Yom Kippur Pregame, or, Man I’m Hungry

So, with Yom Kippur around the corner, lots of people wonder how to make it through the fast day.

First of all, not for nothing, but the point of fasting in this context is not a quickie diet or to make you feel good, per se. Just saying.

Second, there are different approaches. Over at PunkTorah, they have a quick little guide to preparing for the fast. I’m going to add a bit to that post, because I’m not sure, from a traditional perspective, it’s particularly complete.

There are a few different approaches to the pregame plan for fasting in the traditional sources. The PunkTorah folks suggest one tradition–eating sparingly the night before–though the point of this in the traditional sources that advocate this approach is not exactly minimizing suffering on Yom Kippur.

The other tradition? Eat up, there, kiddo! The interesting twist on this is that the suggestion is to eat easily digested food, and to taper off on the harder-to-digest portions of those foods earlier on. These would have the effect of leaving you more hungry during Yom Kippur–eating substantial amounts of easily digested food would probably have a tendency to leave you with a somewhat stretched-out stomach that was basically empty.

Now, I’m not your rabbi–I’m not anyone’s rabbi, actually–but I thought I’d add a little color commentary here. In any case, again, if you are fasting, may you have an easy fast.

Yom Kippur

City Congregation, the Humanistic Jewish congregation in NYC, has posted this interview with Rabbi Miriam Jerris, who leads the Society for Humanistic Judaism, explaining how Yom Kippur “works” for those of us who are Humanistic Jews. The SHJ has a video from Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, who is Rabbi at The Birmingham Temple, the first SHJ congregation, that also discusses it.

If you fast, I wish you an easy fast. And, in any event, I wish you a meaningful, constructive Yom Kippur.

They are short videos; give them a watch.

No, I’m not rebelling against the old man in the white robes

I’ve been reading Dr. Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism recently, and I was reminded of a trope I’ve heard from philosophers/theologians of liberal Judaism on several occasions (Neil Gillman is among them), as well as apologists for more traditional views of the divine.

That trope is: Atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc., don’t really not believe in a deity. It’s just that they don’t believe in the “Old Man in the White Robe with a Long Beard” version of God. Well, neither do we! And also, there are no atheists in foxholes.

It’s not that I think that we are all there is; it’s just that, absent knowledge that there is anything else, we are left to act as though we are all there is.

I also heard something like it just this morning during an interview with Mary Eberstadt on the New Books Network about a recent examination of the history of secularization. Eberstadt pegs secularization, in part, on disruptions to family structure and the cognitive results of that disruption upon the ability to “get” the traditional, paternal view of God in orthodox Christianity and “orthodox” Judaism. Eberstadt and the host of the podcast, Marshall Poe, take some shots at the New Atheists whom they, not without reason (see, e.g., Christopher Hitchens, whose writing I love but whose thought I often do not), accuse of not “getting” the communal values religious practice and community brings to the table.

So I want to take some time to state where it is, as a Humanistic Jew, I come from on these issues. And I want to start by making it very clear that I think the “there are no atheists in foxholes, and I also don’t believe in that kind of God” trope misses the point for me.

I don’t care that much about the question of whether there is a God. It’s an interesting philosophical question, but it’s not factually susceptible to proof.

More important is that the answer to that question is, essentially, irrelevant for me, because my observation of the world tells me that a view of God that places he/she/it directly active in history is something that I simply must reject. I cannot have faith in–that is, express allegiance and fealty to–a being that has power over the world and does not intervene in great trauma, causes trauma as a “test,” grants trauma to those who are able to “handle” it, is unable or unwilling to act to alleviate suffering, etc.

Proof, incidentally, is not citation to a tradition’s texts. It’s not showing me examples of how various traditions share common concepts. The “authoritative” text goes only so far as one accepts the authority of the text itself, which is why “John 3:16” signs don’t work for Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. And the common concepts are great–except that there are plenty of common concepts that we reject.

I also cannot have faith in a being that we are told we cannot understand, can describe only in the negative, and yet to whom normative prescriptions are attributed, which normative prescriptions we must obey in order to be moral.

That’s a long way of saying: God’s existence cannot be proved, God’s intervention in the world cannot be proved, and God’s moral authority cannot be proved. Thus, the idea that individuals must have faith that the prior three things exist, pay fealty to that idea, and act in conformance with the moral codes that are set out in service of that faith is an idea I reject.

I’m not someone whose only encounter with concepts of God is the traditional version. I spent six years of my life studying religion directly, and will likely be spending significant portions of the next four years doing so as well. I’ve flirted with plenty of ideas and approaches to religion, to faith, and to God.

But I keep coming back to the fact that there’s no proof, empirically or philosophically, and that we’re left to figure this out on our own. It’s not that I’m rebelling against the old man, or that I’ve had prayers denied. It’s just that, when I look at the situation with my own eyes, I can’t accept the idea that we should cede our own power over the world to the non-provable.

It’s not that I think that we are all there is; it’s just that, absent knowledge that there is anything else, we are left to act as though we are all there is.

Unbinding Isaac: A Rosh Hashanah Midrash

Traditionally, Genesis chapters 21 and 22 are read from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah–chapter 21 on the first day, chapter 22 on the second (though they are often read all at once in U.S. Reform synagogues). They relate, together, the story of Isaac’s birth (though not the promise of his birth), Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion from Abraham’s camp, and the binding of Isaac–the story of Isaac’s near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

What follows is my own lengthy, humanistic Jewish midrash on the binding of Isaac.

Chapter 22 is rather a curious text. There is the interpretation of it as announcing Judaism’s rejection of human sacrifices, something somewhat unique in its cultural context; there is the nature of the narrative itself, the idea that Abraham could be forced to destroy by his own hand the son he and Sarah had so long desired, and the sudden act of divine intervention at the last moment to forestall the sacrifice. Even the public reading of the portion is (or is intended to be) dramatic, coming as it does on Rosh Hashanah in the midst of a period of atonement and personal sacrifice.

That’s all pretty interesting, but it’s not what I’ll be writing about.

How does this all start? After the narrator’s voice tells us that God wishes to test Abraham, God comes to Abraham and says, “Take, if you will, your son–your only one–whom you love: Isaac. Then go to the land of Moriah, and make him into a burnt offering there, upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.” (My translation.)

It’s the “if you will” I want to start with.

The Hebrew for “Take, if you will” is kach-na. The kach is the “take.” The na is the “if you will.” It’s a little particle appended to the end of the verb, and it’s so small, but it indicates something so important.

It tells us that Abraham was complicit in his own testing. The request is framed in such a small way, but this is not exactly a command. God is perfectly capable, in the Torah, of issuing plainspoken commands. There’s no na in those cases: “honor your father and your mother” is cabed et-avikha v’et-imekha, full stop. Rashi, the commentator extraordinaire of the tradition, says, commenting on this precise phrase in this text, “Na is the expression of a request.”

Abraham could have said no. He did not. It is not until Abraham reaches out for the knife and is stopped that he interrupts his actions.

Is this whole episode Abraham’s virtuous submission to divine command? That’s one interpretation–and it would seem to be what the text drives toward when it concludes, toward the end of the chapter, that Abraham and Isaac would be made a great nation; but this was already promised to them. There was, one may think, no need for the extra test.

Rashi’s commentary goes on from kach-na to the next phrase: “your son–your only one–whom you love: Isaac.” Rashi imagines this as a conversation between God and Abraham:

“Your son.” “I have two sons.”
“Your only one.” “Each is the only son of his mother.”
“Whom you love.” “I love both of them.”

Rashi says the narrative has this form–the long, drawn-out sequence of God narrowing in on Isaac–because God wanted to be sure that Abraham would receive merit for each and every word.

Rashi and I part company here.

Taken from its theological context–taken from the need to justify both Abraham’s and God’s actions–the honing in on Isaac seems to me to increase the moral peril associated with Abraham’s position. Even on Rashi’s telling, Abraham seems to know he can forestall this moment for a bit. It’s not the first time Abraham is portrayed as having held off God’s avenging hand–but he must know where this is going.

But having been dragged, one word at a time, to the conclusion that he is being asked–not told, asked–to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham appears from the text to have begun the process matter-of-factly. And again, to be clear: the covenantal promises have already been made and, at least in part, fulfilled. Abraham need not have said yes.

But he did. And that leaves us in a terrible bind.

What are we to think of Abraham here? Rashi, and predecessor midrashic texts, find praiseworthiness.

I do not. Because, given a choice between reason and the absurdity of sacrificing the child you have been promised and just granted, Abraham in Genesis 22 chooses divine mandate. And that is not, day-in and day-out, a praiseworthy choice in a world where divine mandate–should you believe it exists (and I do not)–is not clear.

This is the literature of our People. But we must forge our own relationships with texts, with history, and with our own values. And choosing the absurd, the immoral, when we know we can do otherwise without penalty is not a choice we should make. And it is a particularly non-humanist approach to morality.

As we enter a new 5774, let us look at the binding of Isaac in a new light and consider how we can make better moral choices that reflect our values and our realities, rather than our fears. That is, let us unbind Isaac.

L’shanah tovah.

Rosh Hashanah, Freedom, and the New Year

Taking a short break again from the ongoing series of articles on “start-up” synagogues and the Jewish community, I want to talk a bit about Rosh Hashanah from a humanistic Jewish perspective. Or rather, the post will be more in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah than about the celebration itself.

The traditional approach to Rosh Hashanah is not what I would call a liberating one. It begins the ten Days of Awe, when traditionally Jews would atone for their transgressions against themselves, others, and God. The greeting of “L’shanah tovah” (literally, for a good year) is abbreviated, and “L’shanah tovah u’metukah” (literally, for a good and sweet year) is a little more modern.  The full traditional greeting is “L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu.” It means, “may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

“Inscribed and sealed” in what, you ask? Why, the Book of Life, of course. Instead of the Book of Death. Because the traditional U’netanah Tokef prayer includes the verses:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed;
How many will pass on, and how many will be created:
Who will live, and who will die;
Who in less than his allotted time, and who in his allotted time

The poem goes on to list the many ways one might die in the coming year, and declares that repentance, prayer, and righteousness can alleviate the harshness of the decree.

This isn’t exactly what I would call liberating, and our greetings for Rosh Hashanah have been abbreviated so that we don’t acknowledge what is at issue, according to the tradition: repentance, and our very survival. And on the traditional reading, our survival may only be assured by keeping the commandments, assuming we aren’t otherwise slated to die in the coming year.

Is it any wonder we don’t use the full greeting very often?

What does a humanistic Jewish version of this look like? It focuses on our selves and our relationships with others–restoring and renewing both. The blast of the shofar serves as much purpose for the humanist Jew as for any other: it calls us to account for the prior year.

Except we are the ones keeping score, and we are the ones empowered to make changes. That is a powerful idea, whether one believes in one god, 300 million gods, or none at all. Because, whatever your beliefs, you cannot truly know a divine plan, if you think one exists at all; you can only believe in the existence of a plan.

You can, however, reflect and act. A humanist Rosh Hashanah rejects the fetters of self-imposed, yet otherworldly bonds, and challenges us to look to ourselves and our world for answers.

What have you done that you should or should not have? Who are you that you should or should not be? What do you see that should or should not be? And what can you do to continue, discontinue, or change what you find?

Have I been a patient-enough husband and father? Supportive enough? Attentive enough? I have tried to be better this year than last, but I know I haven’t met my own standards.

Have I been engaged enough in my community? In my profession? In my religious community? To be honest, by engagement in professional and community activities has diminished. My religious activities are picking up, however, and I think it’s there that I will find the most traction and the most personal fulfillment.

What I am, as a humanist Jew, is free to consider these and to know–based upon myself, my family, and my communities–where my priorities are and should be, and to determine how to bring about improvement without guilt or pain except as the facts require.

That realization has made me feel remarkably more free–Jewishly free–than I have in a long time. And so, may the shofar’s blast next year find me better, and still more free.

And so, intentionally omitting the rest of the greeting: L’shanah tovah u’metukhah.


Rosh Hashanah greetings, and, FINALLY, they get it

First, to those for whom it is meaningful, l’shanah tovah.

Second, there’s an article in the New York Times, “Bar Mitzvahs Get New Look to Build Faith,” (warning: pay-wall) about the “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution” and other allied matters–basically, the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements have finally figured out that their Jewish education model (drill Hebrew, memorize a Torah portion, and do a volunteer project) was failing and are trying to do something about engagement. (BTW: the volunteer project thing is pretty new for most synagogues.)

I say finally because, well…what the heck took so long!? One suspects this is a story of institutional inertia more than anything else–I remember reading Alan Dershowitz’s “The Vanishing American Jew” in 1997, and one of the things that made the most profound impact on me then was his critique of Jewish education. And it’s not like Dershowitz was a leading-edge Jewish education researcher. There was plenty of predecessor work, stretching into the 1970s, about what was wrong with Jewish community growth and education.

There are days where I really do want to just hit my head against a desk to make some other part of my head hurt.

Hopefully, in time for Rosh Hashanah, this marks a turning point for Jewish communal life. But I’m not assuming that to be the case, and I won’t be passive in this, either.

In any case, again: l’shanah tovah.

Member Poaching Item 3: Affiliation

Headed back to the article that kicked things off, one of the dividing lines that emerged between the “new,” lower-cost Reform-style synagogue and the more established ones was that the established synagogues contended that the new synagogue was acting to damage the established Jewish community.

I mean, this just makes me want to sputter with rage. (Imagine a guy sputtering. There you go!)

Why? Because if you’re fighting to keep people connected to the Jewish community, is there a worse way than to convey the message that unless you’re willing to pay a couple thousand dollars a year just to be affiliated with something, you’re actively harming the Jewish community in your area (and ergo the Jewish people)? I’m not sure there is.

So I’d point you, dear reader, to this first reminder: it doesn’t cost anything to be Jewish. Nothing.

It may cost more to do Jewish, depending on what it is. And it shouldn’t cost anything to be able to feel like you can walk into a synagogue and attend services. It shouldn’t cost anything to be affiliated. Why do we have so many synagogues that charge for High Holiday tickets if you’re not a member?

Sound crazy? Guess what institutions don’t charge anything to be affiliated or go to Easter and Christmas services?

Christians. I hear they’ve been in rapid decline for the last 2000 years.

To answer the objection that will come up: yes, institutions require support to survive. But ask yourself: do we need these institutions in this form? Is what we have the best possible set of institutions, with the best possible array of priorities, programs, and activities?

At bottom: should we have only one model?

As you can tell, I’m not convinced we should.

Next time: what can we do about it?