Friday, October 10, 2008

The Gates of Repentence

In my twenties, I used to go off into the woods somewhere at Yom Kippur and try to reflect in some place of awe and wonder on the year that had just passed--a waterfall or a mountaintop, or something like that. I didn't belong to any temple, and was pretty disaffected from organized religion in general. I had gone back once or twice out of feelings of guilt and responsibility, only to sit in the very back, among strangers, not knowing any of the Hebrew and wishing that I could have a Genuine Experience of...something.

So...the woods. I would drive up into the North Georgia mountains (I was living in Atlanta at the time), the base of the Appalachians. It was terrain that reminded me of what passed, in my life, for sacred space--the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where I had spent the summers of my childhood. I would stay overnight in a bed and breakfast near a state park, and set out, early in the morning, for a hike. The isolation of the drive and the night was a nice break from the chaos and noise of my life back in town, full of the usual twenty-something drama and angst. By morning, I would be used to the quiet. And I would set out for a walk, breathing in the mountain air, watching the light filtering through the leaves, and hearing nothing human anywhere near me.

When I got to wherever I was going, I would stop, and sit, and recite the shema quietly to myself. And then I would talk--quietly, under my breath, but audibly. Having had the time and space to think through the past year, I was ready. So I talked through all of the mistakes and screw-ups and near-misses I could remember, and vowed to do better in the coming year. And then I would head back to my car, and back to the city.

I haven't done that for many years. Now, with a wife and two children, I belong to a temple and I go to services. I know the Hebrew better than I did in my twenties, and I know enough people in the congregation not to feel a stranger. But still, I wait for a moment of genuine religious feeling. And still, I find it missing.

At our congregation's Kol Nidre service, the evening service that begins Yom Kipuur, two cellos play the central tune as a duet, separating the two singings of the prayer. It is beautiful and haunting--and it is the one truly evocative and emotional moment of the holiday for me.

I am a Reform Jew, and it is a 100+ year old tradition that was started as a reaction against mysticism and mumbo-jumbo and outdated rituals. But in far too many cases, it left us with dry, lifeless services, where we say the same thing three times (spoken in Hebrew, then spoken in English, then sung in Hebrew). Why so much repetition? Well, probably because my grandparents' generation banished Hebrew, and my parents' generation brought it back, but without bothering to ensure that my generation learned it. So we do the Hebrew because we think it's right, and we do the English so that we can understand it. And then the cantor sings it, so that...well, I guess so that the cantor can keep his or her job.

And in the cause of pluralism and progressive politics, the words have too often been stripped of any power. We recite a prayer called al chet, to enumerate our wrongdoings as a community. But instead of saying "we," (as in "we have lied,") our prayerbook now says "some of us." Because, you know, maybe I didn't, or maybe you didn't, and why should we blame everyone?

Well, because that's the point. We're confessing as a community.

And one of the Rotten Things in this prayer, according to our prayerbook, is something like (I don't have the book in front of me) "some of us engaged in xenophobia." What's next? "Some of us were not as tolerant of the differently abled and the weight-challenged as we should have been, to encourage self-esteem"? I don't know what the original Hebrew was, but I'm betting it was something like, "We have hated the stranger in our midst." Now that's something with some real meat--something to feel bad about and try to remedy.
I mean, seriously, people, what is ritual without a little poetry?

I have sacrificed religion for churchiness, and it's a shame. I would like to find my way back to the religion. I've tried, half-heartedly, once or twice in recent years. But going for a quick walk in the park, while still embedded in one's crazy life, doesn't quite do it. It's hard to find the time and the space, in a life smothered in obligation.

But maybe next year. For now, there are, at least, the cellos.

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