Bob Schwartz

Tag: Yom Kippur

Day of the Purge: The Random Goats of Yom Kippur

No matter how many layers and centuries of rabbinic interpretation and tradition overlay Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holy days, we are educated by going back to basics and to the foundations. In the case of Yom Kippur, that means back to the Torah.

“And it shall be a perpetual statute for you: in the seventh month on the tenth of the month you shall afflict yourselves and no task shall you do, the native and the sojourner who sojourns in your midst. For on this day it will be atoned for you, to cleanse you of all your offenses, before the LORD you shall be cleansed. It is a sabbath of sabbaths for you, and you shall afflict yourselves, an everlasting statute. And the priest shall atone, who will be anointed and who will be installed to serve as priest in his father’s stead, and he shall put on the linen garments, the sacral garments. And he shall atone for the holy sanctuary and for the Tent of Meeting, and he shall atone for the altar, and for the priests and for all the assembled people he shall atone. And this shall be an everlasting statute for you to atone for the Israelites for all their offenses once in the year.” (Leviticus 16:29-33, Robert Alter translation)

We refer to Yom Kippur (short for the Hebrew yom hakippurim) as the Day of Atonement. But some offer the English translation “the Day of Purgation.” It is the day, according to Leviticus, on which the high priest was allowed to enter the holy of holies of the Tent of Meeting to purge it of the transgressions that had accumulated over the course of year—a dirty accretion that can be thought of as a sort of a dense smog.

Leviticus prescribes a detailed purgative procedure for Aaron to perform. It involves, among other things, a bull, a ram and two goats. Only one of the goats will be sacrificed. But which one?

And from the community of Israelites he shall take two he-goats for an offense offering and one ram for a burnt offering. And Aaron shall bring forward the offense-offering bull which is his and atone for himself and for his household. And he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And he shall put lots on the two goats, one for the LORD and one for Azazel. And Aaron shall bring forward the goat for which the lot for the LORD comes up, and he shall make it an offense offering. And the goat for which the lot for Azazel comes up shall be set live before the LORD to atone upon it, to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:6-10)

Who is Azazel? Why is he being sent a wandering goat in the wilderness? And why is the goat being chosen at random by lottery?

Robert Alter:

one [goat] for the LORD and one for Azazel: As countless seals and other ancient inscriptions unearthed by archeologists attest, the use of a proper name or title, prefixed by the letter lamed (“for”) as a lamed of possession, was a standard form for indicating that the object in question belonged to So-and-so (as in lamelekh, “the king’s”). These words, then (in the Hebrew, each is a single word, leYHWH and la‘azaz’el), are the actual texts written on the two lots. Much ink since Late Antiquity has been spilled over the identity of Azazel, but the most plausible understanding—it is a very old one—is that it is the name of a goatish demon or deity associated with the remote wilderness. The name appears to reflect ‘ez, goat.

for which the lot for the LORD comes up: This translation renders the Hebrew verb literally. The use of that verb may be dictated by the fact that the lots were in all likelihood pulled up out of a box or urn.

to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness: Approximate analogues to the so-called scapegoat ritual, using different animals, appear in several different Mesopotamian texts. The origins of the practice are surely in an archaic idea—that the polluting substance generated by the transgressions of the people is physically carried away by the goat. Azazel is not represented as a competing deity (or demon) rivaling YHWH, but the ritual depends upon a polarity between YHWH/the pale of human civilization and Azazel/the remote wilderness, the realm of disorder and raw formlessness. An unapologetic reading might make out the trace of a mythological plot, even if it is no more than vestigial in this monotheistic context. It is as though the goat piled with impurities were being sent back to the primordial realm of “welter and waste” before the delineated world came into being, but that realm here is given an animal-or-demon tag. The early rabbis, extending the momentum of the ritual, imagined the goat as being pushed off a high cliff, but in our text it is merely sent out, or set free, in the wild wilderness that is the realm of Azazel.

Jewish Study Bible:

The use of the two goats is similar to that of the two birds in Leviticus 14.4–7, 49–53. The lottery determines at random how each goat is to be used.

Azazel: The Rabbis cleverly divided this name into two words “ʿez ʾazel,” “the goat that goes away,” from which the traditional “scapegoat” is derived. It literally means “fierce god” and as intimated by the medieval exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra is evidently the name of a demon or deity believed to inhabit the wilderness. Thus the sins of the people are symbolically cast into the realm beyond civilization, to become the property of a being who is the antithesis of the God of Israel. Though Azazel accepts the goat bearing Israel’s sins as a sacrifice to him, this is no disloyalty to God since He Himself commands it, as Naḥmanides (Ramban) says: It is as though a king ordered “Give a portion [of this feast] to my servant so-and-so.”

Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Howard Schwartz:

The custom of sending a scapegoat out into the desert as an offering to Azazel is clearly a remnant of a pagan ritual.

In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 51, God identifies the scapegoat as an atonement for Himself: “This he-goat shall be an atonement for Me, because I have diminished the size of the moon.” See “The Quarrel of the Sun and the Moon,” p. 112, which concludes with God diminishing the moon. We should not overlook the strangeness of God feeling the need to atone. This is reminiscent of Jung’s portrayal of God in Answer to Job. This is one more example of the kind of personification of God so commonly found in rabbinic sources, where God also studies Torah, suffers, mourns, puts on tallit and tefillin and prays.

Who was Azazel, to whom the scapegoat was sent? This appears to be a remnant of a pagan myth in which Azazel was some kind of desert god. Thus the scapegoat represents a sacrifice to the forces of evil. In modern Israel, the phrase “Lekh le Azazel” means “Go to hell!”

A description of the sacrifice of the scapegoat is found in B. Yoma 67a: “On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) a goat was thrown off a high cliff in the desert, to atone for the sins of the Jews. A red ribbon was hung up in the Temple on that day. When the goat was thrown off the cliff, the ribbon turned white.” This description links the Temple and the sacrifice of the scapegoat, viewing it as a kind of remote Temple offering. The transformation of the ribbon from red to white confirms this.

What to make of all this, in the year 5779/2018? There is no Temple, no Tent of Meeting, no holy of holies. For most of us, there are no goats being chosen by lottery and sent to Azazel, and no Azazel.

Today we live and worship in the interpretation and symbolizing of these Torah stories and ancient roots. But at Yom Kippur, one thing to pay attention to in this is the role of randomness on this solemn occasion. It is not the only instance where randomness plays a part in the Torah.

In the Torah, of course, the seemingly random is no such thing. The lot pulled out of the box is supposedly pre-arranged by God (to quote from Leonard Cohen, as I did in my previous post, “everybody knows the dice are loaded.”)

Yom Kippur is arranged as a soul-searching transaction. Consider what you do, because when you do this that happens. Adding the element of randomness doesn’t change that; it just adds another dimension of reality. Things happen by cause and effect. Things also happen at random. The two are inextricably integrated. You can’t pick the “wrong” goat to send to Azazel, not because God fixed the lottery, but because it is always up to you, wandering like that goat in the wilderness. Just much more aware and thoughtful.

 

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Leonard Cohen on Yom Kippur: Who By Fire

A signature prayer of the Days of Awe is Unatenah Tokef:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah [return and prayer and righteous acts]
deflect the evil of the decree.

Unatenah Tokef inspired Leonard Cohen to write the song Who By Fire. He restates the prayer poetically, and adds this question:

And who shall I say is calling?

On Yom Kippur, some number of Jews who don’t usually attend services will find themselves not only at a service, but at one on the holiest day of the year, being asked to consider their lives in light of a theology of divine judgment. Some will believe that individual acts are weighed, some will believe that the whole year or a life are taken into account, and some will not believe in any of it at all.

That is where the question comes in. If you engage in the communication on Yom Kippur, or at any time, who is on either end? Is there someone here, is there someone there? Who shall I say is calling?

Who By Fire by Leonard Cohen:

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt
And who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident
Who in solitude, who in this mirror
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand
Who in mortal chains, who in power
And who shall I say is calling?

Yom Kippur Picnic

Emma Goldman’s dislike of religion is evidenced by her participation in events such as this [Yom Kippur Picnic], scheduled on Jewish holy days.
Jewish Women’s Archive

We were invited to a picnic this Saturday. We declined. Because it is Yom Kippur, a fast day and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Curiosity led to discovering that there were once not only Yom Kippur Picnics but Yom Kippur Balls.

Eddy Portnoy writes in Tablet:

When Jews decide to chow down on Yom Kippur, it’s usually done clandestinely, sneaking tasty morsels in a dark pantry, or disappearing into a diner in some nearby non-Jewish neighborhood. But furtive noshing wasn’t always the heretical path of choice on the Day of Atonement. Just over a century ago, a range of leftists held massive public festivals of eating, dancing, and performance for the full 25 hours of Yom Kippur, not only as a way to fight for the their right to party, but to unshackle themselves from the oppressive religious dictates they grew up with. What does one do, after all, when prayers and traditional customs no longer hold any meaning yet you still want to be part of a Jewish community? Eating with intention on a fast day allows you, in one fell swoop, to thumb your nose at the religious establishment and create a secular Jewish identity.

These Yom Kippur Balls, organized initially by anarchists in the mid-1880s, started in London and migrated to New York and Montreal. Smaller nosh fests and public demonstrations were also celebrated by Jewish antinomians in other locales. Unorthodox Jews in interwar Poland could pull hundreds of locals into small venues on Yom Kippur in shtetls like Kalish and Chelm; in larger cities like Warsaw and Lodz, they could sell out 5,000-seat circuses. Heresy was big business; tickets for early 1890s Yom Kippur events cost 15 cents for anarchists: capitalists who deigned to attend paid double.

There’s no suggestions here about what Jews of any religious or political stripe should do about fasting or partying on Yom Kippur. As with all such things, there is what your society or community expects you to do, what your God demands that you do, and what your heart and mind tell you to do. If there is a paradise, Emma Goldman is probably there, still railing against injustice, still noshing on Yom Kippur.

 

Yom Kippur Lesser Hits

I see that a few of my older posts about the Days of Awe/High Holy Days are being read now. This is a gratifying, considering that when I read them myself, I am not all that happy with them (the writer’s curse).

It gave me the idea that maybe instead of writing something new about this Yom Kippur, which begins this evening, I would instead include links to some of the past posts.

For those who are Jewish and fasting, may you have an easy fast. For those who are not Jewish or not fasting, no worries. The opportunity to contemplate our lives is open every day to everyone, no matter who you are, no matter what you eat, or don’t.

Yom Kippur and Job

“Whether this is a day of reflection and fasting, reciting centuries-old prayers, or an ordinary day of work or study, managing others or being managed; whether you are Job beset by unexplained misfortune, or Job’s wife, ready to kill him if he doesn’t kill himself, or Job’s friends so quick with advice; whether you are being punished by God, Satan, or whatever other forces you believe are working against you; whether you are the smartest person in the room or not; this is what we can do, even if there is seemingly no comfort in it: Be awed. Be humble.”

Yom Kippur: A Serious Day for a Serious Man

“The movie closes with a note taken straight from the Book of Job. A tornado approaches. Will it be the voice of God out of the whirlwind? Or will it just be one more inexplicable disaster, one more serious touch of uncertainty? Who knows? Yom Kippur and every day, listen to Rabbi Marshak: Be a good girl or boy.”

Yom Kippur: Beyond the Self

“The tradition says that the Book of Life is open during the Ten Days of Awe. When the holy days end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the shofar sounds, the book closes and our lives will have been written for the next year. But the book is always open.”

Jonah, Yom Kippur, Iran and Irony

“Last week, Iranian psychotherapist Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged for, among other things, insulting the prophet Jonah.”

Why I Read the Qur’an This Yom Kippur

“You may believe in many respects besides religious—historical, social, cultural—that the Bible is one of the most important books in the world. You may also have to admit that in its impact, the Qur’an is its equal.”

The Book of Life (Days of Awe)

The Book of Life (Days of Awe)

Who writes
Who reads
The sentences
In careful paragraphs and chapters
That follow ancient codes?
Or the disjointed scrawl,
Random and indecipherable,
No system at all?
The contest is closing in days.
Who judges the book,
By what rules?
How will we know
If we win or lose?
Another new year growing old,
Another life on the shelf.

Live Streaming: High Holy Days at Central Synagogue

Central Synagogue

Central Synagogue in New York is one of the great synagogues and congregations in America.

If you are not attending High Holy Days services in-person anywhere, for whatever reason (don’t usually attend, not convenient, not Jewish, etc.), here is your opportunity to join in the services at Central Synagogue. Without leaving the comfort of wherever you have your PC, tablet or phone. For as little or as long a visit as you like.

Central Synagogue live streams its services. Here is just a partial schedule. (You can see the complete schedule here.) All times Eastern Time.

Erev Rosh Hashanah
Sunday, October 2, 8:00pm

Rosh Hashanah
Monday, October 3
Morning Service 9:30am

Kol Nidrei
Tuesday, October 11
6:00pm or 8:00pm

Yom Kippur
Wednesday, October 12
Morning Service 10:45am
Afternoon Service 3:30pm

No prayer books? No problem. You can download those from Central Synagogue too.

Rosh Hashanah Prayer Book

Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur Morning Prayer Book

Yom Kippur Afternoon Prayer Book

These are the highest of all Jewish services with the highest of all Jewish music and prayer on the highest of all Jewish holidays at one of the most extraordinary Jewish congregations with one of the most extraordinary rabbis. And all you need is a browser.

Selichot and Angels

 

Selichot

Do Jews pray to angels? Do all of us need all the help we can get?

The Jewish Days of Awe begin soon, starting with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of October 2, ending with Yom Kippur on the evening of October 11.

It is a time of teshuvah, often translated as “repentance”, but more precisely “turning”—that is, turning away from ourselves and our ways and to God and godly ways. To start the process of reflection, on a Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah a special set of preparatory prayers begin to be recited, known as Selichot. This year, Selichot begins tonight, on the night of Saturday, September 24.

The conventional cast of characters in the soulful dialogue of teshuvah and the Days of Awe are yourself, the people and world around you, and God. But Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis, in the fascinating Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, adds an unexpected player:

Machnisei Rachamim (Conveyors of Compassion)

This is a prayer petitioning the angels to intervene with God:

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makers of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

This prayer is only recited at Selichot, a penitential service recited prior to the coming of Rosh Hashanah.

This prayer is anomalous in that the rule that Jews should pray only to God, and not to intermediaries, extends back to Talmudic times: “If troubles come upon a person, do not entreat the angel Michael or the angel Gabriel. Rather, entreat Me alone and I will help you immediately” (J. Ber. 9:1). Maimonides makes this normative, “It is only fitting to pray to God and it is not fitting to pray to any other.”

The Maharal of Prague was sufficiently troubled by the appearance of this prayer that he amended the wording (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha’Avodah no.12), an innovation that did not catch on. In modern times, no less an ultra-Orthodox authority than the Hatam Sofer wrote that at Selichot he personally skips over this prayer (Orach Chaim no. 166), a shocking confession from the leader of a community that insists ALL of the tradition is sanctified and obligatory. The prayer has been entirely edited out of Selichot liturgy in the modernist Reform movement.

And yet at least one Midrash exists that endorses the idea of angels as intermediaries of our prayers (S of S R. 2:7). And many Jews worldwide recite the words barchuni l’shalom … (“bless me with peace”), when they sing the popular Shabbat hymn, Shalom Aleichem. This prayer is found only in the Ashkenazi (northern European) tradition, suggesting it was written when Jews were surrounded by a Christian culture that emphasized the use of divine intermediaries (saints) and even had services in honor of specific angels (Michaelmas).

The Radical Book of Job

The Bible is a radical document. Just ask Pope Francis, who will be visiting the U.S. for Yom Kippur. Just ask the conservative critics of Pope Francis, who have been made very uncomfortable.

The Gospels particularly offer subversive guidelines for individuals and society. But there is also much of this in the Old Testament. Take the Book of Job.

As a Bible text, the book of Job is one of the most complex and challenging for biblical translators, interpreters and scholars. So it is no surprise that it has been boiled down in common understanding and tradition to a simple story. A good man suffers, his faith in God is shaken, God explains, the man renews his faith, God returns him to good fortune. End of story.

Except that is not what happens. There are many ways to interpret Job that look nothing like that. A number of characters appear, do a lot of talking, and offer divergent views of what Job should do in the face of his intolerable burden. Most infamously his wife, whose recommendation to her husband is “Curse God and die.” Someone named Elihu makes a late brief appearance (likely the result of a later addition to the book), offering his own take on things. And of course, God has (almost) the final word.

In his overview of Job in The Jewish Study Bible, Prof. Ed Greenstein reviews the possibilities, including this one:

A second, and arguably even more prevalent, theme in Job is that of honesty in talking about God. The book examines and tests the limits of appropriate speech. The test of Job is all about speech—will Job, severely afflicted with anguish and physical distress, “blaspheme [God] to [His] face” (1.11)? The dialogues, it goes without saying, consist only of speech—there is no action within them. Job’s companions continually denigrate the way he talks (e.g., 11.2–4), and he feels he must beg to be heard (13.13). Their view is shared by readers such as the Talmudic Sage Rav, who suggests that “dirt be put in Job’s mouth” to silence him.

But while the friends regard Job’s discourse as no more than hot air, “useless talk” (e.g., 15.2–3), Job takes pride in his absolute commitment to speaking only truth (see 27.3–4). The radical turning point in the book comes at its conclusion: God turns to Job’s companions and reproves them for not speaking “truthfully” (nekhonah is adverbial) about Him as Job “My servant” had done (42.7–8). Job may not have arrived at the truth, but he had reason to believe in what he was saying, as it came to him honestly, unlike the words of the companions, who merely repeated uncritically the wisdom they had received. Seen this way, the book of Job promotes honesty in theological discourse and rejects a blind reliance on tradition.

Promoting honesty in theological discourse and rejecting blind reliance on tradition. A radical approach we can consider this Yom Kippur, along with the universe of our humble introspections and pleas for forgiveness. A radical approach that Pope Francis seems very good at. A radical approach missing in the hot air and useless talk we hear from so many of our self-righteous public figures.

Why I Read the Qur’an This Yom Kippur

Qur'an

There comes a time on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, when the official proceedings pause. In the space between morning and afternoon services, lunch on a fast day not being an option, some people engage in group discussions of matters biblical and theological. A sort of hungry High Holy Days Torah study.

This year, I read the Qur’an.

At Yom Kippur services, the Book of Jonah is read. I made that the topic of my High Holy Days blog post, writing that Jonah is a tale we tell to the youngest children, as if, literally, a five-year-old would get it. In fact, Jonah is unique among all Old Testament prophetic books, and may be one of the most variously interpreted texts in the Hebrew Bible. So if you or that five-year-old think it is the simple story of obedience to God and the power of repentance, you might think twice.

Then a few days later, it was reported that an Iranian psychotherapist had just been hanged for, among other things, misinterpreting the Qur’an and insulting the prophet Jonah. For those unfamiliar with the Qur’an, many of the major figures of the Bible—Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus, and others—make appearances there. Sometimes it is a quick mention, but they are important links in the chain leading to Mohammed. Jonah among them.

This then became for me the Yom Kippur of Jonah. The Book of Jonah is so short, four brief chapters, that it can be read in minutes. While I have read many of the suras (chapters) in the Qur’an, I had never focused on the role of Jonah.

My interest in Qur’an began years ago with an extraordinary 3-volume set, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Professor F. E. Peters. Peters is one of the leading scholars on the shared foundations of these faiths, and this work offers parallel scriptural excerpts from each on a range of themes. I was well-versed in the Bible, Jewish and Christian, but had never read a single word of Qur’an. This began my still-ongoing attempt to fill that gap.

Literacy and familiarity with Abrahamic scriptures—reading them, being aware of structure and content, knowing some of the theological and interpretive issues—might run from 0 (no knowledge) to 10 (comprehensive knowledge). On that scale, many if not most Jews would probably score a 2 for the Hebrew Bible (maybe higher if limited to Torah and assorted familiar books of the Tanach), 0 for the New Testament, and a negative number for the Qur’an, that is, a studied and sometimes antagonistic ignorance. No blame for any of that, though we hope that those who engage in discussion or offer opinions about them might do it with some measure of knowledge.

The sura Jonah (Yonus) in the Qur’an is not what a non-Muslim might expect. Jonah is mentioned only once in it at verse 98:

If only a single town had believed and benefited from its belief! Only Jonah’s people did so, and when they believed, We relieved them of the punishment of disgrace in the life of this world, and let them enjoy life for a time.

The next verse of the sura encourages the Prophet (Mohammed) to be patient in waiting for unbelievers to come around:

Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [Prophet] compel people to believe?

The more familiar biblical story is found at verse 139 of the sura Al-Saffat (37). As with many of the Qur’an’s recaps of these stories, it is very condensed:

Jonah too was one of the messengers. He fled to the overloaded ship. They cast lots, he suffered defeat, and a great fish swallowed him, for he had committed blameworthy acts. If he had not been one of those who glorified God, he would have stayed in its belly until the Day when all are raised up, but We cast him out, sick, on to a barren shore, and made a gourd tree grow above him. We sent him to a hundred thousand people or more. They believed, so We let them live out their lives.

It isn’t clear from the reports how the psychotherapist, who was leading a Qur’an study, insulted Jonah. It is true that much of official Islam “discourages” unorthodox translation and interpretation (in some cases with fatwas, imprisonment, and death). It is also true that translators, scholars, and teachers have continued to push the boundaries anyway, shaking up the tradition and risking it all.

If you have an interest in seeing what the modern generation of Qur’an translations reads like, see M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s The Qur’an: A New Translation (2005)
(from which the above excerpts are taken).

Don’t wait until next Yom Kippur. You don’t even need a holiday, Jewish or Christian. If you are of the non-Muslim Abrahamic persuasion, or even if you’re not persuaded at all, have a look at the Qur’an. You may believe in many respects besides religious—historical, social, cultural—that the Bible is one of the most important books in the world. You may also have to admit that in its impact, the Qur’an is its equal.

We hear regularly about how there are people killing for the Qur’an, or at least for their often misguided interpretations of it. Remember that there are also those trying to correct those interpretations, and they are dying for it.

Jonah, Yom Kippur, Iran and Irony

Mohsen Amir-Aslani

Sometimes coincidence is irony to the point of cruelty.

This week, the Book of Jonah is read as a part of the Yom Kippur service.

Last week, Iranian psychotherapist Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged for, among other things, insulting the prophet Jonah.

In a post last week, Jonah and the New Year, I gave free rein to biblical possibilities. I pointed out, “It is supposedly so simple a story that we tell it to the youngest children. It isn’t that simple.”

For many reasons, it is a good thing that I am not in Iran. It is also a good thing to be part of a faith and a country that not only tolerate interpretive iconoclasm but (theoretically) encourage and thrive on it. According to the report in The Guardian:

Mohsen Amir-Aslani was arrested nine years ago for his activities which the authorities deemed were heretical. He was engaged in psychotherapy but also led sessions reading and reciting the Qur’an and providing his own interpretations of the Islamic holy book, his family said….

According to the source, Iran’s ministry of intelligence was behind Amir-Aslani’s arrest. “He was initially held for making innovations in Islam and providing his own interpretations of the Qur’an but later he was accused of insulting prophet Jonah and also faced accusations of having sex outside marriage,”

This week, whether you read the Book of Jonah at Yom Kippur services or on your own, consider Amir-Aslani. We can do little directly about this aspect of Iranian life. And if we are not Muslims, there is little that we can do about the evolution of someone else’s religion, other than encouragement and modeling progressive behavior. The best we can do—and it is no small thing—is to honor openness in religion by demonstrating openness in our own religion. By supporting innovation, and making sure it is never tantamount to a capital crime.