Text and Illustrations by Lawrence Bush
From the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
This is the first of a series of essays about the Jewish calendar and life-cycle observances, created as part of our new Schappes Center for Cultural Jewish Life, a school-without-walls for families interested in non-theistic participation in Jewish holidays, rituals, and cultural life. The Schappes Center has been established with a grant from the Kurz Family Foundation.
WHEN MY TWINS were about six years old (they’re now 29), my family observed the Rosh Hashone tradition of tashlikh for the first time. I knew of it only as Wikipedia might describe it, a Jewish folk custom for the new year that involved cleansing away sins by reciting prayers and throwing bread into a natural body of water. I had no idea of what the traditional liturgy for tashlikh (“casting off”) might be, no commitment to the concept of “sin,” and no belief that any ritual, apart from self-correcting behavior, could absolve me of anything. I had heard, however, that rabbinical authorities in medieval days, when tashlikh originated, had condemned it as a superstitious exercise — and although I shared their skepticism towards superstition, I was also anti-authoritarian enough to be made curious by this historical tidbit.
More important, I was drawn to the essential Rosh Hashone idea of taking stock of myself and deliberately repairing relationships, and I wanted to give my kids something meaningful to do for the holiday, given that we were not synagogue members. So we gathered on Rosh Hashone, just the four of us, next to the little waterfall at the bottom of our road, and here’s what we did:
We stood in a circle, smiling at one another, and then each member of the family praised somebody, one at a time, out loud, with everyone listening. I got to hear my little son talk about how he loved it when I played my guitar at their bedtime, and to hear my little daughter improvise with “Poppy, I love your nose.” (My big nose. I remember her looking up at me and beaming!) The kids got to listen, in turn, to their mom and me praising each another. We also praised them, of course, and got them to say something nice about each other.
Next came constructive criticisms. My daughter complained about how quickly I often responded to her before she even could get her words out. My son said that I was not always paying attention when he showed me his pogs (a milk-cap collectible, popular in the early 1990s). My wife told our son that she wished he would come to breakfast on the first call, not always have to transition slowly. I told our daughter that she should always tell us the truth, because it was better to have parents who know what’s going on when something goes awry . . .
And so forth. It was a uniquely intimate experience, which concluded with our throwing breadcrumbs into the waterfall while calling out our new year’s resolutions, based on what we had just heard from each other.
Ever since, my family shares this tashlikh ceremony if we are lucky enough to be together for Rosh Hashone — and I have been inspired to unearth other themes embedded within the Jewish holidays that might enhance my life emotionally, psychologically, ethically, aesthetically. This hasn’t turned me into a synagogue-goer; I’m truly not interested in sitting through liturgy in a language I don’t understand and in praise of a God in whom I do not believe. Nor has it meant joining a secular Jewish congregation, since I’m more than two hours away from the nearest of those rare communities. Instead, while my wife usually heads to shul, I go solo for the holidays, unpacking their themes and then inventing activities expressive of those themes, in order to bring me into a state of heightened consciousness about myself, my relationships, and my responsibilities as a human being. If, in addition, I’m brought into a deeper knowledge of Judaism and Jewish texts, and a deeper relationship with my Jewish identity, all the better.
NO SUCH EXPLORATIONS went on during my childhood, when the so-called high holy days of Rosh Hashone and Yom Kiper were ignored by most of our secular Jewish milieu. My parents even used to send me off to school on those days, where I sat with with a sprinkling of non-Jewish classmates and a substitute teacher. Why so? Because, as a columnist named Ruth Zalman wrote in Jewish Currents back in 1958, the high holy days are “essentially religious in ritual, centered in the synagogue, and unrelated to any major historic event in the Jewish past.”
Yikes! Was history the only authenticating element of Jewish holiday life accepted by the secular Jewish movement back then?
What about the traditional idea that Rosh Hashone marks the “birthday of the world” and the emergence of humankind? Shall I not go for a walk among the trees on Rosh Hashone and celebrate the fact that I’m not falling off the planet in this mysteriously balanced universe? Shall I not use the occasion to visit my family graves and acknowledge the continuity and constant remixing of DNA and culture that create and recreate us?
What about the Rosh Hashone tradition of repairing the frozen relationships in our lives? Shall I not make use of this moment to try to renew my friendships with a card, a text message, a phone call?
What about the fact that the acquisition of knowledge about such matters is sweet and empowering? Shall I not eat apples — fresh-picked from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil! — and dip them in honey?
Does my involvement in such practices, all rooted in, or uprooted from, the Jewish religious tradition, make me “observant”? Frankly, I’m far more worried about being obtuse!
YOM KIPER, however, has been a lot trickier than Rosh Hashone for me to relate to as a secularist. I rebel against participating in a Biblically commanded communal breast-beating, against the image of a fate-sealing heavenly “Book of Life,” against the noble masochism of the Yom Kiper fast. Rather than looking with well-deserved awe at a faith that each year assembles its people, en masse, to reckon with their shortcomings and aspire to a fuller mentshlikhkayt (human nobility), I resist it — as if there were something hypocritical, masochistic, or self-flattering about the rituals of Yom Kiper.
At least I recognize my reactiveness as simple bias — an anarchistic, anti-religious reflex — and while it does keep me from attending shul, I try not to let it keep me from making something meaningful of the day. For me, that simply means staying away from work and routine and actually wrestling with my resistance (usually with pen and paper in my pocket).
I might begin by asking myself: Wouldn’t you like to see a regularly scheduled confession of sins and shortcomings for all our world leaders? Imagine how that might affect democracy and corruption all around the planet! Why be put off, then, by the call to the whole community to introspect, since we are all “world leaders,” if only in the realm of family and friendships?
Yeah, I’ll respond, but there’s only so far I’m willing to go with this “no-one-but-ourselves-to-blame” business! I’m perfectly willing to hear criticism and to self-criticize, but I’m really not willing to apologize to God until I hear God apologizing to us!
—All right, so stay home on Yom Kiper, if that’s your tradition — but what’s wrong with fasting, if only to open the doors of perception about the reality of hunger for people who lack food-security?
—Oh, please, does going needlessly hungry for a day really intensify my commitment to activism, or just give me a false sense that I’ve accomplished something?
—Hoo, you’re tough. What would it be like to surrender that critical-mind reflex and just go with the flow for a day or two?
—That might be a way to describe the way of Zen, but it’s not the way of Judaism.
By the time I’m done working up this mental sweat, I’ve reflected on my personality, memories, sorrows, joys, ideology, egotism, and more — and most often, I’ve lost the debate. But I’ve
usually also created a poem or an artwork expressive of some Yom Kiper theme. Then I’m ready for coffee and a cookie.
THE NONTHEISTIC Society for Humanistic Judaism identifies three classic Yom Kiper themes at its website: tshuve (“returning to our ideals”), tfile (“self-reflection”), and tsedoke (“putting our ethics into action”) — all nicely translated! Each of these mitsves deeply appeal to me, and I try to fulfill them with discipline in my daily life. It is the commanded nature of Yom Kiper, the old-fashioned image of God as the king and judge who demands our repentance, our fasting, and our prayers, that arouses the ham-eating atheist in me. I recognize, of course, that to feel whole celebrating any of the Jewish holidays, modern liberal Jews must translate the Torah’s personified, wrathful God into an internal voice of conscience — but on the Day of Atonement I find that especially difficult to do, particularly in synagogue, where I can’t get God to shut up long enough to let me think.
Some secular Jews like to use the occasion to turn tables on that wrathful God and hold him to account for our world’s colossal injustices. In the secular Yom Kiper service written by Bennett Muraskin for the Jewish Cultural School and Society of New Jersey, for example, the story of the 18th century’s Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak of Berditchev is included (as recounted by Nathan Ausubel in A Treasury of Jewish Folklore):
On the evening of Yom Kiper, Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak, known as “the poor man’s rabbi,” asked an illiterate tailor, “Since you could not read the prayers today, what did you say to God?”
“I said to God,” replied the tailor, “‘Dear God, You want me to repent of my sins, but my sins have been so small! I confess: There have been times when I failed to return to the customers pieces of leftover cloth. When I could not help it, I even ate unkosher food. But really, is that so terrible?’
“‘Now take Yourself, God! Just imagine Your own sins: You have robbed mothers of their babies and have left helpless babies as orphans. So You see that Your sins are much more serious than mine. I’ll tell You what, God. Let’s make a deal! You forgive me and I’ll forgive You.’”
“Ah, you foolish man!” said the rabbi,“you let God off too easily! Just think — you could have forced Him to redeem the entire Jewish people!”
Another secular Jewish favorite is Y. L. Peretz’s “Maybe Even Higher,” a short story about a Litvak (a Lithuanian Jew, which means he’s a skeptic, at least about mystical matters) who is confronted by the rumor that the rebbe of Nemirov is capable of ascending to heaven during the high holidays to parley with God. The Litvak shadows this rabbi for a couple of days and witnesses him disguising himself as a gentile peasant, shlepping into the woods, chopping a tree into firewood, and delivering it to an infirm old Jewish woman, to whom he “sells” the wood on credit. This is the Nemerover rebbe’s version of tshuve (repentance) and it makes a “convert” of the Litvak.
Interesting, isn’t it, how comfortable secular Jews like me can be okay with the literary translation of “God” into acts of mentshlikhkayt, yet we can’t tolerate liturgical language that uses the same God metaphor without making that humanistic translation? That’s something to debate about with myself next Yom Kiper.
EVEN WHILE staying home, I do like to take a look at those sections of the Torah that are traditionally read in synagogue during the high holidays. I enjoy contemplating the multiple meanings of the archetypal stories of Genesis and the exhortations of the prophets, and I’m not about to let theological doubt get in my way.
The stand-out sections at this time of the year are:
• The Akedah, or Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-19), read during Rosh Hashone, in which Abraham is commanded to kill his beloved son Isaac in a test of fealty to God. Commentaries on this strange and somewhat hypnotizing passage in the Torah are legion, ranging from praise of Abraham’s fanaticism to socio-political analyses of how the cycle of abuse is handed down from generation to generation. My own favorite midrash (that is, a storytelling riff on the original text) has God instructing Abraham to have his descendants always blow the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashone so that God will be reminded to be merciful, just as God was merciful in substituting a ram as the sacrifice. This midrash implies that compassion, or rakhmones, is the characteristic that most marks the heart — the circumcised heart, if you will — of a progressive human being.
• Another high holiday text is the Book of Jonah, read during Yom Kiper, about the reluctant prophet who unsuccessfully flees his calling, then successfully summons the city of Ninevah to a mass repentance that averts its destruction. For me, the story speaks (from a distance) about people’s fears of embracing their true callings and shouldering their larger responsibilities. So many people — women, especially, in my experience — anticipate failure and rejection so readily that they are undermined by their self-judgment and become “a Jonah,” a perenially jinxed person. My late mother-in-law was a great exception, famous for saying: Try, what have you got to lose? Let them tell you you’re no good, don’t make the decision for them.
• A third special reading for the high holidays (also traditionally read on Yom Kiper) is a favorite of secular Jews: Isaiah 57:14-58:14, in which the prophet mouths the words of God to denounce religious practice that is all detail and no soul, all ritual and no essence.
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
. . . No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free . . .
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
No elaboration needed there.
SUKES (SUKKOT) begins within a week of Yom Kiper and lingers for seven days. Marking it has been a challenge for me for two reasons: 1) I’ve usually had enough of the Jewish holidays by then, and 2) I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful natural setting, where I see stars at night and bunnies in the morning, so there’s nothing so unusual for me in the nature-oriented rituals of Sukes that tempts me to do the work of building and decorating a suke (sukkah), the hut in which the tradition bids us to live during the festival. If I’m going to do work like that, I’ve got gutters to clean and firewood to stack.
Sukes is associated with the mythical journey of the Israelites through the wilderness after their departure from enslavement in Egypt; they lived in such huts and were vulnerable to the elements. The holiday is also associated with an ancient harvest festival, during which Jews would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Temple sacrifices. Sukes is observed by building and dwelling (or at least taking meals) in a suke, and performing a movement ritual with four species of plant. It is customary to invite ushpizin, symbolic guests, into the suke — Biblical figures, traditionally, but their identities are up to you (real people and living people are allowed). Nu, you want to invite Louis Armstrong, who wore a Jewish star throughout his adult life as a testament to a Jewish couple who showed him some kindness during his childhood in New Orleans? Bring your iPad and let Satchmo blow his shofar! That final hit song of his, in fact, “What a Wonderful World” — written by George David Weiss and produced Bob Thiele, both of them Jews — captures the elemental spirit of Sukes perfectly:
“I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day and the dark
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.”
But there’s more to the festival than enjoying the creamy light of the full moon and the nostalgic scent and astounding colors of the dying leaves (here in the Northeast). Judith Seid, a secular rabbi in California who has a great deal more patience for the Jewish holidays than I, observes in her God-Optional Judaism that Sukes has “an important ethical component” insofar as “rich and poor, priest, noble and layman, had to spend all seven days of the holiday in the suke. Rich and poor would be exposed to the same elements and be cold or wet all week. Maimonides said that this was established to teach ‘equality — the first principle . . . of justice.’”
“The ethical component that is perhaps the most relevant to us today is the theme of food and shelter. Amid a harvest of plenty, there are those who are hungry, and the temporary shelter is a reminder of those who have no permanent shelter. Further, the flimsiness of the sukkah reminds us that our only home, the Earth, is fragile and needs care to preserve the environment. . . . In addition, the identification of the sukkah with the wandering in the desert makes it clear to us that the holiday . . . should make us aware of the plight of those who, like Jews throughout the ages, have had to flee their homes and rely on the good will of strangers in strange lands.”
My idea of a good Sukes observance, therefore, might be a trip with friends to one of the New York neighborhoods that teem with immigrant foods and fashions and languages and children. There my America is really at its best, and I’m the ushpiz, the stranger in a strange (and wonderful) land.
THERE ARE at least three more autumn holidays of note in the Jewish calendar: Hashone Raba, the last day of Sukes, when our fates get sealed for the year, according to the tradition, and a circling dance ritual involving the four plant species is performed; Shmini Atseres, when Jews traditionally begin praying for rain (they continue until Passover); and Simkhes Toyre, immediately after Sukes, which marks the conclusion of the year’s cycle of weekly Torah reading and the inauguration of the next. (In some synagogues, the entire Torah scroll is unfurled to encircle the congregation.)
But with Halloween and Thanksgiving coming down the pike (not to mention this endless presidential election), there’s only so much celebration and public-mindedness I can tolerate. That would probably be true even if I belonged to a non-theistic congregation — social celebration can be even more exhausting than soloing! Anyway, I’m not the type to wrap my little lonesome in a Torah scroll. (What would the neighbors say?) And how many artworks can I make, strolls can I take, and tirades against God can I conduct, before turning on the television?
In short, I wrestle every year with the same dilemma that many Jews face: To go or not to go? Synagogue is indeed the place to have a conversation with Goldberg as much as with God, but then you find that Goldberg’s busy praying and there’s no really time for more than a howdy-do. Despite this, a lot of Jews opt to be in the presence of a Jewish community during the high holidays, but I prefer — after telling my wife, during tashlikh, how much I love her and how I wish she’d stop supervising me when I load the dishwasher — to walk, write, even sing, by myself.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and is the author of American Torah Toons: 54 Illustrated Commentaries, among other books.