You Shall Pursue

October 5, 2012

An Open Letter to the Yom Kippur Jew

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Spirituality — marleyweiner @ 3:42 pm

Earlier this week, some of my classmates and I were talking about Jews who only go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. And what came up for us was the disconnect between how we experience Judaism, which is a very joyful, celebratory religion, and how some people that we know seem to see it as a religion of obligation. And so I wanted to tell Jewish people who do see Judaism that way a little bit more about what I see, during Yom Kippur and the rest of the year.

Every week, I get a chance to pause. I take Friday and Saturday as priority time to see family and friends, to eat good food, to read, to take walks, to dance, to enjoy myself. I use services as an opportunity to reflect back on the week that has passed, and offer up my feelings, thoughts, and fears to God. I understand that, if your model of Shabbat observance is a long list of can’ts, that is not going to be appealing. I think of the day as food for my soul. Anything that is not soul nourishing, whether that is vacuuming or homework or checking email, I give myself permission to not do it, to save it for the rest of the week. And carving out that time to not worry about anything is tremendously valuable to my self-care and stress levels.

And then there are the unambiguously joyous holidays. Simchat Torah, where you go to the synagogue and dance with the Torah until you are exhausted. At Columbia, we would dance and sing until we were sweaty and exhausted, high on Torah and the joy of celebrating as a community (and Manischevitz). Then we would walk to the library plaza clutching our Torah scrolls, and sing our final blessings before turning in for the night.

Or Purim, a delightfully backwards holiday that I don’t think is celebrated nearly enough by adult Jews. It is Halloween, Mardi Gras, a Masquerade Ball, a drag show, and deep theology all rolled into one. If you want to see truly joyful, raucous Judaism, you should go to an Israeli club somewhere during Purim.

Or Passover, which for me, means arguments, delicious food, and the Prince of Egypt. A few years ago at the family seder, I threw out the recitation of the Exodus story all together in favor of a series of discussion questions about the troubling parts of the story. The family loved it. Last year, the seder that I hosted included Lemony Snickett, an original reading from one of our guests about the beauty of parent-child relationships, and extensive discussions of queer and feminist theory. Seders are supposed to be fun, and it pains me deeply that the most commonly used seder is the one from Maxwell House, which is unengaging to say the least.

The thing about living within Judaism as a system, rather than just synagogue on Yom Kippur, a little bit of Hanukkah, and a seder that is as short as possible, is that it covers a remarkably full arc of human emotions and needs. One does not need to be a Torah scholar to appreciate the beauty of stars shining through the roof of a sukkah, or the glow of the Shabbat candles. And, if you incorporate Jewish practice into your life in ways that fit with your life and personal theology, religion and ritual can become sources of comfort rather than tedious obligation. You are looking for it, otherwise you wouldn’t show up to synagogue on Yom Kippur at all.

Yom Kippur is a holiday of penitence, sure. It is an opportunity to sincerely promise to come closer to my better nature in the year ahead. But I genuinely dedicate the time doing just that, which, oddly, frees me from guilt. God and I are old friends, we talk every week, and God is used to hearing what is up with me. Instead of spending the time worrying about how to be a better Jew, I come to shul on Yom Kippur aware that it is one day to celebrate my Judaism in one particular mode, rather than the only day that must sustain me throughout the year. This is how it should be. A religion built on guilt cannot sustain through an individual life, and certainly not through generations.

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