“We’ll address it in other ways, through a prayer for peace,” Kalender said of the rising tensions between Israel and Iran. The key, he said, is not letting the conversation wander into partisan American politics, particularly on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. “I’m trying hard personally and for the congregation not to get lost in the potentially frightening existential questions. But we have to acknowledge them.”
Yom Kippur presents a test for American rabbis this year, who must guide Jews through perhaps the most personal and soul-searching day of the year in the midst of a brewing nuclear standoff in the Middle East and an American presidential election. Should they discuss Israel, and how? Should they risk setting off partisan bells with mentions of sanctions vs. war? Is Yom Kippur the day to make American Jews deal honestly with how close they feel — or don’t — to Israel?
From Tuesday sunset to Wednesday sunset, Jews are told to envision and pray about their own death in order to force a square look at themselves, their lives, and what they need to heal and improve to be nearer to God. They wear white and fast to intensify the day.
Yet even as Yom Kippur demands pursuit of the spiritual, the worldly is imposing itself this year.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday — a coincidence one local rabbi called “profoundly ugly” — and perhaps repeat the comments he made this week about “the occupying Zionists” who he says are dragging the United States into a possible war. Iranian leaders in the past have threatened to eliminate Israel, and Israel and the United States have said they won’t allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb. It’s unclear whether that is happening, and Iran says it intends to simply develop a peaceful nuclear power program.
On Monday, several major organizations of Orthodox American Jews released what one leader called “an exceptional request” for congregations to let politics and prayer mingle.
The statement by the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, and the Orthodox Union asked people to “pray for an end to the threat of a nuclear armed Iran.”
Yom Kippur prayers say God decides on this day who will live and who will die in the coming year and “which nations shall face war and which shall enjoy peace.” These words, the statement said, “prompt us to contemplate with anxiety the fate of the state of Israel and her people, of Jews throughout the world and, indeed, of civilization as a whole.”