A Harvard student group is encouraging its members to tweet their sins.
When Jews around the world gather tonight for the start of Yom Kippur, they will confess their sins in a set of two prayers, the Ashamnu and the Al Chet. One thing stands out about the words of these prayers: The sentences are all in the first-person plural -- that is to say, "we." For example, the Ashamnu is a list of sins in alphabetical order (in Hebrew, not in translation), beginning: We have been guilty; we have betrayed; we have stolen; we have lied, and 22 more.
Perhaps you have not stolen or lied, but no matter. Someone in your community has, and in Judaism, confessions are a communal act. A sin by an individual is the responsibility of the whole. This notion seems to be at the heart of an experiment led by the Reform community at Harvard Hillel, which has been encouraging its members to confess their sins not under their breath during services, but publicly on Twitter, with the hashtag #AlChetHarvard. Some of the tweets will be incorporated into the group's Yom Kippur services.
One of the group's co-chairs, Michael Gil, explained to me over email, "Last year, we distributed cards on Rosh HaShana and asked people to write down their chets on the cards and return them to us before Yom Kippur services, where they were incorporated into the traditional liturgy. Aside from the obvious logistical challenges this approach created, I felt that it was still too distant from the community. Writing your thoughts on a piece of paper is a very solitary process. In twitter, we [Michael and his co-chair Alex Booth] saw an opportunity to encourage our community members to reflect upon the passing year in preparation for Yom Kippur, while also preserving some of the communal experience that we feel to be so central to High Holiday services."
So far, the experiment hasn't exactly provoked an outpouring of confessions; Gil says they've gotten about a dozen tweets. Some people may be put off by using a forum as mundane as Twitter for their spiritual introspection (as one person tweeted, "Not sure what to make of this"). But taking a look at the hashtag suggests that there is still something vital going on here: The quantity may be paltry, but the quality is striking. The twitter confessions are thoughtful, serious, and honest (discounting a few spam tweets from one troll). "I have judged people before getting to know them," reads one. Another: "I have sinned against them and You by not using my power as a citizen to influence our government for good."
These aren't glib; they're not chirpy. They're the words of people who are seriously engaged in the ideas of sin and repentance as Jews have been doing at this time of year for thousands of years. This year though, they've found a new outlet.