Transcript: UU Identity, Jewish History & Atonement by Rev. Lynda Smith

Rev. Lynda Smith as graciously provided this transcript of her October 5th service.

UU Identity, Jewish History & Atonement
by Rev. Lynda Smith

Yom Kippur, the Holiest Day of the Year in the Jewish tradition ended yesterday. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Atonement, making amends. Asking & receiving, giving & accepting forgiveness, is hard work. It happens as two individuals meet and create community; in a way, two become one. At-one-ment. Each tries to feel how the other feels and tries to make it better. It starts with saying, “Sorry”.

The ancient Israelites had a ritual of symbolically placing their sins on the head of a goat—the scapegoat. In itself, this was not the act of atonement. No, it just symbolized all of the work that each individual member of the community had done, as they examined their lives and hearts for their own acts that may have caused hurt to others in the community over the course of the year. And they told their rabbi. Their rabbi/teacher recited all the mistakes and failings, the sins of all in the community for the past year.

I’m not going to recite you all my mistakes right now because it would take the rest of this service. Nor do I want to know all of your mistakes! But for the Jewish people atonement/forgiveness is their Highest of Holy Days—Days of Awe—and it is a reminder to us, like all good ritual, a reminder that we too are not alone in our need. We all make mistakes. We all fall down. And as religious community, this UU fellowship takes atonement and forgiveness seriously.

Here’s a story about our Unitarian ancestors in Eastern Europe in the 16th century (what is now Transylvania, Poland, Lithuania). These Unitarians were far from Rome and Roman Catholicism, far from the Germany of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation and the Swiss Calvinism of John Calvin. So in Eastern Europe there grew a more Radical Reformation, Reformation in its most progressive form. Free thinkers who were declared heretics by Catholic or Protestant powers took in Eastern Europe.

Unitarians who had unorthodox opinions about the nature of Jesus or the Trinity mixed with these heretics in exile and with the Jewish community and a hybrid religion flourished for a time. Interestingly, there were Unitarian communities that did not eat pork and who followed other Jewish traditions. Unitarian and Jewish leaders met to discuss theology. One such Unitarian minister, Martin Czechowic met Rabbi Jacob. Jacob and Martin met frequently. A friendship grew between them. In 1575, Martin published a book about their conversations and not long afterward Jacob published a response. They continued to meet and treat one another with respect.



But then something changed; Jacob felt Martin was ignoring him. Jacob confronted Martin, who only said he was indeed still open to conversation. But no conversation came; instead Martin published another book ridiculing Judaism as having too many meaningless superstitions.

And Martin had changed his view of Jesus from simply being a great teacher and entirely human to Jesus being one who should be adored. Martin wrote that Jesus had been elevated to divinity by being adopted by God and therefore should be the object of adoration, or worship. This adorationist theology was incompatible with Judaism. What had changed?

Well Martin felt the cultural rise of anti-Semitism and felt he had to distance himself from Rabbi Jacob. The short period of toleration between Judaism and Unitarianism ended as progressive theologians were excommunicated and some, including the famous Francis David, were imprisoned. David died due to the horrible prison conditions. Francis David who said, “God is One.” God is One. Over and over. And, “we need not think alike to love alike.” So sadly, the closeness between Jewish and Unitarian theology was lost due to anti-Semitism.

As UU historian and minister at the North Church in Ohio, Susan Ritchie, writes, “Positioned on the doctrinal border of Christianity, Unitarianism often found that its nearest theological kin were not Christian. Common causes developed and identities intermingled.” Susan goes on, “As the historian Daniel Boyarin has taught us, all heretical identities—perhaps even all religions—have hybrid identities at their origins.” (xvii, Children of the Same God)

Now back to 16th century Eastern Europe, where Unitarians had taught that the Christian concept of the Trinity alienated itself from its Jewish roots. The official doctrine of the Trinity encouraged Anti-Semitism. The Inquisition went to great excesses and violence in terrorizing so-called heretics. 16th century Michael Servetus, was the most famous anti-Trinitarian. He was familiar with Jewish commentaries both of early Christian times and of his time that questioned the basis of God being three in one: the father, the son and the holy spirit. In his book, The Errors of the Trinity, Servetus argues that the doctrine of the trinity unnecessarily separates Christians and Jews.

The followers of Servetus established many Unitarian churches in Eastern Europe, the most famous follower being Francis David. David argued that the Pope and the Catholic Church misunderstood scripture, a bold and dangerous assertion. David cited the biblical scholar Erasmus, who in 1516, proved in fact the error of this passage in the gospel of John, “There are three on earth that bear record in Heaven: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and these three are one.”

This scripture passage did not appear in the oldest manuscripts and was in fact a false addition inserted three centuries after Jesus. The trinity was something that Jesus never claimed. So these Unitarian theologians were saying that Jesus taught a renewal of Judaism, not a new religion. They found this understanding promising and stimulating, but such discussions were dangerous.

By the end of the 16th century Anti-Semitism had reached Eastern Europe. Michael Servetus was excommunicated by both the Catholics and the Calvinists. John Calvin had Servetus burned at the stake for his anti-trinitarian views. The Unitarians in Eastern Europe began calling themselves adorationists, those who adored and worshipped Jesus. So the idea of an identity between Judaism and Unitarianism went underground in European Unitarianism.

What’s important to know from this walk through history is that religion is about relationships; it is not a single thing. Religion in our understanding is an action and it is inherently multi-religious. Unitarian Universalists see religion as a mixing action and therefore inherently a movement toward reconciliation and atonement.

The point is that we all bear responsibility for creating a community that listens and hears and looks and sees. The Jewish New Year, in the northern hemisphere, is in the fall, a natural time for reflection and goal setting. Yom Kippur embodies a discipline of reflection and repentance. It is asking the right questions, learning from mistakes, and taking stock of our accomplishments and failures for the past year.

So we can ask ourselves. Have we made the most of our opportunities to serve and to comfort? Have we fulfilled all of our promises and obligations? Have we done things that we are ashamed of? What do we need to do to repay, to repair, and to ask forgiveness? We know that hurt feelings can happen even with the best of intentions.

Let’s consider this scenario: several youth groups from different faiths, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant meet to see a powerful Holocaust movie to promote interfaith understanding. There are images from the concentration camps showing mass graves and starved survivors who can’t even walk. Afterwards the Catholic and Protestant youth say, “Omigod, that was awful, let’s go for pizza.” The Jewish kids are offended by the insensitivity of the others; they cannot eat. That’s the difference between the movie being seen as an intellectual exercise showing interesting history and the immediate and personal living horror of knowing those bodies were your grandparents. (Quest, 2)

Words and events impact one another’s emotional and spiritual lives in unique ways. Therefore we must, as my colleague Rev. Susan LaMar writes, “truly and deeply respect the particularity of culture and community.” (Quest, 2)

You may have heard about the act of the President of the Student Senate of Ohio University pouring the bucket of blood on herself, (tho fake blood of ketchup, red paint, and water) to protest the oppression of Palestinians by Israel. This act has caused a storm of conflict because of the different histories, perceptions and agendas of the players in this drama.

Your previous minister, Evan Young, and I were both at a minister’s meeting last week and had a chance to discuss the situation.

As Susan LaMar says, “Reconciliation—atonement—coming together as one people, one world, is not an easy thing to do. Actions and events and symbols are experienced and interpreted in completely different ways by different people. When those differing interpretations happen—notice that I did not say misinterpretations, but differing interpretations—when those differing interpretations happen, tremendous power is unleashed.” (Quest, 2) The question becomes: can that energy go into constructive disagreement rather than destructive conflict. Can common ground be found? How do we create common ground rather than being drawn into violence? Is it possible to direct that energy into atonement…drawing the parties into a community?

It begins here. We are not going to be excommunicated, thrown in prison or burned at the stake for our non-traditional religious views that results in a multi-religious way of being and thinking and feeling. We have to allow ourselves to see, hear, and feel what the ‘other’ sees, hears, and feels in order to engage with one to make peace. And then it is an act of the will—the will to keep trying, even when we stumble and fall, and when it seems just too hard to get back up again. It is an act of the will to see through another’s eyes. As Susan writes, “Communities have to do it collectively. But the work can only really happen collectively if it first happens in the hearts of individuals. In my heart and your heart.” (Quest, 2) As we take responsibility for who we are, our gifts, our strengths, and generously share our gifts.

In The Spirituality of Imperfection, Kurtz and Ketcham write: “To truly forgive means to let go of the feeling of resentment, and of the vision that underlies that feeling, the vision of self-as-victim… Blaming another falls away. If we have been injured, we no longer experience the injury as a barrier to relationship…we are forgiven only if we are open to forgiving.”

It may be that the awesome responsibility of being who we were meant to be is accomplished by way of forgiveness, by way of the practice of compassion toward others. Steps toward compassion might look like this: examine your feelings and beliefs about what happened and share these with a trusted person.

Do whatever it takes to feel better knowing that forgiveness is not necessarily forgetting or condoning or even reconciliation. Engage in stress-management, such as yoga or meditation, knowing that only you can control your own thoughts. Turn from hurt to what you can achieve; a life well lived is the best revenge (negativity is giving another power). Change your story so that you no longer dwell in victimhood, but rather dwell on your strengths and your ability to cope and grow….


Now hear this story of trauma and recovery. A friend of mine tearfully told me that her father had sexually abused her when she was a child, just twice, then he left her alone. As an adult she had therapy to help her deal with the trauma, with her issues related to men and her sexuality. She and her husband were able to have a healthy relationship. Good. But she went on to relate that she had been stuck for a babysitter and had let her father care for her daughter. Tragically, her father sexually abused one of her daughters.

Now this is a dramatic and extreme example but the point is that it happened. For real. I know my friend was able to forgive her father, but she never again let him alone with her children. My friend had to work hard to forgive herself as a mother and to help her daughter. It was challenging. My friend is a strong, compassionate woman—to herself and to others. She had to work to be who she was meant to be. Whole and healthy. It took much time and experience.

Much time has passed since the ancient Israelites put all their mistakes, grievances, hurts, disappointments on that scapegoat. Words and deeds can hurt each other, deeply, even if we don’t mean to hurt or can’t stop ourselves.

We cannot change the world, but we can create a community at the UU Fellowship of Athens, here in which we have honest conversations to understand how our words and actions are felt by another. The change begins with us. Here and now. Because we are a community of hybrids; we are proudly multi-religious. That is the core identity of Unitarian Universalism.


LaMar, Susan, The Heart of Atonement. Quest: The Church of the Larger Fellowship Newsletter, October, 2008.

Ritchie, Susan J. Children of the Same God: The Historical Relationship with Unitarianism, Judaism, and Islam. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014.


  1. Thank you for this. I wanted to be able to share this with Lorraine and I must admit I missed some of what you said because the mike and speakers didn’t pick up the ends of some sentences. I also missed some, because of my own coughing. I have printed it and look forward to reading it. ——- Frank Myers ——-

  2. Wenda Sheard

    Thank you. Well done. I much appreciate having the sermon to read after the service, especially when, as on October 5th, I was out-of-town visiting our grandchildren. Even when I’m in Athens, I appreciate having the sermon to enjoy again after the service. Twice is better than once for sermons like yours.

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