There has always been an element of protest in Jewish religiosity. We can picture ancient biblical prophets like Nathan or Amos or Jeremiah ranting at someone, or no one, or everyone about even small injustices inflicted upon seemingly unimportant people. We can imagine their grim visage on such occasions, illuminated paths of sweat scoring their dusty faces, hair held akimbo over penetrating eyes.
How did these ancient men cultivate moral acuity? Where lies the origin of a social conscience?
Wasn’t it the ancient Jewish prophet Amos who said that one slight act of justice made on behalf of the weak, one reckoning in preference to the poor, perhaps performed in a half-morning’s time, was better religion than half a year of pious temple-going psalmody? Better to right a wrong than sway in the Holy of Holies.
Bittul ha-Tamid is the Jewish practice of ceasing liturgical worship in order to emphasize and publicize a wrong. It was performed in the Middle Ages, often as an act of protest, sometimes as a complaint about a wealthy man’s treatment of a poor man.
It’s an ingenious idea, and one that could be exported to other monotheisms. The sign on the church/mosque/temple door reads: “We are not holding services today.” “Why?” asks the jangled assembly? The reply could describe any one of several committed wrongs performed by the very religious institutions that temporarily shut their doors to commerce.
Could religious bodies carry out bittul ha-tamid for injustices performed long-ago by those very religious bodies? If so, what would be a suitable length of time to discontinue services in order to call attention to those wrongs? Is there somewhere a calculus to gage the degree and duration of harm caused and then recommend a length of time for bittul ha-tamid? Are any wrongs so egregiously offensive that religions might shut their doors for an entire century in order to advertise and atone for those wrongs?
We Americans speak of reparations for 300 years of slavery and the imposition upon Blacks of third-class citizenry. Dollar amounts have been proffered, which would be a kind of financial repentance enacted by the State.
But what of moral regret? How can a religion like Christianity enact moral remorse, a remorse that could be measured by more than ten centuries of injury? There have been many targets of Christian violence over the centuries: pagans, heretics, apostates, Jews, Muslims, ‘witches,’ ‘savages,’ slaves, infidels, atheists, gays, prepubescent boys.
We might hope to someday see devout Christians hanging this sign on church doors:
In commemoration of 1500 years of injury, this building is closed for bittul ha-tamid. Next opening, next century.
In small print, we might hope read the following annotation:
“Our atonement for the Centuries of Violence will be a Century of Silence. Churches (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) will be draped in black, their lights dimmed. Devotees may enter the sanctuaries, but no speech is to be uttered. No words of liturgy. No services. No whispered prayers. No hymns. There will be no published works. No theology. No encyclicals. Not a word from the Churches for one hundred years. Bittul ha-tamid. In addition, we will double our acts of human kindness in this penitential century. For all those who live in this Century of Silence, consider yourselves fortunate to contribute to the atonement.”