September 24, 2004

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Openings and closings

I was once in a Jewish youth group and we had a Rabbi attend a session. He asked a simple question: why are you a Jew? The standard answer because of my mother was excluded. Why else? There were many answers. Because of the Holocaust. Because of anti-Semitism. Because of the constant attacks on Israel. All fine answers, the Rabbi said, but interestingly they all dwelt on the negative. No one answered because of the joy of the Festivals and Sabbath. No one said because of the history and culture. No one said because of the link between the past, present and future. In other words, no one looked at the positive reasons to Judaism. It's a lesson that stuck with me, even as I grapple with the great concepts of God and religion. Since that time I've always been conscious of it, that Judaism is something to celebrate and not just defend.

Soon Yom Kippur begins. This Day of Atonement is something of a misnomer - as I mentioned previously the entire period between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur is a time for atonement but also reflection and looking forward to the year ahead. Yom Kippur represents only the final part of that process. It is the day where the looking back stops and the looking forward begins.

Yom Kippur involves fasting for 25 hours (and forgoing certain other life-and-death events). No drinks, no water, no food. Yet surprisingly it is only a minor part of the festival and not the focus at all. So long as you prepare properly hunger and thirst do not become issues. The preparations are simple: avoid salty foods and caffeine, eat only moderate meals and make sure you're well hydrated before hand. Like all Jewish festivals there is food - the celebratory feast at the end. But that's a whiles away and there is much to do before then.

Tonight's Kol Nidre prayer is the most solemn in all Judaism. Tomorrow evening the final service, lasting about an hour, involves a final pleading to God to inscribe us all in the Book of Life before finishing with a final blow of the Shofar (ram's horn). Traditionally God shuts the Book at the end of this final service and the fates are sealed for a year. Some consider that God pays particular attention to this service, replacing Elijah in sitting in every congregation (he is God, after all, so he can get around) and watching Himself. Others say the shule becomes like the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism. Even most irreligious Jews make the effort to attend Kol Nidre and this final Nilah service. Call it the insurance service.

Back on Rosh HaShannah I asked you to think about the year past and the year ahead. It is one thing to say "I'm going to be a better person this year" but it also completely useless. When one takes stock of your life it is all to easy to gloss over the faults and dwell on the good. It achieves nothing. What is vital is to take an honest look at yourself, warts and all, and decide on a firm action plan to improve what you don't like AND to keep what you do. Yom Kippur represents the final day of the 10 day process of doing just that. It is not the end; you cannot wake up tomorrow and forget. Instead Yom Kipper marks the end of the period of thinking and marks the beginning of the period of doing. It's time to take the action plan and start implementing it. That's not to say the plan cannot be amended or improved upon during the year. But it does mean it is time to move from theory to practice, from why to how. And that's the hard part. So you can use Yom Kippur to help you make that transition by thinking about all you've reflected on from the past 10 days and spend the next 25 hours (fasting optional for non-Jews) thinking about how you're going to make it work.

At the same time it is a good time to take stock of the wider world around you. This is a world where this can happen, or this, but also where good deeds can be done like this, and where there is hope and lessons learnt. Likewise within all of us there is the constant battle between bad and good. Yom Kippur represents the time where you close the books on that battle for the year just passed and prepare for it for the year ahead. Just like the world itself, it is a never-ending battle that must always be fought. How you play that battle will determine what you do about the world you in live in, the people you live with and the things you do about it.

It's worth thinking about for at least one day a year. It is yet another wonderful reason to be Jewish. Because for one day a year you are forced to confront it all and deal with it, where it can be far easier to avoid and simply live without living. Because our way of life in this enlightened modern era of plenty and freedom is something to be celebrate, not just defend.

Others: Joe at WoC; First Things First; Rachel Ann with some others to think of and pray for too; Kesher Talk on preparing for YK.

posted by Simon on 09.24.04 at 03:50 PM in the


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errrmmmmm - i'm not remotely religious, but shouldn't the answer to "why are you a jew?" be because you believe in God but you don't believe jesus was the son of God?

surely the ceremonies, festivals etc should be merely ways of expressing this belief, obeying God's law and worshipping him. In themselves they don't make you jewish any more than going to church makes you christian - you have to actually believe in the version of events as espoused by the religion. if you go to church without believing in god and christ then you're just a sad git who has nothing better to do on a sunday morning than go to church (or in the case of judaism please substitute in synagogue and saturday).

giving answers like the holocaust, anti-semitism and attacks on israel are no more relevant than the festivals if you don't believe in God at the beginning. it'd be like saying you're christian because of the crusades, or protestant because of the spanish inquisition. meaningless answers.

posted by: giles on 09.24.04 at 05:27 PM [permalink]

I agree in parts with Giles, the first words out of your mouth when asked why you are a member of a religion should always be about faith, not ceremonies and certainly not to be defiant.

You could say that you believe in the religion or you could say how you became a member of it, but at the end of the day it shold be about faith, "I am a ..." "Because I believe"

If you take away all of the ceremonies and all of the festivities and all of the sadness and the joys of the past, at the core there is still faith.

If you do not believe and you do not have faith then you are just playing a part.

Without wanting to be offensive, I would say that if your answer as to why you are a member of religion is because of hatred or past opression, then you're missing something important and have been listening to the wrong preachers and speakers.

Religion should never be about defiance, if you define yourself by who you hate and who holds hatred towards you, then you need to look in the mirror and ask yuorself what would you be if nobody hated you and if you had nobody to hate, would you still be able to go on.

Hold your faith in your heart, whatever religion may be, because if all else is stripped away and your faith still remains, then you can proclaim the I believe.

posted by: ACB on 09.25.04 at 11:00 AM [permalink]

I am so sorry I missed your beautiful post before I posted and left the blog world for the day. It is truly inspiring. I would have linked to it, and I'm sorry I did not.

Giles; Judaism isn't about not believing in Jesus anymore than it is about not believing in zeus or is, to me at least, believing in the Laws that G-d gave us and feeling these laws were eternal and everlasting, and that these laws are beautiful and for our benefit and that following them brings us gifts.

posted by: Rachel Ann on 09.26.04 at 06:04 AM [permalink]

Thank you for posting this. I feel a bit culturally estranged from Jewish company here in Beijing, to say nothing of missing my family at this time, but you made me remember that it's in the heart and life.

Yom Tov

posted by: Ellen Sander on 09.27.04 at 06:59 AM [permalink]

rachel ann - that's my whole point. religion should be about belief, not about defining yourselves because of events in the past.

at the start of the post simon refers to being asked by a rabbi when young why he was jewish - the answers given were "becuase of the holocaust, because of anti-semitism, because of attacks on Israel". thinking those are bad makes you jewish then i'm jewish too!

my point is to define yourself as part of any religion you have to believe in that religions version of god / the world / reincarnation / etc etc.

the fact that the holocaust happened and was horrific is not a defining reason to be jewish, any more than liking the ceremonies and festivals makes you jewish.

posted by: giles on 09.27.04 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Giles - I thought it is obvious that belief is the first element in adhering to any religion. But that is not the limit to any religion. Judaism, for example, is far more than simply following a few festivals and the like. The story at the start is about what deines you as a Jew in addition to belief in God and Torah.

posted by: Simon on 09.27.04 at 11:29 AM [permalink]

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