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New month, new outlook

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-08-20

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

We have now entered the Jewish month of Elul. We say ‘goodbye’ to the ‘lazy hazy crazy days of summer’, as the song goes. Pleasure is over, back to business.

The religious academies re-open. We blow the shofar every morning and say an extra Psalm as we start preparing for the heavy atmosphere of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. In some communities we will have to say additional Selichot, penitential poems, every morning and get out of bed earlier than normal. I remember, when I first went to yeshiva as a teenager, the shock of the extra demands this period of the year made on my teenage sybaritic nature.

Yet, mystically speaking, the month of Elul is characterised by love. ELUL is fancifully described as standing for the Hebrew phrase from the Song of Songs Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, ‘I belong to my love and my love belongs to me.’ This is meant to emphasize the nature of our relationship with God, one based on love. Instead of the remote theoretical God of theology, this is a very sensual immediate and interactive passion. When Rabbi Akivah said that The Song of Songs was the holiest book of the bible he meant that its passionate description of love between two parties best characterised the nature of the love between us and God and did so more accurately than any other part of the bible.

If that is so, then how come most of us are led to believe that we must be a scared, frightened and required to appease an angry Power through self denial, penance and discipline?

It is tempting to blame Christianity for choosing the Greek distinction between Body, bad and Mind or Soul, good. But it was paganism that kept us at the mercy of random gods playing dice with humanity. Besides, as the American academic, Daniel Boyarin, has shown, there is very little to distinguish Jewish thinking from Christian during its first couple of hundred years.

Within Talmudic Judaism one can find the ascetic and as well as the ecstatic celebration of life. But it is certainly true that the Medieval Chassidei Ashkenaz, Pious Jews of Western Europe, introduced a very heavy layer of negativity and self-denial. At the time of the Christian mood of martyrdom that characterised the Crusades, Judaism in Europe, too, adopted the sort of mind set that led to suicides, such as those in York and Mainz, and self-imposed destruction as a response to oppression. 

The constant litany of oppression that followed the Jews eastward only added to the gloom and doom and joyless attitude to life and religion. Suffering seemed to be the language of religious worship and one hears echoes in the mournful way very Orthodox rabbis recite blessings under the Chuppa as though they were at a funeral.

Mysticism, too, was divided between those schools who focussed on discipline and self-denial and pain as the way to God, as opposed to those who stressed ecstasy, song and delight in this world as an image of the pleasure in the next. Chassidism initially stressed the simple pleasures of life and tried to bring light into the lives of the downtrodden and religiously depressed or disenfranchised. But in the various arguments that divided the movement in the nineteenth century, the dominant, if not the universal, mood took on a rejectionism (of the sort that we currently see in European Islam) that positively revelled in making life as different and as difficult as possible.

We have come a very long way from the Talmudic argument that we should be satisfied with what God has forbidden us without seeking more restrictions. And we have certainly deviated from the attitude that required us to account for every legitimate pleasure we might have taken but spurned. Somehow the kill-joy aspect of religion has affected us, too.

So, instead of preparing for the New Year by determining to enjoy God’s world even more than hitherto, we automatically assume that we will have to be even more restrictive. Consider that the bible commands only one fast day in the year. How many do we have now? What are the dominant biblical festivals? Ones that command us to be joyful. What encounter does the average Jew have with Judaism nowadays? Only the pain.  And what contacts do people have with rabbis? Primarily when they are telling them ‘no’.

It is true that in addition to all the fasts and The Three Weeks and the Omer, we have added Purim and Chanukah to the biblical roster. But most Jews only encounter Judaism through the prism of suffering. Now is the time to rejoice, to take the pleasures of vacation and try to extend them and allow them to infiltrate our religious world.

Shabbat Shalom and have a happy month!