Friday, September 29, 2006

That Old Time Religion

It's the High Holy Day season once again. It's a time for reflection, repentance and renewal. I spent a terrific Rosh Hashanah weekend in Indianapolis with my mother and extended family. And I went to synagogue both mornings, which is a rare occurrence for me. And, as usual, the service got me asking a lot of questions.

The Reconstructionist synagogue in Indianapolis is a different kind of experience for me. I went to a Reconstructionist synagogue growing up in Montreal, but it was nothing like this one. Ours was a much smaller congregation, and we didn't have anything like an organist and choir. And although I've been to the temple in Indy before, I still get the feeling that either I'm in a church, or the organist and choir were on loan from one. I also brought up with my mother the irony of not being able to blow the shofar on the Sabbath, but an electric organ being permissible. It just goes to show that when it comes to traditions, people can be very selective indeed.

Now, I'm not at all what you'd call a traditionalist when it comes to religion. Personally, I think organized religion is unnecessary. I'm not anti-religion per se, but a lot of it just doesn't wash with me intellectually. I think spirituality is a good thing, but most Western religions require a kind of fabricated pathos that any God worth believing in would just laugh off. Also, Judaism and Catholicism both borrow much from the ancient Pagans in their reverence for objects and symbols. That's a much longer discussion, but suffice it to say that my connection to my Jewishness is based on history and common experience. Jews could rely on the bunker mentality we've developed over the years, as well as our values regarding work and family and community, and we'll survive just fine. But it was religion that kept us together in earlier times, and most of our traditions stem from that.

I think Reconstructionism is the best movement in Judaism in terms of marrying the ancient traditions with modern thinking. On the other hand, it is also full of paradoxes, because while the traditional liturgy is recited during services, much of that text does not reflect Reconstructionist thought. Reconstructionism doesn't strictly require belief in any deity. So a lot of the prayers, while paying homage to the Jewish religious experience over the centuries, really ring hollow. Furthermore, people sing out certain prayers, in full voice, while simultaneously rejecting these words intellectually. The best example for this time of year is the Unetaneh Tokef which says:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed...But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
Now, I'll bet that 90% of the people in the synagogue who recite those lines don't believe them. It is quite apparent to anybody who has lived in the real world that our spiritual actions have no bearing on our worldly fate for the coming year. Furthermore, I don't know that there is any kind of precedent documented in the Talmud of a single case where repentance, prayer and righteousness during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has caused somebody's fate to be changed before it was sealed.

Those lines I quoted above are the crux of the Unetaneh Tokef. But the stuff in between (where I put an ellipses) is almost Pythonesque. In Monty Python's Meaning Of Life there was a scene in the chapel of a boys' school where they recite the following prayer:

Oh Lord, please don't burn us/Don't grill or toast your flock/Don't put us on the barbecue/Or simmer us in stock/Don't braise or bake or boil us/Or stir-fry us in a wok/Oh please don't lightly poach us/Or baste us with hot fat/Don't fricassee or roast us/Or boil us in a vat/And please don't stick thy servants Lord/In a Rotiss-o-mat.

I really don't think that prayer is much more silly than these words from the Unetaneh Tokef:

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning


Okay, maybe that isn't quite as silly as Python. But do the people who recite these words really believe that repentance, prayer and righteousness will save them from strangulation or wild beast? Because I have a serious problem with anybody who does truly believe that. I believe anyone's motivation for being righteous should be righteousness itself, not the threat of what might happen to them in this life (or afterward, in the case of other religions). As for prayer, I have still never gotten a satisfactory answer about how we can be judged for our actions because we have free will, and yet can pray for God to intervene in other people's actions. And repentance, like righteousness, is a good thing, but it should be about how you improve yourself to better serve others rather than how it reflects on you at annual evaluation time.

If I am wrong about all this, then this might be my last blog entry. If so, then I apologize for my blasphemy. Otherwise, I'll see you again soon. And may we all have a peaceful and prosperous year.

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