The month long recitation of Selihot provides Sephardim with ample opportunity to consider the sometimes theologically challenging language of penitence. Rabbi Gaguine (1884-1953), in his monumental work ‘Keter Shem Tob’ on the Western Sephardic minhag (custom), raised several of these questions. Rabbi Gaguine served the S&P communities of Manchester and London and his work is an incredible repository of the worldwide Jewish customs. He asked why we include the sins of our ‘fathers’ among our transgressions (anahnu vaabotenu), or why we lament sins that we know we have not comitted. Rabbi Gaguine writes that he once posed to his students ‘why is it that we pray in the plural – we sinned, we transgressed (ashamnu…), when we should be saying ‘I sinned’ in the singular?’
(I’ve had the pleasure to study the sefer following services at Bevis Marks whilst enjoying breakfast with my fellow minyan goers. Newcomers welcome!).
In explanation R Gaguine develops the idea of collective responsibility and punishment. All of Israel is tied together, and so when one Jew sins it is as if we have all sinned, and therefore we seek forgiveness even for sins committed by others. This principle is rooted in the Biblical commandment of rebuking one’s fellow. The verse states ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart, surely you shall rebuke your fellow, and do not bear sin because of him (Leviticus 19:17).’ The verse is parsed with great variety by the different Biblical commentaries. Typically though, it is understood as an imperative to rebuke one’s fellow, lest they transgress, and you be held collectively culpable.
Maimonides though, offered a novel, and incredibly important alternate interpretation. He understood the verse to be considering a scenario in which one had already wronged his fellow. As a result of the insult there is a feeling of animosity. This leads the wronged party to transgress the verse’s opening sin of ‘do not hate your brother in your heart.’ To combat that outcome the Torah teaches that a person should approach (i.e. rebuke) their wrongdoer in an effort to seek reconciliation, and not ‘sin on their account.’ In other words, the objective of confrontation is not religious superiority, but understanding and peacemaking. In fact, according to Maimonides if a person can find it in their heart to forgive without the need for a preliminary debrief, then all the better. According to this approach the only place for ‘rebuke’ is for the purpose of peace. Rebuke is not for policing, only for peace making. (Yesode HaTorah 6:6,9)
Rabbi Gaguine actually reflected on the ‘custom’ to send New Years cards. While it has no real origin in Jewish tradition, he quite liked it. Basically, anything that brings people closer together, especially after a falling out, is a good thing.
This of course brings us full circle to the language of collective sin in the Selihot. When we pray with others in mind we are not condemning, nor are we saying that we are culpable by association. It is not our job to judge but to justify – to find the best in others. The inclusive language of prayer is about collective caring. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. This is our way of showing that we believe we are all in this together. It isn’t each man for himself. None of us is perfect, but unified hopefully we make each other better.