For Sephardic congregations in Israel, the High Holy Day season starts this year on August 6, with the beginning of Rosh Chodesh Elul and the onset of the recitation of s’lichot, the penitential prayers. The Ashkenazic custom is to begin saying s’lichot the week before Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur, for both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, marks the culmination of these penitential prayers. On Yom Kippur, the shorter confessional paragraph, which is a key feature of the s’lichot service, is expanded upon. In addition to the short confession (a list of 24 terms, including, for example, “we have been presumptuous, done violence, framed lies, counseled evil and spoken falsely”), we recite a much larger list of complete phrases detailing our sins: “For the sin that we have committed before You by denying and lying, And for the sin that we have committed before You by bribery; For the sin that we have committed before You by scoffing, And for the sin that we have committed before You by slander.”
In America, Jewish confession basically is restricted to the High Holy Day period. This feels right and appropriate, since this time of year is dedicated to reflection and introspection. In Israel, confession (known in Hebrew as viduy) is said toward the end of every single regular weekday morning service. And, naturally, this is not enough for those confession-happy Sephardim: they also confess toward the end of every regular weekday afternoon service.
I am not all that happy to be reciting the confessional throughout the year. After all, in Judaism, unlike in Catholicism, the confession is not personalized. Whether or not you have indeed done all, some, or none of the sins on the list, you formulaically confess all of them in first-person plural. It’s hard to experience this kind of daily confession as meaningful. Daily formulaic confession risks turning the viduy into something rote and routine.
(It is appropriate to mention at this point that a personal confession may be inserted into the Sh’ma Kolenu section of the Amidah, the core weekday prayer recited thrice daily. This confession is completely optional, though, and you can receive 13 years of religious school education without its existence being called to your attention.)
Besides envying my Catholic friends for their ability to personalize their confessional, I envy them for the fact that at the end of confession they get an actual response (and in a certain way it is a divine response, for the priest acts as mediator between God and human beings and effects a reconciliation between them). Unlike Jews, who have to believe that our sins are forgiven, the priest, “through the Ministry of the Church,” announces to the penitent: “I grant you pardon and absolution for your sin.” Wow! What an extraordinary powerful experience I imagine this to be.
I came to this realization quite recently, after reading Louise Erdrich’s 2009 novel, “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse,” in which a woman ends up disguising herself as a priest and serving native Americans on a reservation. Her life as a priest is so meaningful that she turns down an offer of marriage from a fellow priest (!!) in order to continue in her vocation. (For more details: read this wonderful book.)
So I admit it: I’m jealous of the sacrament of confession in the Catholic Church. The ability to personalize our confession and the “live” absolution are lacking in Jewish confession. I’m not sure whether or not this jealousy would be confessable in Catholicism; in Judaism “jealousy” isn’t on the ritual list, so I guess I’m okay on that front.
End Note: I wrote to my religious Catholic friend Alicia Castilla in Miami with my appreciation for the power of Catholic confession. She responded in a way that I had not anticipated: “I place the emphasis on confessing because it is such a humbling act. I know the priest will say I am forgiven.”