Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Repent! Repent!

Happy New Year! As I write this, millions of red deliciouses are shivering in New York fridges, awaiting their ritual sacrifice and anointment with honey. My grandmother has bought an entire dead cow from the butcher. My mother’s aleph-shaped challah is out of the oven.

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.

Fig. 1.

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.

1 comment:

ben g said...

you are right on the money in your declaration that "this kind of repentance has nothing to do with minor improvements." my resolutions to eat more oatmeal or go to bed earlier will wait, as always, till just after christmas.

but i don't think the experience of the ancients is quite so distant from us as it seems. perhaps we will never be able to feel fully the terrible awe our ancestors felt at the old Temple services--but enough of those services remains for me to feel now, more than at any other time in the year, my own fragile mortality pressing down upon me.

the avinu malkeinu in particular is an intensely affecting experience for me on rosh hashanah and yom kippur. i am almost brought to tears as i plead in the whole of my being that i be inscribed in the book of life. after all this, to hear the stern blasts of the shofar is overwhelming.

why should this be? ram's horns aren't so scary, & surely i can't believe that my continued health depends more on an inscription in any book than on my diet & exercise. whatever it is i fear, it isn't the sound of a ram's horn. and i find very unlikely the prospect of Judgment Day actually occurring anytime soon.

a clue comes from the rambam, who bids me to await daily the coming of moshiach. i don't wake up every morning & look out the window to see if Judgment has finally been passed on the earth--but i would be mendacious if i denied having over the course of my life, some moments of real transcendence, some beautiful glimpses of the world--or at least its shadows here--of what the neoplatonists would have called νοῦς. (though i've never received even the slightest intimation of ἕν, the One beyond νοῦς from which all emanates--what plotinus could have meant by this remains a deep mystery to me.)

the things of νοῦς, Beauty & Justice & everything else up there, must be seen here on earth before the dawn of the messianic age, & hence it seems i have some duty to pursue these guys in order to prepare the world for the coming of moshiach. but all those capital-letter guys won't ever really live on earth, & without them there can't be a messianic age, so, okay. how can i obey maimonides without being disingenuous?

my answer is that even if i can't ever hope to experience Beauty in the sense that i mean (or don't mean, for that matter--because everything i or plotinus can say about this is in a certain sense meaningless), i can remember those moments of transcendence i've had, & do everything i can to pursue them. maybe this is still meaningless but it's okay.

this brings me back to rosh hashanah and the shofar. when i hear the shofar, maybe there's no real intimation of the Eternal for me as there was for the ancients. but the shofar can remind me of the transcendent (perhaps in the same way that a beautiful boy can remind plato of Justice--& on that note, maybe it's not a coincidence that the vilna gaon felt anim zmiros should be recited only on the holiest days) & of the true awes which i have felt before in my bones & hope to again. at the blowing of the shofar and at tashlich and at the recital of the avinu malkeinu or the unetaneh tokef, i am humbled, then stricken as i feel acutely my privation from the Good. and i don't think this is substantially different in character from the feelings the ancients had.

the natural follow-up argument to this one is that such experiences should inspire a resolution to devote one's life toward sanctifying the holy God, but this comment is already too long & it's probably incoherent because i haven't really edited it. how much editing do your blog posts have? i've been thinking about a blog but i'd never feel sure enough to post anything. (that's why i stick to other people's comments sections & letters pages)