Friday, October 7, 2011

Jewish High Holy Days (and a whiff of antisemitism)

We recently noted the celebration of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The "High Holy Days" of the Jewish calendar—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—have now arrived. The first marks the new year, and the second, the Day of Atonement. The ten-day period is collectively known as the Days of Awe.

As in many other cases, there are striking similarities between the practices of the two religions. Many scholars have noted the direct connection between the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur and the Islamic fast day of Ashurah, derived from a Qur'anic commandment that believers observe "the fast as it was prescribed for those before you." As a distinct Islamic identity and practices crystallized, the focus of fasting and atonement shifted to the holy month of Ramadan. Ashurah became a voluntary fast day and later assumed a separate and higher significance among Shi'ites, for whom it commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala. Still, the parallels between the Days of Awe and Ramadan are apparent: a time of introspection, self-improvement, and acts of charity.

Although it is not generally known, Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish year, falls in Tishri, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. The first month  is Nissan, during which Passover falls. There are actually multiple Jewish "new years."  Rosh Hashanah marks the new year in the sense  of the birthday of the world—Creation—with which the calendar begins. By that reckoning, the new year will be 5772. Nissan marks the beginning of the year in another sense: the spring and advent of the agricultural season, and the birth of true Israelite peoplehood in the Exodus, leading to the covenant at Mount Sinai.

The liturgy for the Days of Awe is a particularly rich and complex one, focusing on the multiple roles of God as creator, king, and judge. The scriptural readings are likewise rich, and even perplexing, for they focus on difficult stories: challenging to the understanding, and in some ways, even seemingly subversive.

On Rosh Hashanah, there is first the surprising birth of Isaac to the aged Sarah and Abraham, followed by Sarah's seemingly cruel expulsion of Ishmael, the son of Abraham's handmaid, Hagar. God protects Ishmael and promises that both he and Isaac will become the ancestors of great nations. Then there is the story of Hannah, who prays desperately to God for a son and is turned away by a censorious priest who thinks her drunk.

In the words of the great scholar Ernest Simon, from 1955:
And so Judaism begins every new year with this victory of the mother over the institution and its soul-deaf representatives. Hagar the Egyptian, the mother of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs, and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, join hands as sisters in maternal suffering and maternal consolation.
The reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah describes the Akedah, or binding of Isaac, when God tests Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his own son.

Again, Simon:
After the suffering of mothers, passive feminine suffering, comes active masculine suffering; he must inflict it on himself. The paradox of his loyal readiness to sacrifice his son, understandable only as mystery, is rewarded; as God’s angel had reserved a well for Ishmael, so God has reserved something better for Isaac: a sacrificial lamb instead of his own sacrifice. The two half-brothers and foes run the same danger and are saved in similar ways; they too have become brothers, as Hagar and Hannah have become sisters.
The readings for Yom Kippur are equally challenging. Thus, for example, the Haftarah (scriptural reading that follows the Torah reading) is from the prophet Isaiah. Ironically, the passage (57:14-58:14) is one in which the prophet questions the value of precisely the fasting that looms so large on this particular holy day. The point, of course, is not to denounce the Day of Atonement or even modest self-denial, as such (though there is no room for asceticism or world-hatred in Judaism). Rather, he criticizes those who fast insincerely, neglecting the purpose of the rituals as a means to the end of reflection on the spiritual, entailing one's obligations to both the divine and one's fellow human beings.

The rabbis made these choices quite deliberately, and there are few better demonstrations of their provocative and open-ended approach to religion and society. The choices typify what Lutheran scholar Norman A. Beck called a "mature" religion, able to relativize its own position and incorporate into its very texts and doctrines a self-critical stance.

The image of the divine particular to this season (and especially interesting from the standpoint of book history) is that of God as scribe or bookkeeper, keeping records and rendering judgment on the lives of individuals in various heavenly ledgers and archives.  According to the rabbinic interpretation, he records the judgment for the preceding year on Rosh Hashanah, but the verdict is not final until it is "sealed" on Yom Kippur. Thus, the emphasis is on constant repentance during the ten days. Prayer, repentance, and good deeds, it is said, can still avert a negative judgment up to the moment that the gates of judgment close at the end of the Day of Atonement.

Accordingly, the traditional greetings for the New Year and Days of Awe are:

From Rosh Hashahah through Yom Kippur:
Shana tova: a good year
L'shanah tova tikatevu v'tichatemu: May you be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year
Leading up to/through Yom Kippur:
G'mar chatima tova: roughly, May you be sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year [literally just: a good sealing]
A week ago, a British rabbi, Naftali Brawer, attempted to explain the meaning of this season of introspection on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" page.
Why am I here? Why do I have the gifts and talents that I do? While the particular answers to such higher-order questions can be deeply subjective, Judaism at least provides a framework for considering them by asserting that every single life is imbued with unique purpose. Such as the following passage from the Talmud: "A human being creates many coins from the same die and they are all identical; the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed is He, coins all people from Adam's die and not one looks like another. This is why every person must say 'The world was created just for me'."

The Talmud is not encouraging narcissism. On the contrary, it is calling on each individual to recognise his or her uniqueness and as a result to make a distinctive contribution in life. It is not a lesson about taking; it is a lesson about contributing and doing something extraordinary with one's life. In other words, identifying that which is unique in us leads us to think less about what we need and more about what we are needed for.

Returning to one's true self through higher-order questioning is what the Sabbath of return is all about. One needn't be Jewish to appreciate its importance and recognise its potential positive impact on our lives and society. 
(The Talmudic passage is also known through a famous teaching of the Hasidic master Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, who said each person should carry two notes in his pockets as reminders on how to live: one reading, "For my sake was the world created," and the other, "I am but dust and ashes.")

What Rabbi Brawer said seems unexceptionable: we seek to identify our individuality and distinctive strengths in order to better the lot of all humanity.

Most of the nearly 100 comments were banal or slightly off-target at worst. Many, for example, questioned the religious assumptions behind the piece or tried to engage in philosophical subtleties regarding the purpose or lack thereof behind human existence rather than focusing on the essay's universal social message.

However, since Comment is Free, ironically, is known as a site that regularly attracts antisemitic talkbacks from its readers, it should come as no surprise that some of them gratuitously seized upon the column as an opportunity to attack Jews. The editors deleted a handful of comments, but CiFWatch, which monitors the site for intolerance and hate speech, managed to catch a couple of classics that were allowed to stand until this unwelcome attention led to their removal, as well. One asked whether "Jews believe they have been specially selected by God and are therefore 'superior' to everyone else?"

Charming, Maybe these scribblers, too, should be practicing some introspection and repentance this weekend.

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