Valley News – Column: A time to assess guilt, reap redemption
Let’s take something right away. I’m your emcee today, not your rabbi. I would indeed make a most unconventional and highly improbable excuse for a rabbi. I am atheist. My parents and some of my grandparents were also atheists. I never even had a bar mitzvah.
Yet I am a Jew. Proudly so.
We can say: “I was a Catholic before” or “I am a non-practicing Episcopalian” or “When I was a child, I was a Voudonisan”. This is not the case with the Jews. Once a Jew, always a Jew, theology notwithstanding. It is in the blood, in the phrasing of the language, in the habit of the mind. A slip is impossible.
I have some understanding of this and will do my best to explain it, with particular reference to Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and also Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the two Great Holy Days which have been observed earlier this month.
Judaism is dialectical. His theology is argumentative. It often ends with a moral, however obscure.
Take the story of Abraham and Isaac. God, in an apparent crisis of insecurity, asks Abraham to show piety by sacrificing his only son, Isaac. Abraham is understandably reluctant to do this terrible act, so God compromises and accepts the slaughter of a lamb instead.
The episode is a dramatic conversation: God demands; Abraham answers in the negative; God gives much ground for the satisfaction of Abraham and Himself, thus resolving the question civilly.
Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Judaism promotes a habit of argumentative thinking; a dialogue.
Similar illustrations can be seen in the works of famous Jewish atheists like Marx, Freud and Einstein: Resolute Capital and Labor in Socialism; that and superego resolved in me; light as a ray against light as photons resolved in an inexplicable alternation between the two.
So it is in Jewish theology. God commands; the human person presents a counter-offer. In the end, something works out. This is the habit of thought of the Middle Eastern merchant. “How much do you want for this? “Ten dollars.” “I’ll give you half past seven. “A quarter past eight and it’s yours.” This is also the habit of the courtroom. “What is your plea? “Innocent.” “Guilty: thirty days. “” Mitigating circumstances! ” “Okay. Ten days.”
Rosh Hashanah is a feast of keeping accounts, determining guilt, assigning terms of repayment. All this leads, with hope, to redemption, a reprieve from damnation. The drama unfolds in a back and forth where the conflict between the law of God and the failings of the human person is debated while taking stock, measuring where we are.
But what strikes me as distinctly Jewish about Rosh Hashanah’s staging is that divinity and the human being appear on a remarkably equal level. Human beings, male or female, speak freely with God, who receives supplications as well as accusations of anger. It should be noted that Rosh Hashanah takes place at the time of harvest, when we assess the granary. “Let’s assess what we have. Is there enough to make it through the winter or will we suffer?
The harvested product is ethical behavior. “Have I been a good person or have I left something out or forgotten someone or left an unpaid debt somewhere of insult, dishonesty or cruelty?” ”
The scene of this Rosh Hashanah theater, the ritual meal, is where we examine our hidden souls to find, before the eye of God sees it, where we are in default, where debts remain to be paid.
For each debt, for each transgression, repentance is staged by throwing a straw into a body of water accompanied by a prayer of repentance. The feast ends with the sound of the horn, the shofar, which announces the coming of God to dispense heavenly justice.
God renders such judgment 10 days later on Yom Kippur. During this time, the appellant attempts to right any wrongs he has caused or to whom debts remain unpaid, and endeavors to atone for all sins and to pay what is owed. God is aware of such efforts as part of the negotiation.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Repentance, is therefore a resolution drama familiar to anyone who has dealt with the Internal Revenue Service. But here money is not so much money as decency. The question to ask is: Have I been a good person?
It is said that the Jews are the chosen people of God. Does this mean that He (or She) favors them over everyone else? This may be a first reading. But it is more likely that God requires more of the Jews than of anyone else. He / She anointed the Jews to be His / Her emissaries to bring the light of ethical behavior to everyone in the world.
Yahweh, the Jewish god, was once a simple village, small and parish deity. Judaism’s contribution was to envision a universal force, a God for all mankind, even for all of life.
It is because of this ethically oriented theology that we see so many Jewish benefactors today, people committed to justice, civil rights, equality, democracy and even democratic socialism. Such concerns have made Jews more unpopular than ever with fanatics and tyrants of our time, even those with whom Judaism is nominally shared. This is probably also why we see so many Jewish accountants, lawyers and writers.
Robert Belenky, of Hanover, is a retired psychologist and the author of several books, including Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise: Jewish Agricultural Settlements in Ukraine during the 1920s and 1930s.