The high attendance for Yom Kippur still perplexes me. It is a paradox. Objectively, all the elements of this holiday should keep away those who do not come frequently to shul. These are the longest services, and the most difficult to grasp because all of the texts call for repentance, something very difficult to achieve. Moreover, they talk about God and our relationship with the Divinity. Contrary to the other holidays like Shabbat or Shalosh regalim, Yom Kippur does not commemorate any particular historical period or event, it has no social or agricultural reason, or humanitarian principle, and above all, Yom Kippur is absent from every culinary book, because there is no special food involved on that day. Everything is pure spirituality. Contrition is accomplished by fasting in order to obtain God’s atonement.
It is on this day that all sorts of Jews, religious persons, agnostics, atheists, and all who are attached to a national identity decide to come to the synagogue and join other Jews. And they do so in such great numbers that synagogues are sometimes forced to move out of their buildings to welcome them all! This paradox has its roots in a well–known spirit of contradiction already summarized by Moses: «a stiff-necked people» (Exodus 33:5). Or maybe the reason for this phenomenon can be found in some sort of «clearance:» the sacrifices required by Yom Kippur are so monumental that they are equal to an annual subscription to all the services together!
But instead of blaming these so-called Yom Kippur Jews, as rabbis normally do (add the sermon to the list of grievances of the festival), on this evening of Kol Nidreh, I would like to indulge in a חשבון הנפש cheshvon ha-nefesh, the reckoning of the soul, for our religious institutions, our synagogues. If attendance on such a day is so remarkably high, maybe this is not the fault of those Yom Kippur Jews. Maybe it is our fault. I think I just heard a sigh of relief: «Finally someone is trying to understand us…» Maybe religious institutions are responsible for not being able to attract you at other times of the year by not knowing how to fulfill your needs. Do we always meet your expectations?
Let’s do a quick review of the main reproaches made against religious organizations. In the first place, in a consumer society, where everything has to be done for a reason, religion is accused of being useless. We can frequently hear someone saying «I can be good to other people without being religious.» Or: «I want to improve the world, but sustaining churches, synagogues or mosques that are always in need of money is pointless; these professional clergy people, organized religion, all these rules and rituals that nobody understands….» Does being engaged in religion make a difference in life? If religious belief and regular attendance do not make congregants better people, and if rejecting religion or being unaffiliated does not make people villains, why, then, be religious?
For some, religion is for the «weak». They say synagogues are like hospitals. They are happy to be in such good spiritual health that they have no need for them normally, but when they feel the need, they are happy to have synagogues available.
For others, religion goes against rationality. The 19th and 20th centuries have been the centuries of science –– objective research of a truth that can be experimented with and tested, substituting religion for belief in science. These people think that being modern means rejecting religion, which they perceive to be an enemy of honesty, progress and reason.
Finally, considering all the injustices in the world … wars and deportations … raises many questions: Where was God? How could God allow something like this to happen? But for some people raising the questions is not enough, and they come to the conclusion that they have to reject God and religion.
All these reproaches –– uselessness of religion, religion of the weak, science against religion or the inhumanity of the world –– should not be easily dismissed. I do not pretend to have the final answers but like Tom Thumb, I can place little white pebbles on our path that will be –– I hope –– little references for everyone regardless of whether you attend services regularly or not, or if you like or dislike communal institutions.
Firstly, a certain number of prejudices have their sources in a misconception of Judaism. Judaism is not simply a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers or a series of rituals. It is above all a peoplehood, a way of looking at the world. Judaism cannot change the world around us, but it has the power to change the way we look at the world, and this can make the difference. Let’s take as an example Genesis 21, where Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, has a child while Sarah is sterile; later on, due to inheritance issues, Hagar is banished to the desert with her child. All too soon, their water is used up and they are thirsty. She abandons the child under a bush and she cries. The text says, »Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and she filled the skin with water and let the boy drink.» (Gn 21:19) God did not create the well of water. God just opened her eyes, and only then did she simply see what she did not notice before. However, before God opened her eyes she only saw suffering and inconsistency. Suddenly the world that she perceived as cruel became generous and nurturing. The ability to perceive and acknowledge holiness in each human life is one of the elements that makes life a little easier. This is why the birth of a baby or any other milestone event in life has a dimension of wonder that deserves a religious celebration, to single it out, an unjustified sanctification in the eyes of science. Similarly, Judaism demands from us that we do everything possible to save a life, even if it requires us to transgress the very same Yom Kippur. There is nothing more important than visiting a friend who is sick, or comforting the mourners because life has an infinite value.
Once upon a time we believed that prayers had the ability to affect the seasons. To bring rain or increase the crops in the fields. Today we know that the seasons are ruled by the laws of physics and astronomy, not our prayers. Our prayers and rituals do not have any effect on the rain, but prayer and ritual do affect the way we perceive the rain. We cannot measure the success of prayer based on achieving the result we were praying for, or the healing of the person we were praying for. Prayer will help us to see rain or food as a gift. Prayer will remind us of those who suffer from hunger and of the miracle of the wheat that flourishes with the help of sun and rain. It will remind us of all of the people involved in the chain of production and who make it possible for us to have food every single day.
For a religious person, a mountain will not be the outcome of an earthquake. A religious person will not see a mountain as a potential skiing site , but as the meeting point between humans and the divinity, the place of dialogue between the We and the Other. A Torah scroll will not be a roll of dried skin of dead cows, but the symbol of an ancestral covenant, the trace of millenia of teaching. In this way, something apparently banal can become a source of awe and reflection through prayer.
The vision of the world that Judaism presents us with is that of a world that has meaning, purpose and direction. As philosopher Suzanne Langer said once, «We can adapt ourselves to anything but chaos.» The narrative of the Book of Genesis, which has no scientific pretensions, talks about a precise process of creation. Our existence, as well as the world’s existence, is not a random event, but it has a goal. We can get on with our lives without this sense of order and purpose.
Beyond the search for meaning, religion has the role of being a meeting point. It is a בת כנסת Bet Kenesset, or «House of Meeting», a «Synagogue», which in Greek means «walking together.» There are some moments in our lives when we look for other people’s company or other people’s support. Judaism teaches us to live those moments in the presence of those who are close to us and to invoke those who preceded us to be present in the rituals Jews have performed through centuries. Their presence comforts us and gives us a sense of belonging to a people and history.
The Community gives us this sweet taste of eternity. The 20th century has been the century of individuals who are no longer defined by belonging to a family, group or kin, but only defined by themselves. In contrast, remember those long biblical genealogies that the Bible used to define the individual. Thanks to this notion of community, Judaism commands us to be sensitive to our fellows. The input of the community takes place in reciprocity. I relieve my solitude and at the same time I help others. The others, then, are my sister and brother, created in God’s image, but they are never my competitors. The sense of the religious community is the sharing of the resources that turn complete strangers into friends, when they share important moments together, solemn moments like tonight. This is also the Shabbat dinner, where the worries of the week are left aside, when one invites into their home those who have nowhere to go. All this gives meaning to life.
When we eliminate organized religion, we eliminate community, and we open the door to egotism, to a celebration of all that is made by the individual, to an idolatry of the self. Tomorrow during Yizkor, we will read the verse from Psalm 8: «Almighty One, what are human beings that you take note of them?» We have lost the sense of awe in our lives. We have given so much room to the individual that there is no more room for God.
Elie Wiesel illustrates this concept it with this story.
Once a man went to see God on the celestial throne and said «Tell me, God, what’s more difficult, being God or being Human?» God answered: «Being God is certainly more difficult. I have to take care of all the universe, the planets and the galaxies. While your only worries are your job and your family.» «It is true –– said the man –– but you have infinite time and you are all-powerful. What’s difficult it is not accomplishing my task but doing it within the limits of human capabilities and the span of life.» God said: «You do not know what you are talking about! There is no question that being God is more difficult.» The man responded: «I do not see how you can say this with this assertive tone because you have never been human, and I have never been God. What do you think about interchanging our roles so that I can know what’s implied in being God and you in being Human? Let’s do it just for a moment!» God resisted the idea but the man was insistent until God agreed. They interchanged their roles. God became human and the man became God, but once the man was sitting the celestial throne he refused to let it go. He ruled the world and sent God into exile.
We need to learn to let it go and let God be God. Praying is above all recognizing that we are not all-powerful. In order to avoid idolatry it is necessary to think beyond oneself.
Yes, religious institutions built by human beings present the same limitations as humans. Synagogues, like the world in which we live, are a far cry from being perfect communities, but they are closer than any one of us can achieve individually! Maybe we don’t get close to a synagogue because we would not like the image we would see in the mirror. As Maurice Samuel wrote, «Nobody likes what they see in the mirror after waking up.» and I add to this: but how can we do without it?
Always surprised by the paradox of Yom Kippur, the most difficult day of the year but the day with the best attendance, I raise the question of whether communal institutions live up to your higher expectations. The examination of conscience about religious organizations has led us into a redefinition of religion, and that brings us to 21st century American Jews. Therefore, we need to change the possessive: it is no longer about your expectations but rather about our expectations, because Community is all of us. It is up to us together to make it possible that communities will nourish us. Do not let Judaism be a matter left only in the hands of professionals or institutions. Let all of us make the effort to commit ourselves to sustaining our community through frequent participation, through learning how to cooperate together, and how to build together. And then nobody will again raise the question: «Who needs God?»