Diario Judío México - Only in the past century and a half, as Jews achieved political emancipation and the compulsory religious life of the ghetto began to fade, did many begin to drop full religious observance and to select Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the one religious period that they would observe. just as Chanukah emerged from its position as a relatively minor holiday, so, too, Rosh Hashanah became a major event-and probably for the same reason: It was a holiday that seemed to help Jews fit into the Christian world. Sin was always a larger theme in Christianity than in Judaism, but it gained great importance when Jews began the apologetic task of explaining how our religion was like theirs. The focus on “who shall live and who shall die,” from a prayer that is only six hundred years old-a relatively new addition to the liturgy-became increasingly important for Jews in Christian Europe where pogroms yielded to larger-scale destruction in the modern period; here was a holiday that seemed to speak to the precariousness of Jewish life in the modern age. To Jews who no longer knew the joys of celebrating the weekly Shabbat, the fear and trembling of the holy days seemed to correspond to their experience of being Jewish, and these holidays simultaneously came to represent what Judaism was all about-with the unfortunate result that once a year seemed more than enough for this kind of religion. In future issues we shall try to show how Judaism is much more joyful and celebratory than most Jews know, but for the moment we want to focus on how Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are themselves more than meet the eye.
The once-a-year Jews who descend on the temples and synagogues on the High Holy Days often bring with them an ambience that has little to do with the essence or intent of Judaism. This editor remembers attempting to daven as a twelve-year-old in the two thousand-seat synagogue in Newark that was filled with people wrapped in mink coats, the air saturated with intense perfumes. On one side were two men in an animated discussion about their latest real estate deals, taking advantage of this annual opportunity to share schemes. I tried to raise my voice a little louder in davening, only to have the doctor in front of me turn around and say, “Listen, I paid good money to hear this cantor and choir sing-I didn’t come to hear you. Keep quiet so I can listen to this guy’s magnificent voice.” It was indeed magnificent-the cantor performed at the City Center Opera, and the choir had been assembled from the Metropolitan Opera. Who was I to ruin this show by trying to pray? And though there was less of this in a nearby Orthodox shul, there, too, the comings and goings of relatives and friends seemed the dominant show, and to most people the real action happened outside the shul, where the socializing took place.
Yet built into the High Holy Days is a deep psychological wisdom that could be reclaimed if taken outside these rather distracting contexts. In the ten days of repentance that extend from the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, through the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, we have a mass psychological process from which many non-Jews could learn. It contains deep insights that, if taken seriously, would dramatically improve the possibility for healing, repairing, and transforming the world (tikkun).
Rosh Hashanah is called The Day of Remembrance, Yom Hazeekaron. Jews do not start our New Year in drunken frenzy or despair. Rather, to begin anew, Jews celebrate the future by looking at our past, by learning front where we have come. The focus on understanding what can be by first looking at what has been is the start of what we might call Jewish dialectics.
There are two fundamental aspects to Jewish dialectics: (1) We look at the present reality not as some inevitable and fixed reality, but rather as the product of past choices that we and other human beings have made. Pop culture in America has always attempted to celebrate the present as the only possible reality, and we are enjoined to “go with the flow,” “ride the horse in the direction it is going,” or “accommodate to reality” But Jews have always seen that the present is just one possible reality, itself the product of past choices. By looking at the past on Rosh Hashanah we get a better sense of the present, seeing it much less as fixed, much more as one of many possible present. (2) Just as we see how the present is created by our past choices, we can see that the future can be very different from the present. The dominant culture encourages us to “accept reality” as it is, to “grow up” by learning to adjust to the world as presently constituted. Judaism has always rejected this concept of maturity. The Jews, at great personal and collective cost, have traditionally been the great refusers, those who would not bow to the idols of the world as constituted, those who insisted on holding out for a vision of a better life.
That is why, in the Aleynu prayer said three times a day three times a day in Jewish religious services throughout the year, Jews call tikkun olam, for the transformation of the world. That things can change is our great faith – and it is no surprise that both Marxism and psychoanalysis have had heavy Jewish roots and heavy Jewish participation.
Yet the talk of tikkun olam, of the total transformation of the world, can become (as we have seen in the distortions that occurred in the Marxist tradition) a way of protecting oneself from the need to transform oneself and one’s own weaknesses and fallibilities in daily life. Waiting for the millennium, waiting for the revolution. may sometimes take the place of serious grappling with the ways we personally participate in and recreate the distortions and evil in the world, Conversely, the exclusive psychoanalytic focus on one’s own personal history, often at the expense of seeing our relationship to a larger community, may result in the opposite and corresponding error in an age of narcissistic self-interest. The Jewish High Holy Days, on the other hand, offer a unique remedy: a socially constituted psychological process to be engaged in by an entire community at one time in the year.
The process is this: For ten days we engage in an individual and collective reassessment of our lives. Remembering is step one, looking at what we have done and what we have become through the past year. The second step is to measure that against our own highest visions of who we should and could be, both as individuals and as part of the community This step is facilitated when we collectively, through prayer, reaffirm the vision of our possibilities that is rooted in the Bible and has developed through the ages in our tradition. The third step is called teshuvah or repentance. This is not meant to be a mere statement of recommitment to “good values” that are so abstract that they function only to make us feel good because we espouse them but have no impact on what we do day to day. Real teshuvah means determining in considerable detail exactly what we are going to do differently in our lives, taking into account the things that will likely throw us off or undermine our resolve, and figuring out how we can overcome those conditions and actually live different lives in the year ahead. Taken seriously, teshuvah is not a series of “New Year’s resolutions” but is instead a serious plan of action based on the deepest and most searching self-scrutiny. Obviously, this is not something that happens in one morning at a synagogue; the services are meant only to provide the collective affirmation of the commitment to the task, but the ten days of repentance are intended to provide the setting for a much deeper and concentrated attention to change. Religious Jews use this opportunity not only to review their journals, to look over their calendars, to remember their past year, and to explore how they may remake themselves, but also to straighten up their unfinished business with other people. There is a strong injunction to make peace with those whom you have offended and to forgive others so that they, too, can begin anew.
Why only ten days? Doesn’t real change require a much deeper and longer process? Yes. Rosh Hashanah is not meant to replace psychoanalytically based psychotherapy on the one hand, or social revolution on the other. What it does is consolidate and refresh the moral, psychological, and political gains in understanding and practice that we as individuals and as a community have made in our past. For ten days we, together, take a new accounting, building on what we already know but reaching deeper into our ideals, to draw from them new guidance for how to live in the meantime (before the Messiah, before the revolution, before… ). The time-limited nature of the process is central to it. Unlike those who spend a lifetime in various psychological or more solitary spiritual pursuits, the Jewish tradition provides ten specific days to get oneself together. For those who take it seriously, the pressure is on, the gates of heaven are going to shut at the last service on Yom Kippur (Ne’ilah), and so the time to make the change is now, not some indefinite future. This creates a psychological and spiritual immediacy that forces the individual to take the process much more to heart, to avoid the kind of stalling that so often interferes with progress in psychotherapy.
Anyone who has attempted to make a serious change in her or his own life knows that even when we make a commitment to change, we are often faced with people who want us to remain the same, who throw us back into our old patterns and insist that who we were is who we will always be. One advantage of having a collective process of transformation is that if everyone is simultaneously engaged in the attempt to change and simultaneously needing the people around them to accept that change is possible, then we are all more likely and able to give each other support by allowing the changes to be real, just as we ask them to allow our changes to be real. Instead of undergoing change only as an event in my personal life, I see my changes coinciding with those taking place in everyone’s lives around me. The ritual of these days thereby becomes the public proclamation to each other that we are trying to make our own real changes and that we are allowing and accepting real changes in all others in the community.
The notion that my change requires others to change is rooted in the specifically Jewish way of looking at human life. Human beings are seen as fundamentally social-we are part of each other’s realities in a deep ontological sense, and our being is composed in part of the set of human relations in which we are engaged. So we do not say in our prayers, “I have sinned,” but rather, “We have sinned.” We are responsible for each other, and the level of our own transcendence always depends on the level of humanity that is attainable by the entire community. Judaism is not a religion for isolated mystics finding their own special ways to God. Individual religious experience has a certain validity, but it only becomes part of Judaism to the extent that it can be brought back into the community and shared. It is this sense of our collective interdependence that leads Jews to be agents of social change; we know that there is ultimately no “individual solution” to the alienation, estrangement, and sin of the modern world. Only by establishing a set of humane social relationships between all people will I as an individual be able to realize fully my deepest human potentialities. This is a far cry from the “human potential” or “humanistic psychology” movements; we have no doubt that the way to redemption is collective and involving all of humanity.
A community that integrates this kind of deep self exploration with a commitment to the community generates the tremendous spiritual energy that is available on the Ten Days of Repentance. And it is surely no surprise, then, that the Jewish liturgy moves quickly back and forth between a focus on our sins and a focus on our vision of a new world in which we could imagine God’s rule over the entire earth as a rule of justice and peace, in which the kingdom of evil has been swallowed up and arrogance has disappeared from the earth. What remains is a vision of compassion.
Compassion, in fact, is the overriding theme of these holidays. Precisely because the tradition is to see our imperfections as not solely our own fault but as rooted, in part, in an imperfect world, it stresses that God will have compassion for us. By extension, it urges us to have compassion for each other and for ourselves. Sin in Jewish liturgy is fundamentally different from the Christian concept: It is not that human beings are flawed or essentially evil; rather, the Hebrew word for sin (cheyt) means “missing the mark.” We are like arrows that have been off course, and we can support each other to get on course, knowing that we will need another High Holy Day period next year for more fine tuning. In asking God for compassion, we are simultaneously asserting that this compassion is what is most holy in the universe to us.
Those involved in movements for social change, those who wish to see fundamental transformation in the world, could well learn from the rituals and theoretical framework inherent in the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur process of repentance. A ten-day period aimed at collective self-examination and transcendence, rooted in a community which aims to make individual change part of an ongoing struggle for larger societal change, could both strengthen the movement’s resolve and heal many of the inner wounds of so many of its adherents. This is the universalism that Jews have to offer a movement for social change. Instead of abandoning Jewish tradition and trying to demonstrate our universalism by renouncing our particularism, we can draw from the depths of our particularity a set of insights, traditions, and rituals that could play a universal role in accelerating the healing and transformation that the world so badly needs.
Editorial: Tikkun, Vol. 2, No. 4,