So exactly why does a skeptical agnostic spend most of his day in the synagogue, fasting and praying? Several things come to mind.
1. It's good to have some days where you check out of life as usual and sit and reflect on how you are living your life.
2. The Jewish High Holy Days structure that sort of meditation. Thousands of years of collected wisdom have been invested into this. A lot of the stuff makes good sense in very modern and practical ways.
3. The reformed Jewish movement has a fairly open view that allows everyone to come at this their own way.
4. I figured out, long ago, while living in a northern Thailand town for a couple of years, that tradition is a way to connect people with their ancestors and the generations to follow. At least theoretically, my ancestors were at Mt. Sinai when Moses came down with the Ten Commandments. Who am I to break those links? Hitler tried to wipe out the people who practiced those traditions. Since my parents got out of Germany in time to survive, I would just be completing Hitler's unfinished work if I were to abandon the tradition.
5. I like to see the many people I've come to know over the years who come together at the synagogue.
So let me show you a little about what I like in the services. (All citations are from The New Union Prayer Book: For the Days of Awe. [well it was new once.])
On Rosh Hashanah it is written,So during the ten days between the two holidays, people have time to repent, ask forgiveness, forgive others and to change their fate before it is sealed.
on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be:
who shall live and who shall die;
who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
who shall perish by fire and who by water;
who by sword and who by beast;
who by hunger and who by thirst;
who by earthquake and who by plague;
who by strangling and who by stoning;
who shall be secure and who shall be driven;
who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled;
who shall be poor and who shall be rich;
who shall be humbled and who exalted.
But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, and CHARITY
temper judgment's severe decree.
Whether our lives are actually determined for the next year or not, it is true that some will live and some die, etc. I find it good for me to reflect on that. And to consider where I'm slipping, where I can do better, who I've wronged and ask their forgiveness; and whom I have the power to forgive.
And collectively, we have a time to be forgiven and to forgive:
For tansgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.This discussion about forgiveness and judging has special meaning this year as I've spent the last two weeks in court watching the trial of an Alaskan politician accused of bribery. He apologized to the jury for his vulgar behavior seen in the surveillance video tapes. Is their forgiveness enough? What about his constituents? All Alaskans? Peter Kott, for my part, I forgive any transgression. And as a blogger, I'm reminded by "whether by word or by deed." Blogging gives me lots more opportunity to do harm by word. And I ask forgiveness for those I might have inadvertently harmed.
I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have wronged me, whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.
As I forgive and pardon those who have wronged me, may those whom I have harmed forgive and pardon me, whether I acted deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed.
But I think what I like about this service is that next we get into specifics. We can all smugly assume we haven't wronged any, or at least not too many, people when it is stated that generally. But the prayer book gives us an alphabet of sins to help prick our memory.
Who among us is righteousAnd that still isn't specific enough. We aren't just talking about murder and theft and adultery. The prayer book identifies a list of things that cause all of us to pause:
enough to say: 'I have not sinned?'
We are arrogant, brutal, careless,
destructive, egocentric, false;
greedy, heartless, insolent,
Our sins are an alphabet of woe.
FAILURES OF TRUTHThere are more verses, but you get the point. For most of us, it's these 'little' sins that accumulate and I find it a list that I respect.
We sin against You when we sin against ourselves.
For our failures of truth, O Lord, we ask forgiveness.
For passing judgment without knowledge of the facts,
and for distorting facts to fit our theories. [Who doesn't have work to do here?]
For deceiving ourselves and others with half-truths,
and for pretending to emotions we do not feel.
For using the sins of others to excuse our own,
and for denying responsibility for our own misfortunes.
For condemning in our children the faults we tolerate in ourselves,
and for condemning in our parents the faults we tolerate in ourselves,
FAILURES OF JUSTICE
For keeping the poor in the chains of poverty,
and turning a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed.
For using violence to maintain our power,
and for using violence to bring about change.
For waging aggressive war,
and for the sin of appeasing aggressors.
For obeying criminal orders,
and for the sin of silence and indifference.
For poisoning the air, and polluting land and sea,
and for all the evil means we employ to accomplish good ends.
FAILURES OF LOVE
For confusing love with lust,
and for pursuing fleeting pleasure at the cost of lasting hurt.
For using others as a means to gratify our desires,
and as stepping-stones to further our ambitions.
For withholding love to control those we claim to love,
and shunting aside those whose youth and age disturbs us.
For hiding from others behind an armor of mistrust,
and for the cynicism which leads us to mistrust the reality of unselfish love.
And Judaism is not rigid. The rabbis do not all agree, but give their interpretations and the prayer book offers conflicting interpretations:
Rabbi Samuel ben Nachmani said: At times the gates of prayer are open, at times the gates of prayer are barred. But the gates of repentance are never barred.
But it is reported that Rabbi Juday the Prince taught: In truth, the gates of prayer are never barred.
Rabbi Akiba taught: The gates of prayer are open, and the prayer of those who practice steadfast love is heard.
Rav Chisda taught: Though sometimes the gates of heaven seem shut to all prayers, they are open to the prayers of the wounded and the hurt.
And so the prayer book recognizes that everyone has a unique relationship to God.
You are my God, and my redeemer. Therefore, while around me others think their own thoughts, I think mine; and as each one of them seeks to experience Your presence, so do I.So whether there is actually a God external to human beings, or a God lives 'only' inside of human beings, we have available this connection to each other and connection to this heritage of moral teachings. If someone needs to believe that there is an external God who is watching and who will reward and punish, in order to live a righteous life, then they can have such a God to help them. If others cannot accept that a God exists outside of human consciousness, the words of the prayer book are still a good guide to reflecting on one's actions over the past year and the coming year.
Of course, there is also the music - the melodies that have been heard over and over again and are good friends. And in our synagogue I love that we have so many members who sing and chant the various songs and prayers. They aren't professional cantors, but they have beautiful voices and their participation enriches our services. No cantor's singing of Avinu Malchenu can reach me the way our friend Lynn, standing in front of the open ark and torahs, her dog Mary at her side, can. And members of the congregation come to the bima to read sections of the prayer book as well as the Torah. We aren't just an audience, we're participants.