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Yom Kippur – Online Confessions
Esther Allweiss Ingber
AtoneNet.com allows you to apologize anonymously —
but does it really allow you to atone?
Technology affects nearly every aspect of life today, so why not the Day of Atonement?
With Yom Kippur nearly here, some Jews comfortable with using the internet have taken to confessing or apologizing for their sins or shortcomings on an online site, AtoneNet.com. Submitters are assured that the moderator has no way of determining their identity.
David Zvi Kalman, who was raised Modern Orthodox, launched AtoneNet.com in 2013. He said his site is inspired by the long confession Al Chet, the centerpiece of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Worshippers ask God and each other for forgiveness for their sins or transgressions and commit themselves to acting differently in the new year.
As Kalman explained, “Since it is unlikely that any of us would willingly share our deepest shames publicly, I have set up a website where anyone can — anonymously — describe what they’ll be asking forgiveness for on Yom Kippur.”
Website visitors are invited to post their answers to one simple question: What do you want to ask forgiveness for this year?”
Local rabbis contacted from different streams of Judaism gave their views on the concept of Jews using an online confessional booth for their Yom Kippur atonement.
“I think the idea is OK if it is viewed as a way to motivate someone to atone in person if he or she has hurt someone. It cannot be a substitute,” said Conservative Rabbi Aaron Bergman of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. “It might be a good tool to help people forgive themselves if they have done things to harm themselves. It is probably also OK as a way to atone to God for religious-oriented sins, though I think there is a power to being in synagogue in person as part of a community.”
AtoneNet is “as good as any other technique of writing down regrets in order to help deal with them,” said Rabbi Jeff Falick, who leads the Humanistic Jewish congregation Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills.
Falick doesn’t see AtoneNet as an “apology site” because “who is there to receive the apology or accept efforts at reconciliation?”
Getting settled with God is of no concern in Humanistic Judaism, so “if we want to improve, we need to make right our wrongs with those whom we have wronged,” including wrongs to ourselves, he said.
Falick called AtoneNet “a place to vent about not living up to our own expectations and, as far as that goes, it’s a fine effort. It makes no sense if it’s seen as a way to reconcile with other people.”
Orthodox Rabbi Herschel Finman, co-director of Jewish Ferndale and the Jewish Hour radio program, considers the site “unnecessary, as the confessing of one’s sins is to HaShem, and HaShem doesn’t need the internet to hear one’s prayers.”
At the same time, he noted that “any tool that brings a person closer to HaShem is a good thing. If a person feels this is the proper method for them to get closer to HaShem, then baruch HaShem, they should use it.”
Rabbi Aura Ahuvia of Reform/Reconstructionist Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy said she doubted that Reform Judaism would have any prohibition against apologizing online.
She said her stream “tends to allow great leeway in allowing people to find what works for them. If someone would find it meaningful to apologize for their sin in this way, I’m not against the idea of trying it out.”
One benefit of an online apology is the “possibility of being noticed, despite the anonymity that the site provides,” she said. “If all one wanted was anonymity, you could simply confess alone and in private.”
She wouldn’t recommend the site, however, because of the Jewish tradition’s “insistence on confessing with one’s community. There is a great power in physically coming together to pray, which online sites miss.”
Much to his surprise, Rabbi Michael Zimmerman of Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogue in Lansing, said he felt pretty good about the website once he had a chance to review it.
Zimmerman said he could imagine a confessor “would feel some release by posting on AtoneNet, but whether this feels more or less like legitimate atoning than personal prayer really depends upon the individual and the kavanah (intention) behind the confession.”
Still, he sees that “conveying the illusion of public confession to one’s community under the protective shield of anonymity definitely has therapeutic value, just as when a therapist advises a client to write a letter to a dead parent or an ex-spouse, but not to send it.”
Confessing online, Zimmerman said, “could work in the case of someone who feels an unusual burden to confess without directly communicating with the parties involved.”
As for himself, “I’ll stay with the old tried-and-true methods” of private prayer and supplication for settling his own accounts with God.