Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A difficult fast

As they head into Yom Kippur, Jews wish one another a tsom kal, an “easy fast.” The wish may be contrary to God’s plans. The Jews fast on Yom Kippur, after all, to afflict themselves. “An easy affliction,” they might as well say.

Yesterday’s fast was an especially difficult one for me. My caffeine-withdrawal headache struck early and often. And I did not think that the book I was reading—Roland Merullo’s smart and witty American Savior, in which Jesus runs for president—was appropriate for shul. I can usually find something in the 800-page mahzor to divert if not to inspire me. Not yesterday, for some reason. (When asked to explain Yom Kippur, I say that the Jews afflict themselves by fasting and by reading a 800-page book aloud in public. When the book is finished, so is Yom Kippur, and the fast.)

My wife was canny and brought three books, including two by Rebbetzin Jungreis. I am allergic to inspirational literature, though. And so I was stuck with Irving Kristol’s Reflections of a Neoconservative, which I was rereading for the first time in twenty years. The essays on income redistribution and foreign policy did not hold my attention. I turned to the end of the book, where Kristol talks about the Jewish religion.

“Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism,” the book’s concluding essay, reminded me that I had begun my journey to Jewish Orthodoxy about the same time that I broke with the political Left, and for much the same reason. Kristol prefaces his remarks by observing that he “speak[s] as a neo-Orthodox Jew,” that is, as a Jew who is not religiously observant “but, in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy.”

Two different tempers divide the worlds of politics and religion between them. Kristol calls them “rabbinic Judaism” or “rabbinic Christianity—to coin a phrase”—and “prophetic Judaism” or “prophetic Christianity.” These religious traditions correspond to the spirit of orthodoxy and the spirit of gnosticism. In the “eternal debate about the nature of reality, about the nature of human authenticity,” one of these always adopts the Affirmative and the other always adopts the Negative.

The gnostic position is that human authenticity, keening aware of injustice and human suffering, demands “some kind of indignant metaphysical rebellion, a rebellion that will liberate us from the prison of this world.” Gnosticisms tend to be antinomian and millenarian, “to insist that this hell in which live, this ‘unfair’ world, can be radically corrected.”

Orthodoxy takes the opposite view. “The function of orthodoxy in all religions is to sanctify daily life and to urge us to achieve our fullest human potential through virtuous practice in our daily life, whether it be the fulfillment of the law in Judaism or Islam or imitatio Christi in Christianity.” Orthodoxy is stoical; it accepts the existence of injustice and suffering without believing they can ever be wholly eradicated; they must be fought where they are found, and endured when they cannot be fought. Orthodoxy is the encouragement of “spiritual governance” rather than metaphysical rebellion.

While trying to endure yesterday’s fast—an annual rite of governing my appetites—I was distracted by Kristol’s argument. I began to wonder if the dichotomy between the rabbis and the prophets, between gnosticism and orthodoxy, might also apply to the universe of literature. My head pounded, I paid little attention to the hazzan chanting musaf, but at least, in this way, I made it through the afternoon.


R/T said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights. As always, I am impressed by the depth and personality of your postings. With respect to Yom Kippur, I have been attempting to share information about the Day of Atonement with my students; however, I am poorly positioned to do anything other than point them to places where they can learn more, and your posting is another learning opportunity for us all.