Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The idea is to fast and spend the day confessing all your sins of the previous year, and ask God for forgiveness. Catholics can do this at Confession whenever they want, but Jews must suffer with their guilt for an entire year before being absolved. For Catholics, the priest speaks for God and bingo! You’ve got a clean slate. But for Jews, how do we know God is listening or that he is in the mood to absolve us? Maybe our sins were so terrible that even He can’t forgive us.
I was raised Jewish, but when I was a teen, I had a friend in summer camp who told me that he didn’t believe in organized religion. We talked about it for a few minutes, and it made sense to me. I had learned in Hebrew school that Rabbi Hillel said that God is everywhere; you don’t need to go to the Temple to pray. That makes sense. If you believe in the concept of God, then He, She or It must be everywhere and in everything—including in us.
My beef with organized religion started with the abusive use of religion to gain power over others. How many people have died in wars that were fought in the name of God? What about the Spanish Inquisition or the Spanish “convert or die” policy in the New World? It wasn’t just Spain. How about the Crusades and all the way up to the different sects of Islam killing each other and the Hindus and Muslims in India?
So that’s how it started for me. Over time I came to realize that Judaism was rooted in mostly European Jewish customs that were at odds with my identity as an American. For one thing, I couldn’t relate to the music. 5000 years and these people haven’t discovered syncopation and tritone substitution!
And yet they produced Gershwin, Kern, Arlen, Rodgers and a pile of other great American songwriters who assimilated and adopted the sounds, rhythms and ethos of our great country. Their music reflects the polyglot of cultures that birthed what we call America. Would America have any of its own music without the contributions of our brethren of African descent who spent centuries in chains here?
In this morning’s New York Times Crossword Puzzle the theme was Yiddish words. Although I don’t speak Yiddish and never knew my grandparents for whom Yiddish was their native tongue, I probably know a couple hundred Yiddish words and expressions. Most Americans know at least some.
Although I don’t relate to European Jewish culture (when I see Hasidim in Brooklyn, I wonder why they reject the modern world’s style of dress so completely), I enjoy the richness of the language in small doses in the context of humor. Yiddish words are loaded with meaning. Like music, I’m not a fan of Yiddish comics, but it’s no coincidence that so many of America’s greatest comics and comedians were Jewish. They changed their names, but it’s no secret—Jack Benny, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, and 100 more household names.
So today is Yom Kippur, and although I don’t celebrate Jewish holidays, I always fast for this one day. I like the idea of giving my digestive system the day off and maybe I’ll be more contemplative than I normally am—which is pretty contemplative. I was thinking about atoning for my sins. First I have to define sin, and then see how I have transgressed. So here they are:
- No other Gods before Me. I’m good on this one.
- No making idols. Again, no problem.
- Don’t take the Lord’s name in vein. Actually, I don’t remember doing that for quite some time. So far, so good.
- Remember the Sabbath day. This one could be a problem. Although the exact day of the week isn’t mentioned in the Bible, and different religions celebrate it on different days, I think the idea of resting, spending quality time with your family and friends and being with your thoughts is what is really behind this. So I think I’ll give myself a good grade here for being in the spirit of the commandment (albeit a moveable Sabbath)
- Honor thy father and mother. My folks died a long time ago, and although it wasn’t always reciprocal, I did treat them with respect.
- No murdering. I’m definitely an A student here, unless you count the people that my federal government has killed this year. I am opposed to all war and the death penalty. Actually, I do believe that people should be allowed to take their own lives or assign others to do it for them. Sometimes the pain of living is just too great. We understand that when we put our dogs and cats down. Abortion is tricky. My position on that is that women should decide what to do with their bodies and we should leave the government out of it. Anyway, I definitely didn’t kill anyone with my own hands this year. I have killed a few roaches. Does that count?
- No adultery. I’m good here.
- No stealing. I wouldn’t want to hurt someone else.
- No lying. This is tricky. It’s hard to avoid hurting people’s feelings when they look fat in that dress or they sound sad on the bandstand. I think I’ve been good about keeping my mouth shut in those instances. I probably would get along with people better if I was a better liar, but I’m just not comfortable with it.
- No coveting. Uh oh. I think this is what I need to work on. It’s not that I want someone else’s wife, goods or even their job, but every once in a while when I’m between jobs, I hear about someone getting a job that I have worked all my life for and for which I am uniquely qualified, and then I feel that an injustice has been done to me. 99% of the time I don’t go there, but I have to admit that there were a few jobs this year that I thought should have been offered to me rather than someone with much less experience and who was most probably less qualified. I get over it quickly, but I wish I didn’t have those feelings at all.
So that’s it for the Ten Commandments. I think I did pretty well on them, but this doesn’t feel complete. The big thing that is missing is to “treat thy neighbor as you would treat thyself.” I could have sworn that was a commandment. I looked it up, and it’s not on the list. This is where I get a “needs more work.” I haven’t gone out of my way to be mean to anyone, but I know that I can be kinder to everyone I come in contact with. I can be more generous of spirit, more empathetic and more encouraging. I’ve been working on this, but I’ll work harder.
Lastly, I’m going to hold back my anger when it serves no purpose other than to lash out and hurt someone. In our present political climate, it is nearly impossible for people on one side to understand those on the other side. I’ve seen this happen before. The result over and over has been war. Vladimir Putin’s goal may be to incite a second American Civil War. This could create a void on the world stage that he could fill. I don’t know for a fact that this is what he is thinking, but I do see the division in our country, and hope that war can be avoided, and we can find common ground and live in peace. That is my prayer for this Jewish New Year (that I don’t believe in).