I am a long-time fan of the Mr. Deity YouTube series. If you aren’t familiar with this hysterical creation, here’s a great episode to start with. It’s called Mr. Deity and the Philosopher. Continue reading
Tonight is Yom Kippur and I’ll be with Congregation Beth Adam in Boca Raton where Rabbi Miriam Jerris, who has become a beloved role model and friend to me, will lead and speak at services. I joked with her that for the first time ever I can truly say I am looking forward to Yom Kippur.
Of all the days on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur would seem the most problematic for secular humanistic Jews. Almost the entirety of its ritual is about beseeching God for forgiveness.
For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to purify you; before the Lord your God you shall be purified. (Leviticus 16)
The machzor (high holiday prayer book) is an enormous compendium of abject groveling before God. Much of it debases human dignity.
Radical secular Yiddishist Jews of the 19th and early 20th century would mock the holiday with dancing, food and satire. Modern secular humanistic Jews seek to preserve as much Jewish wisdom as possible with a non-theistic outlook. We desire the same sense of communal gathering for reflection and repentance. The issue for us is more about who exactly is sitting in judgment. The Tosefta says:
“All are judged on Rosh Hashanah and the verdict is issued on Yom Kippur” (T. Rosh Hashanah 1. 13).
For a committed non-theist (in my personal case, atheist), there can be no question that it is we humans who must judge ourselves. I know, too, that religiously oriented Jews strive to do the same self-searching. Their poetry, however, is rather incongruous with the real task at hand. In all my years in theistic services, be they Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, the traditional liturgy served mostly as a great, irrelevant distraction.
If we seek to judge whether we have lived up to our full human potential we need search no further than our own consciences. When I pounded my chest and chanted the vidui (confession), I did feel a sense of sincere regret and contrition. My words, however, did not match my worldview. Some of the prayers offended me. Others bemused me. A great deal of them just bored me.
One bright spot, a section of the service that fascinated me, was the Avodah. This is the liturgical re-creation of the sacrificial service performed by the priesthood in the ancient temple in Jerusalem. It is such an earthy portrayal, resplendent in gloriously bloody detail. It always made me think about the evolution of our heritage; how we once moved beyond this primitive ritual and developed new ones to take its place.
This is a truly empowering concept for a humanistic Jew. It reminds us that nothing stands still. Mythologies that were relevant to one generation need not dominate us for all time.
There exists a real human psychological need to set aside time for reflection, self-criticism and growth. Yom Kippur continues to serve that need for us as long as we understand clearly who the real judges are. We may alter the rituals and replace the prayers, but the day can still contribute something to lives.
No one in traditional or humanistic Judaism ever suggested that repentance was a once a year goal. Every day should be a day of reflection. Life is busy, though. The ritual of coming together as a community in order to contemplate these themes is useful and important.
No matter what poetry you use, whether you pray or not, whether you are a person of faith or share my beliefs, I wish you a meaningful day. May we all grow to be better people on Yom Kippur and every other day of our lives.