Rosh Hashana 5776 – What does it mean to be judged?

(This originally appeared in Ha’aretz Jewish Thinker Column, on Monday 7th September: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.674949)

Not everyone believes that God sits in heaven with a book open on the High Holy Days. But this doesn’t mean that these days are devoid of meaning; that it is not possible for atheist and non-literalist alike to experience the power of this period.

The period from Elul through Rosh Hashanah, culminating in Yom Kippur, is an opportunity for us to engage more honestly with life. There may not be a God with a flowing beard judging us, but there is truth in our lives, demands in our soul, and at this time we must face up to that call.

Jonah the prophet is a powerful archetype here.  He tried to avoid this calling, believing that an honest encounter with truth could be avoided by changing location, by hiding, by mounting practical objections to his mission. Jonah thought that truth was optional, a luxury, something that could be tempered by his pragmatic reason. But his attempts to escape led him into stormy seas, and he eventually sunk to the darkest depths, swallowed up by his own despair.

Jonah teaches us that we cannot run away from the truth, that it is a matter of life and death.  These themes of the period – judgment and mortality – are not just about giving extra charity, perhaps saving a life along the way. They tell us that in our personal lives, in the murky world of the spirit and the psyche, there is an intimate link between falsehood and death.

When we make a pact with falsehood, when we embark on the slippery road of compromising our principles, we endanger ourselves. The crust of artifice starts to weaken us and hold us back, one wrong turn spirals into many, and before we know it we are totally lost.

Man does not live on bread alone, but he lives by the power and integrity of the spirit. This is the source of his courage and strength, of his hope and his faith, and it is traded away at one’s peril.

One might go so far as to say that being religious can actually pose a tremendous threat to our integrity, to our capacity for honesty. Many will tell us that we should believe rather than think, that we should follow rules rather than wrestle with ethics, that we should submit to authority rather than take responsibility.

I wish I could say that this isn’t so, but, alas, there is cause for concern. Orthodoxy is being overtaken by fundamentalism, religious education is becoming about closing down minds, and the conflation of the religious and political realm in Israel is like watching a car crash. Jewishness, in both Israel and the Diaspora, is becoming an ever more exclusive racial category, bringing in its wake the hatred and bigotry that always ensue.

One is reminded of Yeats’ words that “the centre cannot hold…whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Dogma, whether religious or political, gives people a much sought after sense of certainty, laying down firm barriers in a fluid and confusing world. It is no surprise that it seduces people, but it should worry us, for the closed spirit is the dead spirit and the movement of the mob always ends in horror.

For the engaged atheist, Rosh Hashanah offers a chance to reflect on one’s values, to ponder what truly guides one in life, and to think about how to be faithful to that.

For those who are more comfortable with God language, it should be a time of stripping away falsehood, of challenging dogma, of taking back responsibility. The days contain a theology of remembrance, of zikhronot (memories), telling us that nothing is forgotten, that everything we do shapes and distorts us, however hard we try to forget it.

God is our memory, our history, our psychic baggage, the fate that we cannot escape.  He reflects the private truths that no one else can see, that our public role and persona keep hidden from view. He needles our conscience, letting us know that we must give an account of ourselves, that for all our success our inner life may be in ruins.

As our stubbornness and ego are worn down by prayer and fasting, as we get closer to a moment of surrender to truth and integrity, God also stands for forgiveness, for renewed hope, for the possibility of starting again. If we relinquish falsehood then there can be life, but if we cannot let go, if we cling to it too tightly, then we can be assured of a year of darkness.

 

 

Repentance is Suffering – Rosh Hashana 5774

Towards the end of the first chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva, the ways of repentance, of return, Maimonides makes the following startling assertion:

Even though repentance atones for everything and the essence of Yom Kippur brings atonement, there are some transgressions for which atonement comes immediately and others sins which can only be atoned for over the course of time…

If a person violates in a manner worthy of spiritual excision or execution by the court and repents, repentance and Yom Kippur have only a tentative effect.  It is the  sufferings which befall a person which  complete the atonement. He will never achieve complete atonement until he endures this suffering, for concerning these transgressions the verse in  Psalms (89:33) states: “I will punish their transgression with a rod.”

The idea that our efforts at repentance will come to nothing unless we are afflicted by God with suffering seems very problematic:  it takes away the agency and creativity we tend to view as essential to teshuva, the sense in which it is an opportunity given to us, a compassionate breach in the strictly just fabric of the universe.

Is it possible to find meaning in such an apparently theocentric world view, one which seems to return religion to an infantilising reliance on the supernatural?

Thinking more naturalistically, there might indeed be an obstacle to any sense of teshuva which isn’t preceded by suffering.  Without suffering it seems hard to feel that we have done something wrong, that we have strayed, that we have acted without fidelity.  It is in the pain of suffering that we discover our error and failing, it is through a alienation and disorientation that we sense our falling short of the life we hoped to lead.

In suffering, something becomes conscious, our soul cries out and makes itself known to the rest of our body.  Pain bespeaks a discord between self and world, or, indeed, between what Winnicott called our ‘True Self’ and our ‘False Self’.  A harmony is shattered, something which operated smoothly suddenly functions with abrasive grinding.

Suffering does not then relate to a problematic and childish concept of punishment, but can actually help us understand the more sublime idea of revelation.  In suffering, a truth of our existence is revealed to us.  It may be hazy and unclear, shrouded in clouds of thick smoke, and it may take us a long time to work out exactly what that truth is, but suffering is the starting point.  It is the nexus between the natural and the ethical, the connection, if you like, between heaven and earth.

Suffering, however, does not come easily, or naturally.  We erect endless defences against feeling the pain of others, and a heavily armoured fortress against our own personal hurt.  To see that we have wronged another, to imaginatively step into their shoes is terrifying, not least because it disrupts our narcissistic self-image of being a ‘good person’.

Suffering then takes courage, we need to ready and prepare ourselves before we can suffer, before some truth might be revealed to us.

Part of this preparation takes place throughout the month of Ellul, as we plead through psalm 27:

Teach me Your way, O Lord, and lead me in a smooth path.

For Maimonides , the supplication here is that our ego not get in the way of our quest to return, that we not experience the blockedness which sometimes lies in the way of teshuva.  We ask God ‘remember your mercy and lovingkindness’ (Ps.25), all too aware of the fragility inherent in forgiveness.

And yet, I have a confession to make:  I do not feel well prepared for this Rosh Hashana.  The block is strong, the ego is tight, the narcissism is very well defended.  I have no idea what my return might look like.  I sense that I am distant, but the suffering is very vague, I am not able to interpret it, to glean meaning from it.  The thickness of my slumber has not yet been pierced by the cry of the shofar, my soul feels like it is underwater, heavy and directionless.  Swampy, sludgy; I am experiencing none of the lightness I crave.

Perhaps I should be glad not to be suffering acutely, but there is a thirst for something elusive, and I sense that some suffering needs to be traversed in order to arrive at it.  I pray for that burst of sudden clarity, not another clever idea, but a personal truth, a revelation of something of the self, an insight which will shift me, create an opening.

The Shulkhan Arukh reports a custom of fasting on the eve of Rosh Hashana, and perhaps its source is in a similar sense of panic, in a need to feel something real prior to our day of soul searching.

Psalm 27 ends on a similar note of ambivalence:

‘Lulei he’emanti lirot betuv Adonai…  – were it not for my belief in the possibility of seeing the Divine goodness…’

The thought is left without conclusion, there is no spelling out of what might happen ‘were it not’ for the possibility of grace, of an unexpected and sudden experience of clarity and unity.  There is simply a sense of fractured longing, ‘were it not’, of a soul clinging to a distant hope from beyond.

Perhaps this is all the preparation one can hope for, a reminder of distance, a desperate cry – again from Psalm 27 – that God not hide his face from us.

It is a paradox lost on many that in these moments of distance our appreciation of the Divine can be most real, that we make the most generous allowance for Its independence and elusiveness.

Perhaps this is not then the worst way to go into Rosh Hashana, a day as much about the majesty of God as about the weakness and frailty of man.  In our moments of being lost we have a sense of the magnitude of life, the complexity of it, its infinite and endless intricacy.  Here again, the Infinite becomes real, and the limits of our understanding confront us abruptly.

I pray that the majesty of the day – malkhiyot – act as an instrument of awakening – shofrot – such that there is a return and remembrance – zikhronot – which can move us and re-connect us.

May we return to the land of the living, and may the words of its book shed clarity on the suffering and confusion we endlessly experience.

Let Us Make God – Rosh Hashana 5753 – Berakhot 44 & 45

We are discussing Zimun today, the communal form of Grace after Meals, and the Talmud wishes to know the source for this practice.  It finds two complementary sources, and, for a change, sees no reason to choose one over the other:

“Make God great with me, and we will exalt his name together.” (Ps.34:4)

“When I call in the name of the Lord, let us give greatness to our God” (Deut. 32:3)

The words are so commonplace to us – particularly if I’d quoted the Hebrew – that we rarely stop to think about what a strange concept they express:  the idea that man (and woman) should be able to add to God’s greatness, to somehow make him bigger, more awe inspiring.  This might be particularly on our minds as we go into Rosh Hashana, the days on which we are charged with establishing and restoring God’s Greatness and Kingship.

Surely God is self-sufficient, beyond our help?  We might recognise or discover his greatness, that would make sense.  But to create that greatness, to take part in the magnification of His Being, surely that is outrageous, anthropocentric audacity gone mad?

In a word, no.  There is a sense in which one aspect of God, is unmoved, untouched, unaffected by anything we might do, say or think.  But that is perhaps not the aspect we are genuinely interested in.

The aspect of God which plays a part in our lives, the ways in which He might move and affect us, is very much given to the hands of mankind.  He, in a sense, is entirely at our mercy.

‘God’ is a word, the meaning and significance we give to it, the way we flesh out the concept, this is largely up to us, it is a function of our thoughts and reflections.

It is possible that ‘God’ stays small, that it remains the trivial Heavenly Bearded One that we learnt about as children, the scorekeeper of our moral activities, the One who issues us with strange and incomprehensible commandments.  The ‘God’ of 5 year olds is great, if you are 5 years old.

But as we grow up, ‘God’ needs to grow with us, it needs to becomes something more profound, something more connected with our powerful intuitions about what is meaningful and significant in life, with Truth, Justice, Love and Compassion.  This ‘God’ acts in our lives, there is a deep level in which it shapes our thoughts and actions, in which it can radically change the course of history.  To imagine the world differently is to live by a vision, and this vision is powered and fuelled by our sense of what is right and beautiful, by the greatest possibilities we dare to foresee in the world.

This is an aspect of a more grown up ‘God’, and it is this aspect which depends on us for Its greatness.  This happens in two ways.  It requires the full powers of our intellect, of our creativity and imagination, to fathom and perceive the possibilities that ‘God’ represents.  Every unique situation demands fresh effort as we feel our way to a sense of the just and compassionate way to respond and to act, to the ‘God-worthy’ course of action.

In a world that is sometimes cynical, that seems to want to surrender to a fateful economic or genetic determinism, that certainly gives us plenty of reason to be pessimistic, it is hard to keep faith that things could actually be different, that mankind, with the help of God, might shape a more perfect world.  It takes all of our will to resist this and all of our memory to cling to that glimpse of an improved world we once knew.

Once we can see this greater possibility for ‘God’, The other sense in which we make God larger, greater, more magnified, is through the space we allow these considerations in our lives, through the emotional and intellectual import we ascribe to them.

This is a constant struggle, the whole corpus of our ritual and practice attempts to help us with this.  But there are a few days a year which we set aside especially for them, and they are about to begin.

On Rosh Hashana, as we begin the new year, we dedicate two days to making God great, to considering Him as our King, as the most powerful force in our lives, as something worthy of our awe and respect.  We work to limit our arrogance, our omnipotence, our narcissistic ego and to embrace a spirit of openness and otherness, and to re-connect with an idealism that we all too easily lose.

It really is in our hands, God will always be there, but ‘God’ is forever in danger of becoming empty, lifeless or simply ignored and forgotten.  If we cannot lift our eyes and see something better, if we are too busy or exhausted to make the effort, too hurt or broken to try once more, then ‘God’ really will wither and die.  Nietzsche will be right, it will be us who will have killed Him, it is our hands that will be bloodied by His demise.

It seems paradoxically apposite to go into Rosh Hashana with the words of Nietzsche, with his prophecy as to what happens when we fail to make ‘God’ great, to keep ‘God’ alive:

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!

How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? (The Gay Science 125)

Judaism, and all ‘good religion’, is alert to the possibility that we talk about ‘God’ but fail to keep God alive, that our spirits and imaginations become deadened to Its call.  For that reason we install two days a year to resurrecting His Reign, to magnifying his Memory, to enlarging his Greatness.

When we pray for life rather than death, we are praying for the life of ‘God’ as much for our own lives, we are becoming conscious of the sense in which neither can live without the other, of the ways that they nourish, fuel and sustain each other.

May our prayers be fluent in our mouths, may they rise to the awesome and lofty tasks before us, and may they be effective in sculpting space for God in our lives, in restoring ‘God’ to the life and place worthy of it.  May our year be full and blessed, may our lives be touched and lifted by the Grace of a freshly restored ‘God’.