, but my ability to minister to people in my congregation who have done things that have hurt other people and who have been hurt by others who really have a hard time with that sort of recurring guilt or fear or sorrow or whatever it might be that still plagues them after the fact.

CONAN: And do you counsel them to seek out the person who they harmed and ask for forgiveness?

CAROLINE: Absolutely. And...

CONAN: And do they take your advice?

CAROLINE: They do. Sometimes it's an uncomfortable situation for them. Most of the time, it is. But being able to share with them how much my life was changed through that, and how much this other minister was able to grow through the experience, I think that that really changes and shapes their confidence in going into that experience. And they may have to go up to somebody and apologize for something that often is a very big event.

CONAN: Hmm. Well...

ABDUL-MALIK: Neal, I want to jump in for a minute. I don't want to leave this point, that sometimes in the process of this atonement and the making of restitution or repairing the harm or informing the person, oh, I'm the one who did so and so and please forgive me, there is one caveat with this. And that is if we're not going to do more harm by confronting the issue, because often that atonement is really about getting it off of our chest while laying a heavier burden on the people who we've harmed.

CONAN: That's an interesting point. I hadn't thought about it that way. Caroline, thank you very much for the phone call.

CAROLINE: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: And I want to thank our guests. You just heard Imam Johari Abdul-Malik. He's the director of outreach for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center and a former Muslim chaplain at Howard University. Thanks very much for being with us today.

ABDUL-MALIK: Thank you.

CONAN: And our thanks as well to Reverend James Martin, a Jesuit Priest, the author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life." Appreciate you being with us.

MARTIN: My pleasure.

CONAN: And Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, happy New Year.

HOFFMAN: And thank you for having me, and a happy new year to all the listeners who'll be looking forward to Yom Kippur, and I hope it's a renewal for those who, in fact, find their way into prayer at that moment.

CONAN: Rabbi Hoffman, professor of Jewish liturgy at Hebrew Union College. Coming up next, we're going to talking about the community arrangements that help communities survive disasters, how to survive a hurricane. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.