Many years ago, while I was facilitating seminars on Jewish-Israeli identity in the IDF officers’ course, I asked the cadets: “What are the limits of freedom of Jewish cultural expression? For example, if someone’s way of celebrating Yom Kippur would be to put on a white dress and go dancing in a vineyard with other men and women, is that legitimate?” The question caused them discomfort, and at least a few of them, if not the majority, said, “No, that’s not acceptable or respectful.”
Gleefully, I whipped out the Mishnah in Taanit (4:8):
Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem used to go out in white garments… and dance[d] in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set your eyes on good family. ‘Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised.’”
It goes without saying that they were astonished. I think we are all, reading this mishnah. This year, though, it guided me.
The intense Yom Kippur synagogue experience is very effective for many in creating a rarefied environment in which we feel like angels, pour our hearts into prayer and repentance, and come away cleansed and with new resolve to live our lives aligned with God.
Recently, though, I’ve been noting with interest other expressions of Yom Kippur, other layers of experience on this unique day. For the past few years there has been a Yom Kippur meditation retreat on Kibbutz Hannaton; it sells out completely, with people on the waiting list. I know of communities that run inner work workshops, or Bibliodrama on Jonah. For some, Yom Kippur is a day of quiet in the city, to stroll without the noise of vehicles; for others, it is a day to ride bicycles. There are people who like to socialize on Yom Kippur: I could hear voices of teens in the Jerusalem streets after midnight.
While the zealot in me believes we should be in shul all day, fiercely focused on the prayers, and not chatting or riding bicycles — another part of me understands that Yom Kippur contains some interesting potentials for other layers of experience. The Mishnah in Taanit, with its surprising description, does seem to offer another model of Jewish activity on Yom Kippur. I generally take on a taanit dibbur, a fast of silence, but a couple of friends of mine met their spouses on Yom Kippur. Perchance I have been missing out with my piety?
This year, I expanded my perspective of the possible. Wanting to more deeply find myself in the Yom Kippur prayers, I printed out a personal prayer to express what I needed to say and put it into my machzor, taking it out periodically to say throughout the day. It was profoundly focusing to use my own words. I spent more time praying on my own and meditating. And, while walking home, I stopped in a grove near my house to spend a few minutes in the quiet of nature.
There, I spied lines strung up for grapes to grow and realized that this section was a tiny vineyard, no less. Smiling at this, I put down my bag, and began to twirl around in my white dress, a daughter of Jerusalem engaged in Yom Kippur dancing. There were no men to entice, but in my mind I called to my future husband, wherever he is, saying, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself! Beauty is nice, and good family is great, but the ultimate is a partner for growth and discovery, for creating a vessel for the Divine in the world. Choose that. Choose me.”
I hope he heard.