The Time of the Year

It is the Time of the Year for reflection. It is something we take for granted, think it is a good idea, but rarely do. That is precisely why we need to be reminded.

I have always loved words, their sounds and their meanings in Hebrew and English. So that when I reflect on myself and ideas that I value, the first thing I do is examine what I mean by the words I use. If I say that “I love you,” it means that I care. But there are so many ways of caring. One’s parents, children, grandchildren, partners, friends. We say it of our country, our religion, our life. There are different ways of loving. And often we love in all these ways, simultaneously.

And that is how I feel about my religious life. In the West, we have been persuaded that religion is a system of beliefs that are supposed to determine how we live. The Credo, the required belief in certain propositions is, supposedly, at the root of religion. We often describe Judaism as a religion. But the word religion does not exist in the Torah. The modern Hebrew usage Da’at only appears in the Book of Esther, in a Persian context.

The first comprehensive Credo in Judaism is the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” written by Maimonides a thousand years ago. Which means that for the first two thousand years of Judaism there was no fully fleged credo at all. But there were most definitely ideas and propositions that were fundamental to being part of that community of Israelites. The Talmud discusses these core ideas and suggests that without them one cannot fully appreciate the spirit of our tradition. And these ideas eventually became the basis of Maimonides’s principles. He formulated them the way he did, in response to Christian and Muslim theologians of his day who tried to undermine Judaism by claiming it was not a legitimate, mature religion if it had no systematic theology.

But the Torah never says anywhere “You must believe.” It does indeed assert that God is the source of everything and that there is One, that humans can only have a limited understanding of. And the Torah is God’s way of revealing a pattern for living and reinforcing the quest to become good human beings. But apart from the ambiguous and opaque “I am what I am” there is no specific definition or formula we are commanded to believe about whatever we think God is. Rather it is a matter of acceptance and commitment, which is what the Hebrew word Emunah really means.

The Torah is a pre-philosophical document which expresses itself in very different ways to the Greek rational, systematic, scientific method that lies at the root of Western culture. The Judaism we have today has been influenced both by the earlier non-rational, mystical tradition as well as the later rational one.

And this is so important to recognize. It indicates how important ideas are and that the word belief, has different possibilities. The title of the earliest book of Jewish theology, written by Saadya Gaon in Baghdad in 933. “Sefer Emunot Ve Deyot” is usually translated as “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions” or “Doctrines and Beliefs. But I prefer “Convictions and ideas.”

Ideas are much more flexible than beliefs. Beliefs have to be formulated and human language is notoriously limited when it comes to describing feelings and emotions. This is why Daniel Dennet says that people have ideas of what they think God is. Greek philosophy thought the mind, the intellect was the best guide for humans. I think it is very important. But I also think that feelings, experience, sense is an equally valid source for information and a guide to behavior. Emotional intelligence, it is often called. Ideas allow for such flexibility and emotional input. One can be convinced of something without either proof or belief. To doubt does not mean to deny. Moses too, had his doubts after all.

This is the time of the Jewish year, when we devote time specifically to the cultivation of our souls. But then what do we mean by soul? The very word soul is ambiguous. There are, according to Midrash Rabbah at least five different words that are used to describe what we in English only use the one, soul. Some say it comes from God and others from within ourselves. Some split it into a physical and a spiritual. There is no single definition. So that I would rather use the term soul to describe ourselves. The self. Made up of different elements, physical and spiritual and fed by such human tools as logic and feeling. To thrive, we need to engage all.

Part of this process is self-examination. Of our actions, successes and failures. And determination each year to do better even as we usually sink back to established routines and ideas. This is why we use the metaphor of being judged during this period. Of standing before God and having all our actions revealed and weighed. And as the Talmud says, even the best of us is imperfect, we are neither all good nor all bad but all “Beynonim,” in the middle.

It is also a time to examine our ideas. What we think. What we value. Consider the words the Torah uses to describe these days. What we now call Rosh Hashanah is called zichron a day to remember. But it does not tell us if we are supposed to remember God or God is supposed to remember us. It does not specify if we are to remember the things we did badly of the things we did well.

And Yom Kippur is a day of initem et nafshoteyhem afflicting your souls, as it is normally translated. But what does that mean? Is it a reference to suffering through fasting, in which case a nefesh is referring only to a body? Or are we suffering because we realize how badly we have failed. In which case our souls are suffering not our bodies!

Our tradition is holistic. The distinction between body and soul is a Greek construct. Dividing the upper body from the lower with a girdle is not found in the Torah, although modesty is. We cannot surely think that our bodies are intrinsically bad. Adam and Eve were only covered up after they realized one could defy godliness. Besides our brains and our hearts can do just as much damage as the “lower” parts of our bodies.

This is the time when we try to revert to a holistic awareness of all of ourselves. To be serious, to be reflective. To remember everything, for better and for worse, our successes and our failures. And to determine, to try to do better.

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at jeremyrosen.blogspot.com
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