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New Year thought

Last updated: 2003-09-26

Jeremy Rosen

New Year thought

For too many Jews Rosh Hashanna is not a great experience. If they turn up at synagogue altogether they are there on sufferance (because someone in the family insists) or out of guilt (if most of the year they have nothing to do with the Jewish community at least a token appearance is a sop to the conscience). Either way the services they encounter very rarely help bring them back to their roots.

There are various reasons. Inevitably, if you don't understand the language, the poetry, the sounds and the conventions then it's like Ozzy Osbourne going to the Opera!

Then the language and attitudes of religious authorities too often say nothing to the modern mind. There is no point in castigating those who do come, for the absence of others. There is no point in preaching to intelligent, thinking modern minds ideas that manifestly contradict their
experience of the world they live in. I am not talking about mysticism or matters of faith because although they are not subject to scientific analysis neither do they actually contradict scientific evidence. However arguing in support of a fundamentalist worldview for example certainly does. I know that scientific theories are also given to error but they are
at least open to question.

Thirdly, many young and not so young Jews have no interest in religion whatsoever. Most have had no Jewish education beyond the childish and no positive experience beyond parental foibles and occasional encounters with an alien tradition. Some have been to Jewish schools and turned off badly by the poor quality of a lot of Jewish studies teaching and antediluvian
attitudes. Some were educated in Israel in a society that is ideologically opposed to religion, made worse by the inept behaviour of many State rabbis and religious politicians.

Fourthly the version of Judaism that has dominated in Western Europe for the past two hundred years has been a dry, pseudo rationalist imitation of many Christian attitudes. For example the idea of getting married in a Synagogue is so alien to tradition where under the sky is preferred, that for a while, most religious authorities actually rejected the practice on
the grounds that it was Christian. The exclusion of mysticism and ecstasy (no I'm not talking about the pill) has left a dry formalistic uninspiring experience that is incapable of enthusing or inspiring. And that is why pseudo mystical alternatives often attract lost souls.

So if things are so terrible how come, if one takes an overall view (because some areas have declined while others have mushroomed) our synagogues have never been fuller, our religious life has never been richer and our community has never been better informed or educated in
Jewish learning?

I guess it proves that our religion is greater than the sum of its parts and somehow or other the voice of spirituality can be heard above the noise of the chatter that most of us will hear this Rosh Hashanah in shul.

Yet of course the saddest of all is the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish people are if not lost, at least alienated from their tradition. Does it matter? I believe it does. Objectively having a period of ten days a year in which we judge ourselves and compile an honest account of our past year's performance, is a very healthy human exercise. I agree that many committed Jews don't really do it but go through the form. Yet as an important contribution to the mental and moral health of society this seems to me to be an invaluable process.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas points out how so much of ancient custom is built on the idea of displacement, of bodily fluids, animals, and humans out of context. 'In context' means 'balance' between God and Human society. Dirt is only dirt when it leaves the cabbage patch and gets in your eye! Sex in one context is good but when it interferes with other
relationships is not.

Rosh Hashanah is designed to restore balance between the mundane and the spiritual. The 'clear' sound of the Shofar contrasts with the chatter of witch doctors' rattles, the hubbub of the crowd, the pressures of normal society. Rosh Hashanah only works on a therapeutic level as opposed to a social level, if it works on the individual to achieve however small, a
degree of improvement.

I remember, as a neophyte rabbi, scandalizing my first community when I told them that it was better to go for a peaceful walk and meditation in the nearby park than to sit bored or nattering in the synagogue. A healthy community needs healthy members. In the end it is the essential human relationship with life and its forces that transcends the social function
of the synagogue, important as it might be in its own way. As the Talmud says, 'God wants your heart' much more than 'bums on seats'. Thank God for God!

Have a sweet New Year.