Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, begins Sunday night, as Jews join in fasting and praying to reconcile themselves, after a year of trespasses, to God and their fellow humans. For some Jews, it will be a day of real reckoning. But the day's rituals probably won't lead to lasting improvements in the characters of most worshipers. If, somehow, Jews actually are better people in the first weeks of our New Year, we soon revert—before Hanukkah, I'd say—to our old sinful ways. We rediscover the pleasures of gossip, greed, and sloth. New Year's resolutions are New Year's resolutions, after all.
The rabbinic sages knew this, which is why they never intended for Yom Kippur to be the only day of atonement, just the most important one. The Jewish tradition provides for a daily prayer of contrition, called tachanun. But with the spread of Reform and Conservative Judaism, few of whose adherents pray daily, its recitation has become scarce. In this fall away from regular contrition, Jews are hardly alone, for tachanun's slide into desuetude has mirrored a similar trend among Christians. The Christian faithful, too, used to steadily make confession. But the Reformation nearly killed off the practice among Protestants, and in the 40 years since Vatican II, Catholics have also dropped the practice en masse. On this Yom Kippur, Jews and Christians may wonder if a return to old rituals of accountability might do us some good.
Reform Jews do not pray tachanun. But for Orthodox and even Conservative Jews—a majority of American Jews, that is—its recitation is supposed to be daily, with the exception of the Sabbath, festivals, and other joyous occasions, like the day of a wedding. Tachanun means "supplication," and its text varies depending on one's prayer book and ethnic rite. The prayer generally begins by repeating David's cry in Samuel II, "Let us fall, I pray thee, into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are many, but let me not fall into the hand of men." Worshipers used to enact this "falling" by lying completely prostrate on the floor. Today, one sits and buries one's head in the crook of an arm instead. David's invocation is followed by Psalm 6 (for Ashkenazi Jews) or Psalm 25 (for Sephardic Jews), and the prayer ends with a pleading for mercy. In the Conservative movement's translation, "Do not hold former sins against us; meet us with your mercy; for we are brought so very low."
It's impossible to know how many Jews think contrite thoughts while praying tachanun. Only a minority, even of the Orthodox, are fluent in Hebrew, so while the words are deeply moving, their urgency may not be apparent to most worshipers. And most weekday services I have seen are conducted at such breakneck speed that real meditation on the words' import would be an unlikely feat. Finally, tachanun has purposes other than begging for forgiveness; it's a general prayer of unburdening, not just of one's sins but also of one's worries and fears.
Nonetheless, putting your head down in your arm somehow reminds you that prayer is meant to be humbling, a gesture of one's own weakness. The first time I saw this embodied contrition, it was almost embarrassing to watch. It seemed to render the worshipers so vulnerable.
That, I would guess, is what the Catholic rite of confession is like: naked, unprotected, scary. And just as tachanun has declined among Jews, confession (once officially known as penance, now as reconciliation) has become far less routine among Catholics, many of whom no longer know that it's required. Its decline has numerous causes. In the United States, fewer Catholic neighborhoods exist to reinforce religious observance. Vatican II's emphasis on empowering the laity led many to question their rituals for the first time, and millions decided that rote recitations of sins were unnecessary. Then, too, the status of priests has been falling for decades, and the recent pedophilia scandals make them seem the most unlikely of confessors to many. All told, confession has in the past hundred years gone from being the most popular Catholic ritual, more frequent than communion, to something of a relic. In an excellent 2002 article, Boston College professor James O'Toole notes that in 1900, four priests heard confession in Sacred Heart parish in Newton, Mass., for five hours every Saturday. By 1991, the parish was down to one priest for an hour and a half, who was "adding hopefully 'anytime by appointment,' " O'Toole writes.
For Protestants, the end of confession was a matter of Reformation theology. In overturning Catholic rites, most Protestant sects replaced confession to a priest with private confession to God. The Anglican churches, including the Episcopal Church in the United States, have retained confessional language in the Book of Common Prayer: "We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone," reads the confession from the Book of Common Prayer's Rite II. "We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent." And Anglicans still offer what is called the Rite of Reconciliation, which is said by a priest and parishioner together and may entail a recounting of the sins one has committed. But this rite is rarely used; one Episcopal priest told me that in five years with her current parish, she has heard private confession "maybe six times total."
It would be naive to think that more people performing more regular rites of contrition would instantly change the world. Regular Catholic confession did not prevent the Crusades. And I doubt that Jews were better people when they occasionally practiced now-archaic contrition rites like malkot, in which a Jew would lie on his face in synagogue the day before Yom Kippur while another lashed him 39 times with a leather strap. There's no evidence that Episcopalians who do penance are more humane than Pentecostals, who have abandoned priestly atonement rites. (Regular attendance at religious services does seem, however, to correlate with higher rates of charitable giving.)
But theologically speaking, the hope is not that my act of atonement will enact improvement on a broad scale—it's that the observance will help improve me. If there's one area in which ancient religions and modern secularism are in accord, it's that our thoughts can influence our actions. Paying close attention to our failings can help us overcome them—this is why Alcoholics Anonymous works, after all, and why many people benefit from psychotherapy. Tachanun provides a routinized opportunity to take stock of the promises we make to ourselves. Saving up a year's worth of sins for Yom Kippur, on the other hand, can make them seem either impossible to recollect or too great to surmount. The goal is the same, to hold oneself to account, but it can elude us on the day that we feel most required to find it. Tachanun, like confession, offers chances throughout the year to find help along the way.