Let’s get straight to the point. I am your moderator today, not your rabbi. Indeed, I would make a highly unconventional, highly unlikely excuse for a rabbi. I am an atheist. My parents and some of my grandparents were also atheists. I’ve never had a bar mitzvah.
But I am a Jew. Proud.
You can say: “I used to be a Catholic” or “I am an apostate episcopalist” or “As a child I was a Voudonisan”. Not so with Jews. Once a Jew, always a Jew, despite theology. It is in the blood, in the formulation of language, in the habit of the mind. A failure is excluded.
I have some understanding of this and will do my best to explain, with particular reference to Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and also Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the two major holidays celebrated earlier this month .
Judaism is dialectical. His theology is argumentative. It often ends with a morality no matter how unclear.
Take the story of Abraham and Isaac. In an apparent fit of uncertainty, God asked Abraham to demonstrate his piety by sacrificing his only son, Isaac. Abraham is understandably reluctant to commit this horrific act, so God compromises and instead accepts the slaughter of a lamb.
The episode is a dramatic conversation: God demands; Abraham answers in the negative; God gives in much to the satisfaction of both Abraham and himself, and so resolves the matter with courtesy.
Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Judaism promotes an argumentative mindset; a dialogue.
Similar illustrations can be found in the works of such famous Jewish atheists as Marx, Freud and Einstein: Capital and Labor Solved in Socialism; It and superego dissolved in the ego; Light as a ray versus light as photons, which are dissolved in an inexplicable alternation between the two.
So it is in Jewish theology. God commands; man presents a counter-offer. In the end, something is worked out. This is the thinking habit of the Middle Eastern merchant. “How much do you want for that?” “Ten dollars.” “I’ll give you seven to fifty.” “Eight-quarters and it’s yours.” It’s also the courtroom custom. “What is your request?” “Innocent.” “Guilty: Thirty Days.” “Mitigating circumstances!” “Good. Ten days.”
Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of judgment, determination of debt, establishment of repayment terms. All of this hopefully leads to salvation, to deliverance from damnation. The drama plays back and forth as the conflict between God’s law and man’s failure is debated while taking stock of where we are.
But what strikes me as downright Jewish about the production of Rosh Hashanah is that deity and man appear on a remarkably equal level. Man, man or woman, speaks freely to God who receives both petitions and angry accusations. It is noteworthy that Rosh Hashanah takes place at the time of harvest when we estimate the breadbasket. “Let’s judge what we have. Is there enough to survive the winter or will we suffer? “
The product harvested is ethical behavior. “Am I a good person or have I left something out or forgotten someone or left an unpaid debt of insult, dishonesty or cruelty somewhere?”
The stage of this Rosh Hashanah theater, the ritual meal, is the place where we examine our hidden souls in order to find, before God’s eye recognizes them, where we are lacking, where there are still debts to be paid.
For every guilt, for every transgression, repentance is dramatized by throwing a straw into a body of water, accompanied by a prayer of repentance. The festival ends with the sound of the horn, the shofar, which announces the coming of God to practice heavenly justice.
God made such a judgment 10 days later on Yom Kippur. The complainant, meanwhile, tries to make amends for anyone who has wronged her or who is still in debt, and tries to atone for all sins and pay what is due. God is told of such efforts as part of the negotiation.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Penance, are thus a drama of dissolution familiar to anyone who has dealt with the Internal Revenue Service. But here the currency is less cash than decency. The question to be asked is: Was I a good person?
It is said that Jews are God’s chosen people. Does that mean he (or she) prefers her to everyone else? Maybe this is early reading. But more likely the view is that God asks more of Jews than of anyone. He / She anointed Jews as His messengers to bring the light of ethical behavior to all people in the world.
Yahweh, the Jewish God, was once a mere village deity, small and narrow-minded. Judaism’s contribution was to envision a universal force, a God for all humanity, indeed for all life.
Because of this ethically oriented theology, we see so many Jewish do-gooders today, people who are committed to justice, civil rights, equality, democracy and even democratic socialism. Such concerns have made Jews less popular than ever with the bigots and tyrants of our time, even with those with whom Judaism is nominally shared. It’s probably also why we see so many Jewish accountants, lawyers, and novelists.
Robert Belenky from Hanover is a retired psychologist and author of several books, including Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise: Jewish Agricultural Settlements in Ukraine during the 1920s and 1930s.