Sunday, October 09, 2011

Jewish sin and repentance

Another Yom Kippur, another difficult fast. It never seems to get any easier. Toward the end of Avinu Malkenu yesterday, during the Neilah service with just minutes to go in the day, I had one of those brief fugitive experiences of transcendence, a chest-shuddering certainty of God’s presence, which justifies the fast. Maybe I was only dizzy.

Or maybe I was distracted most of the day and only cleared my head toward the end. Just a couple of hours before Kol Nidre on Friday afternoon I read a memoir-essay by Neal Pollack, the comical author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. Its title, “Yom Kippur for Shul-Haters,” caught my eye precisely because the essay was not written for me. I feel at home in shul. A skeptic’s view is always good, though, for concentrating the mind.

Pollack is remarkably open about his dislike for the holiest day on the Jewish calendar:

. . . I simply don’t buy what the holiday has, theologically, to offer. It’s hard to atone for your sins when you don’t believe in the concept of sin, and particularly not in the concept of sin when bundled into a mass confessional before a basically uncaring judge who decides, one day a year, whether or not you’re going to live or die. Perhaps, in a certain cultural context, that made sense once upon a time, but it doesn’t now, at least not to me.And what makes sense to him is really all that matters. As I tweeted in annoyance, Judaism is great when it agrees with him. When it doesn’t, well, you don’t really expect him to dump his personal preferences, do you?

Since Pollack was the one to bring up theology, however, it might do some good to clarify his own. In a word, his theology is confessional. Or, to be less coy about it, his thinking is not Jewish at all, but Christian. It is the Christian who demands prior belief as a condition of performing religious acts. For the Jew, things are rather different. As Arthur A. Cohen explains, “All Jewish beliefs interpret and elaborate the mystery of acts themselves, determining finally that many, even those regarded as critical, derive their justification from no rationalization, no human logic, but merely because they are the will and ordinance of God.”

For the Jew, in other words, the act is prior, and belief trails along afterwards, picking up wrappers and butts of meaning, which usually turn out to be worthless—every Jewish authority interprets the act differently—eventually concluding that it is done because Jews do it. The truth is that Jewish ritual is the enactment, the physical embodiment, of Jewish belief. You don’t have to believe in its educational benefits to read to your children; nor abandon the practice when you learn that it has none. You read to your children to create and deepen a relationship with them.

No real surprise that Pollack’s religious instincts are Christian rather than Jewish. He is a secular Jew who takes his cues from American culture rather than Jewish tradition, although he tries hard to raise a laugh about his own Jewish ignorance:It wouldn’t be fair to call me a non-observant Jew. I lead my extended family’s first-night Passover seder every year. When we light Hanukkah candles, I force my [son] to sing Maoz Tzur. I belong to Jewish cultural organizations and mailing lists and know the meaning of the phrase tikkun olam. Certain scenes in Barry Levinson’s Avalon bring me to tears. But when it comes to the High Holidays, and, in particular, Yom Kippur, I’m about as Jewish as the guy behind the counter at my neighborhood bodega.For those who don’t know, tikkun olam is a favorite phrase among Jewish social activists who hold Judaism in high esteem when it seems to vindicate their activism; less so when it doesn’t. As Hillel Halkin wrote in COMMENTARY in the definitive essay on the phrase:They represent the ultimate in that self-indulgent approach, so common in non-Orthodox Jewish circles in the United States today, that treats Jewish tradition not as a body of teachings to be learned from but as one needing to be taught what it is about by those who know better than it does what it should be about.Add Neal Pollack to their numbers. But what about the Jewish concept of sin? Is Pollack right not to buy into it? On Yom Kippur, Jewish confession is collective—he is right about that—but the reason it is collective is that the sin being confessed on Yom Kippur is collective. Pollack may be laboring under the dominion of the image of the Roman Catholic confessional. The Jewish concept of sin is much closer to the classical belief in the pollution of entire city, brought about by unspeakable crime, which Sophocles draws upon in Oedipus the King. Thus Creon reports the word of Phoebus to Thebes:An unclean thing there is, hid in our land,
Eating the soil thereof: this ye shall cast
Out, and not foster till all help be past. (vv. 110–12)
And the katharsis of classical tragedy is similar to the atonement of Yom Kippur. Moderns sentimentalize katharsis into a satisfying moral belch, a relief from the mild dyspepsia of fear and pity. The ancients conceived it as a cleansing purgation of the defilement that affected the whole society.

So too the Jews. At Sinai, God promised the children of Israel that they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—but if and only if they listened to his voice and guarded his covenant (Exod 19.5–6). God’s promise is conditional; Israel’s collective behavior during the rest of the year calls the if-clause into question; and Yom Kippur restores it.

When I worked out the logic of the day to my satisfaction and got his yuck-yuck prose out of my head at last, I was able to pray, and join in the atonement. Someday perhaps Neal Pollack will do the same. Next year in Jerusalem!