This holiday fills me with savage joy. And that’s entirely due to my family’s tradition—which goes back to the seventeenth century—of refusing to take it seriously in the slightest. It’s a holiday of trying on new ties, standing on tiptoes to look taller in the family photo, and plunging at two o’clock into the all-forgiving embrace of a couch. It’s a holiday when my grandfather used to solemnly pronounce the puns in the prayerbook to a giggling table. Any talk of sin or divine judgment is jarringly out of place.
This all stems from a tradition of looking at piety with a owl’s raised eyebrow. To us, spiritual musings or minutely, kabbalistically calibrated prayers should never get in the way of the real fun of Judaism—the whispering in the pews, the guffawing at the ludicrous sections of the haggadah, the bottomless krater of squishy, gritty haroseth.
What would it mean to take the holiday seriously? One might start with the the theme provided by the Bible’s earliest commentators: judgment. The judgment that the Bible describes is much more radical than anything you could gather by observing a standard rosh hashanah service at modern synagogue of any denomination.
Let me give a quick sketch: It’s September 25th, 314 BC. A priest stands up in front of the massed Israelite crowd with a gold-encrusted trumpet. He blows it fiercely, and is accompanied by the clang of bellowing silver trumpets. Stringed instruments, meanwhile, produce an unearthly tone. As the priests intone songs of the immensity of God—the ancient equivalent of Dies Iræ—black smoke billows from the altar and floats to heaven. The smell of roasting flesh fills the air, and blood pours down the steps of the temple.
Ten days later, the community reassembles, this time in deep, self-imposed suffering. They have tortured themselves in utter, abject submission to the majesty of God. Now the High Priest stands up, amid the same ecstatic fanfare, and pronounces the sacred, forbidden name of God. The crowd throws itself to the ground in humility.
This is what it means to repent. One must be completely crushed by the immensity of the divine—and the whole person, not just his blemishes, is reduced to dust under the vast vault of the sky. Then the religious man comes to understand his real place in the cosmos. Another year, inevitably, will pass, and his soul will puff up again with pride. That’s why repentance is annual—human beings are so inherently proud that they must be regularly crushed into the dust to restore them to their proper place.
This kind of repentance has nothing to do with minor improvements. It has nothing to do with New Year’s resolutions to be slightly kinder this year. (Whether or not that kind of self-development works is besides the point.) It has everything to do with an emotional and spiritual feeling of being reduced to nothingness, and to crawl out of the refiner’s fire in trembling fear of God.
I have only ever found a really, delightfully terrible service in one place—paradoxically, the synagogue where I grew up. When the shofar blower goes up onto the tebah, he pulls a white tallit over his head and intones a scary poem in frightening, ghostly tones. Then he sounds his horn. When I was a kid, I didn’t think it was a human being blowing the shofar, but a demonic angel. There’s also a choir out of sight in a loft, which I thought until a very late age (21) was the thundering voice of God.
But failing terribleness, failing an experience that violently crushes us into the ground, the next best experience on the New Year has nothing to do with petty moralism: it’s unadulterated, ungodly mirth. Do I think we should drop the business of tinkering with ourselves? No way! It’s too much fun to give up. But I’ll save that for December 31st; for now, I’ll salivate over my brisket, and shiver when I go to synagogue.