Jewish Atheist Fasts on Yom Kippur! (and other High Holiday thoughts)

God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos: he will set them above their betters.”

H.L. Mencken

“If this is your God, he is not very impressive. He has many psychological problems; he’s so insecure. He demands worship every seven days. He goes out and creates faulty humans and then blames them for his own mistakes. He’s a pretty poor excuse for a Supreme Being.”

Gene Roddenberry

“He’s makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice. Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice….

“He sees you when you’re sleeping He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, So be good for goodness’ sake!”

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”

Actually, I fasted for a blood test, fortuitously scheduled for Yom Kippur, and shortly thereafter enjoyed a hearty breakfast.  But it made for a nice headline.

Another Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come and gone, and I barely noticed.  I kinda let the High Holidays slide here at Cynicism Central, but that elision is fully in keeping with what is to follow. To wit:

Once I was a religious-looking Jew.  Hebrew school and bar mitzvah were mandatory, after which it was assumed that many would be fascinated by things Jewish, observe all the commandments, and maybe even become rabbis themselves!  I read a synagogue newsletter from years ago, in which the rabbi praised the current crop of bar (no bat yet) mitzvahs (they were some really smart guys) and hoped they would do exactly that.  Fortunately, they chose real professions rather than perpetuate the religious BS.

Looking religious

I had my bar mitzvah (Adelphia Hotel – is it still there? — with punch fountain), underwent a period of post-adolescent denial (”My parents tried to raise me Jewish, but it didn’t take,” a realistic response when asked about my religion)…then discovered Humanistic Judaism via the founder, the incredible Rabbi Sherwin Wine…then became disillusioned as his protégé Rabbi Adam Chalom and colleague Rabbi Dan Friedman dragged Sherwin’s brilliant idea back to those stupid Bible stories, as if these characters actually existed (none of them in the Torah, which is the first five books, were real), because they were lazy and comfortable with the traditions and didn’t want to seem too different from the rest of the very large suburban Jewish community. 

They kept spinning the Bible stories instead of presenting, as Sherwin did, examples and stories of “real Jews in real time.” 

I had hoped to see reason make real progress in my lifetime (e.g., a secular humanist President).  Instead, we have a Museum of Creationism.  It’s been a whole generation, and still religious fantasies maintain a powerful grip on the human psyche.  Presidential candidates deny the reality of evolution. The number of Jewish humanists worldwide may be increasing, but the movement has made little progress against the vast majority of believers, both red-hot and lukewarm. 

Crazy vs. REALLY crazy

Rick Levy, my fellow blogger (surely one of a handful of Jewish atheists in the Philippines), sent me an article that told of confrontation, in Israel, between Modern Orthodox, whom I consider merely psychotic, and the Haredim, whom I consider beyond insane — a dangerous cult of fanatics.

Disgusted but not surprised.  When Humanistic Judaism first took hold, I thought with Sherwin & Co. presenting a real alternative, most Jews might eventually drop the chains of barbaric tradition and become humanists, the better to connect with their heritage without praying, begging, and magic words, places, objects, and rituals. 

But noooooooooo!

Even the children of my contemporaries continue to attend services — in the case of one relative, because he likes the davening (i.e., the chanted prayers; you simply ignore the disgusting, degrading English version on the opposite page).  Also, he’s getting his ticket punched.  He’s doing what Jews do, to the approval of all.  It feels good, and it’s the path of least resistance.

That’s what I did during my corporate years.  Once, when I was at GM, whose Jews could be counted on the fingers of two hands, the company inconsiderately scheduled a management conference on Yom Kippur, I drove up there separately a day late, having attended a humanist service. 

It was perfectly in tune with the company’s dawning awareness that it consisted mostly of Midwestern white men and would thence pursue, with all its heart and soul, the ideal (later, the monstrosity) of “diversity.”  Jews sorta fell into that category (though we weren’t considered, in the company’s terms, a “protected class”), so I never had any problem taking off on the High Holidays.

Importance of context

And now, in rural New England, surrounded by gun- and dog-loving rednecks, my Jewish consciousness diminishes further, for indeed social context is a strong factor in the maintenance of belief.  In the northern suburbs of Chicago, Jews are everywhere, and local supermarkets stock up with tons of Passover and High Holiday treats.

Here, not so much.  And in the silence of the New England woods, mountains, ponds,  I don’t miss it.  Appearing Jewish has no social value whatsoever.

Flawed format

Besides, I find that the once-a-year format is profoundly flawed.  Just as with Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and all other holidays that involve humanistic vitures (love, gratitude, etc.), the behaviors we should practice year-round are celebrated on one day (or within a short interval, as Jews cram a year of confessions into ten days) because some middleman profits.  It’s happening with every holiday, as empty storefronts fill up with Halloween paraphernalia early in October.

National Pickle Day - I can see that.  But just one day for atonement, love, gratitude?  Black history gets a month.  Is it 30 times more important than the foregoing virtues?  I don’t think so. 

But this goes beyond retail.  There would be no point in celebrating Halloween every day.  With the other holidays (excluding the war holidays, of course), there is.  And the middlemen, the ones who profit from the once-a-year format, are the greeting card makers and the clerics.

High Holidays, strong version

For rabbis with an Orthodox flock, the High Holidays are a non-stop orgy of religious rituals (no shaving, bathing, etc….P-U!), self-abasement, and forgiveness-begging.  God’s going to inscribe you in the Book of Life.  He’s making a list, checking it twice, and he’ll decide what kind of year you have, so beg, grovel, confess, beg, and grovel some more.

Weak version

For the vast mass of Jews, it’s a lite version governed by the individual’s conscience and need for social approval.  You can park near the synagogue and appear to have walked there.  You can go to services many hours, or just a few.  You should appear to be fasting, because you will attend lavish break-fasts, where you will stuff yourself after having endured, for a few hours, the privation that afflicts half of humanity. 

There are no trinkets associated with the High Holidays, no Purim noisemakers, no Seder plate, no Hanukkah menorah or dreidel.

This is when Jews and their God get together for some quality time.  The more hours you put in at synagogue, the better and more pious you will look, but it’s not at all certain that God will judge your sincerity by the number of hours you log on those hard pews. 

Autumn sunbath

High Holiday services carried an extra little challenge for my family (the male members, at least; back in the day, there was indeed segregated seating).  We had an “assigned” place right next to a large stained-glass window, and the warm autumn sun streaming in, intensified by that window, along with the monotonous drone of the davening, induced either a meditative state (among the faithful) or the equivalent of a handful of Ambien (me and other Jewish-appearers).

(BTW, for some strange reason, the Binding of Isaac story in Genesis Ch. 19 gets a lot of attention at this time of year.  Don’t ask why.  It’s a tradition.  But to a humanist, this story is an insane test by a demented deity.  That Abraham is ready to sacrifice his son because his Imaginary Friend told him to…well, that just borders on homicidal schizophrenia.  For modern people, the story is an example of absolutely nothing, except the way our ancestors thought.)

Rabbis know that attendance will spike on the HH, so they do their best, I assume, to impart some wisdom.  A tiny percentage of the synagogue attendees may remember, if they hear it, THE most important High Holiday message: this is NOT a once-a-year thing. 

Human-generated virtues

If you really believe that forgiveness, atonement, unflinching self-awareness/evaluation, repentance, amends, and all the rest…are to be practiced every day, you can skip all the praying and begging, because the above qualities come from human beings.  They are done BY human beings with respect TO human beings.

So: are you Jew-folks going to come away from HH services with nothing more than the satisfaction of having your ticket punched? 

Are you going to feel that you’ve prayed enough, that God will give you a good grade for the year 5723, and you’re home free, free to abuse your spouse, kids, employees, or anybody else over whom you have power; free to lie for no good reason, to cheat and backstab, to make as much money and buy as many toys as you can (and give as little away as possible); free to practice bigotry against non-Jews and declare dead any family member who marries one, free to enjoy 355 days of getting and consuming and exploiting, until once again you can spend hours being absolved by listening to meaningless gibberish and standing and sitting as told, as you inhale that familiar old-synagogue fragrance of generations of perfumed bodies and old velvet (Ark curtains, tefillin bags) and silk (Torah cover), as you beg for forgiveness?

So there are two HH fallacies that the Jewish Atheist wants to puncture because they do not gibe with reality: (1) that religious attendance and ritual equal goodness; and (2) that enough hours of atonement will build up your God-bank account.  There is absolutely no justice in who gets to live how long.  Too many good people are cut off too soon (RIP Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Steve Jobs), while others pile on decades, doing nothing except consuming, playing, and/or making others miserable. 


Do HH 365.  Every day, ask yourself (oh hell, you can make up the list, but here are a few starters):

- Have I been a mensch, treating all with the dignity, consideration and respect that I want for myself?

- Have I put out my best effort or phoned it in?

- Have I lied to no good purpose?  Indulged in malicious gossip?

- Have I fatuously glad-handed and brown-nosed instead of letting my work speak for itself?  (Unfortunately, too many organizations encourage this sort of behavior.)

- Have I kept my commitments (with so many ways to flirt online!)?

- Have I seen wrongdoing and kept my mouth shut?  (I am aware that loss of job can be a powerful motivator, and whistleblowers are often treated harshly.) 

- Have I developed my talents or spent countless hours following the NFL (they don’t care about you – only your money)?

As I said, you get the drift.  Good behavior, 365, is not complicated.  But it is hard as hell.

Happy New Year.

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Comment by Alan Perlman on September 27, 2012 at 4:11pm

Cat...It sounds like what we used to do at the Birmingham Temple.  We did have a Yizkor service - your word is probably better.  In addition, the incomparable Rabbi Wine would give a set of five sermons on the same subject.  Brilliant man, and the best public speaker I ever heard.

Comment by Grinning Cat on September 27, 2012 at 1:29pm

In the Philadelphia area we're fortunate enough to have a Kehilla for Secular Jews comprising at least six secular Jewish groups, including a Jewish Children's Folkshul and Adult Community. They come together for humanistic Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur observances that draw on meaningful parts of tradition -- without begging, pleading, or imaginary friends. The memorial ritual is not "Yizkor" ("may [God] remember") but "Nizkor" ("let us remember").

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 27, 2012 at 12:27pm

As always, Steph, I am so grateful for your continued attention, kind words, and good wishes.

Coincidentally, the NFL is involved in a controversy as contentious as the Protestant Reformation: a salary dispute with and concomitant lockout of referees...and their replacement by lower-level officials who have already made countless blunders, failed to understand football's elaborate rules, and even counted an interception as a touchdown by the player who never caught the ball. 

Their ineptitude has enraged the fans.  In Baltimore, they united into a "fuck you" chant that the broadcasters probably turned into one long bleep.  This is so important that it is regularly reported in the news (otherwise I wouldn't know about it), as well as ridiculed by The Daily Show and South Park.

Following the parallel between football and religion, we have a serious problem.  What if we had substitute priests who didn't know the right way to adminster Communion?  I think Catholics would be really upset.  "The game," like Catholicism, is an entity that must be respected and preserved.



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