Immersion in Orthodox Judaism for most of the past 52 years brought out a great amount of anxiety for me at this time of the year. Starting mid-summer, with the three weeks of mourning over the destruction of the two Temples, culminating with Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting and for Jewish summer camp attendees, a day of mental trauma what with the candlelit reading of Lamentations by the dark lake and the review of all the traumas perpetrated against Jews from the Babylonians to the Nazis, then a short respite until the month of Elul when the shofar is blown every morning at services to awaken us to repentance. A week before Rosh Hashanah, the week of Selichot, extra prayers beseeching God to judge us with mercy and of course the High Holidays themselves with liturgy full of brimstone and fire to instill the fear of imminent punishment, death and the destruction of the world.
This particular culture of fear and trepidation, particularly in this season is perpetuated throughout the Orthodox world with few exceptions, in its yeshivas and synagogues and is more pronounced in the right-wing of the movement. While I have much to criticize about this particular area of observance, I did at different times in my life find the experience spiritually cleansing, if not a bit cathartic.
My father a Holocaust survivor, scion of great Hasidic dynasties and a rabbi was for many years a baal tefilla or shaliach tzibbur, who led services in a prominent New York shul. He had a particular following for his pleasant voice for sure, but mostly for the raw emotion his life experiences brought out in his kavanah. When he cried through the recitation of the death of the Ten Martyrs – he was crying for those he lost in the Shoah including his father. When my grandmother and mother were stricken with fatal illnesses his heart-wrenching rendition of U’netana Tokef stunned the congregation to silence while he cried through verses like “who shall live and who shall die.” When my brother an Oleh, has his skull crushed in by rock throwing terrorists during the first Intifada my father could barely utter the words, “who by stoning?”
For a few years after my father retired from being a High Holiday cantor, I would join him on a pilgrimage to Boro Park Brooklyn for Yom Kippur, where we attended services led by his charismatic first cousin a Hasidic Rebbe of great renown. I joked that I was on spiritual cruise control, as the congregation sang, chanted, yelled, beat their breasts and prayed with so much energy I was granted heavenly forgiveness by osmosis.
I felt a certain amount of freedom this Rosh Hashanah. I have been evolving in my beliefs and religious practice and this year possibly for the first time in my life, I felt not the fear or trepidation of my past but a deep reflection of the troubled world we live in and unfortunately created. The God I now believe in is just not as mean and vindictive as the one I grew up on, even if the liturgy still ascribes to him some of those fearsome attributes. Climate change, hurricanes, civil wars, xenophobia, hate and a host of other troubles we have were not wrought on us by God, for that we have only ourselves to blame. And God can’t fix them either; that’s our job. I don’t pray for God’s mercy, I pray he gives us the sense to stop screwing up our world any more than we have already.
As Yom Kippur nears I plan on experiencing a more egalitarian inclusive service. I need to find solace and comfort with those who like me feel God may be sitting in judgment but he is not rendering any sentences. He leaves to us to decide if we can fight and win over illness, over war, over discrimination, over income inequality, over corrupt political systems, over the destruction of our planet and the extinction of so much of our ecosystem. It is us that carry out the sentences and God is left unfortunately, to shake his head at the poor judgment of his children. Or maybe this year will be different, who knows?