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Column: A time to assess culpability, harvest redemption

For the Valley News
Published: 9/18/2021 10:10:05 PM
Modified: 9/18/2021 10:10:06 PM

Let’s get something straight right away. I am your emcee today, not your rabbi. I would indeed make a most unconventional, highly unlikely excuse for a rabbi. I am an atheist. My parents and some of my grandparents were atheists, too. I never even had a bar mitzvah.

Yet I am Jewish. Proudly so.

One may say, “I used to be Catholic” or “I am a lapsed Episcopalian” or “When I was a child I was a Voudonisan.” Not so with Jews. Once a Jew, always a Jew, theology notwithstanding. It is in the blood, in the phrasing of language, in the habit of mind. A lapse is impossible.

I have something of an understanding of this and shall do my best to explain it, with particular reference to Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and also Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the two High Holy Days that were observed earlier this month.

Judaism is dialectical. Its theology is argumentative. It often ends with a moral, however obscure.

Take the story of Abraham and Isaac. God, in an apparent fit of insecurity, asks Abraham to demonstrate his piety by sacrificing his only son, Isaac. Abraham is understandably reluctant to commit this terrible act so God compromises and accepts the slaughter of a lamb instead.

The episode is a dramatic conversation: God demands; Abraham answers in the negative; God gives ground much to the satisfaction of both Abraham and Himself/Herself, thus resolving the matter with civility.

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Judaism promotes an argumentative habit of mind; a dialog.

One may see similar illustrations in the works of such famous Jewish atheists as Marx, Freud and Einstein: Capital and labor resolved in socialism; id and superego resolved in ego; light as ray versus light as photons resolved in an inexplicable alternation between the two.

So it is in Jewish theology. God commands; the human person presents a counteroffer. In the end something gets worked out. This is the habit of thought of the Middle East merchant. “How much do you want for that?” “Ten dollars.” “I’ll give you seven-fifty.” “Eight and a quarter and it’s yours.” It is also the habit of the courtroom. “What is your plea?” “Innocent.” “Guilty: Thirty days.” “Extenuating circumstances!” “All right. Ten days.”

Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of score-keeping, of determining culpability, of assigning the terms of repayment. All this leads, with hope, to redemption, a reprieve from damnation. The drama occurs in a back-and-forth in which the conflict between God’s law and the failings of the human person is debated while at the same time taking inventory, measuring where we stand.

But what seems to me distinctively Jewish about the Rosh Hashanah staging is that the deity and the human being appear on a remarkably equal level. The human being, man or woman, speaks freely with God, who receives pleas as well as angry accusations. Of note is that Rosh Hashanah occurs in the time of harvest, when we size up the granary. “Let us assess what we have. Is there enough to last the winter or will we suffer?”

The product reaped is ethical behavior. “Have I been a good person or have I omitted something or forgotten someone or left somewhere an unpaid debt of insult, dishonesty or cruelty?”

The stage of this Rosh Hashanah theater, the ritual meal, is where we examine our hidden soul to find, before God’s eye spots it, where we are lacking, where debts remain to be paid.

For each debt, for each transgression, repentance is dramatized by tossing a straw into a body of water accompanied by a prayer of repentance. The feast ends with the sounding of the horn, the shofar, that announces the coming of God to render heavenly justice.

God renders such judgment 10 days later at Yom Kippur. The appellant meanwhile attempts to make amends to everyone he or she has wronged or to whom debts remain outstanding, and endeavors to expiate 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 Repentance, are thus a drama of resolution familiar to anyone who has had to deal with the Internal Revenue Service. But here the currency is not cash so much as decency. The question to be asked is: Have I been a good person?

It is said that Jews are God’s chosen people. Does that mean that He (or She) favors them over all others? That is perhaps an early reading. But more likely is the view that God demands more of Jews than of anyone. He/She has anointed Jews to be His/Her emissaries to bring the light of ethical behavior to everyone in the world.

Yahweh, the Jewish god, was once a mere village deity, small and parochial. The contribution of Judaism was to envision a universal force, a God for all of humanity, indeed for all of life.

It is because of this ethically oriented theology that we today see so many Jewish do-gooders, people committed to justice, to civil rights, to equality, to democracy and indeed to democratic socialism. Such preoccupations have made Jews more unpopular than ever with the bigots and tyrants of our time, even those with whom Judaism is nominally shared. It is probably also why we see so many Jewish accountants, lawyers and fiction writers.

Robert Belenky, of Hanover is a retired psychologist and the author of several books, including Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise: Jewish Agricultural Settlements in Ukraine During the 1920s and 1930s.

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