Today is the first day of the Jewish year 5782. The most religious Jews believe that HaShem, according to Jewish tradition, created the universe by performing the miracle of dividing light from darkness, land from waters and creating life 5,782 years ago, literally, as it is written. Thus Jews believed two thousand years ago and, so it is, to the most fervently religious, to this day. Other Jews see 5782 as a symbolic number, the bit about God creating all the plants and animals one by one, culminating in his masterpiece, his special children, humans, woman created out of the first man’s spare rib, as so much Biblical poetry.
Religious belief has never interested me, I have no talent for it. My first thought is armies of the fucking righteous, putting the faithless to the sword, century after century. Virtually every religion has had a turn at Holy War. The most righteous of every creed recognize that the reward of an ethical life, some version of heaven or enlightenment, belongs to the righteous of all nations, when they are not slaughtering them.
My second thought is the hotbed of anti-Semitism that was Hillcrest Jewish Center, where, for several years, I was forced to attend classes after the regular school day was over.
Beyond the “fuck that” of a kid who’d just been sprung from jail having to report to another jail for a few hours, especially on beautiful days when playing baseball was much closer to God than learning to parrot prayers, in an unknown language, that were never translated or explained, there was the silencing of all questions. The blotting out of critical thinking was the most intolerable part of the Hillcrest Jewish Center religious experience. It was a gaslighting similar to what I experienced at home, where my very clever father endlessly fought me over everything, generally by recasting whatever else we were talking about as a damning referendum on my character.
Trips to the principal’s office, fucking Frieda Berkman was her name, did not cure me of my need to question things we were supposed to believe, rites we were supposed to perform by rote, mouthing prayers we didn’t understand. After Berkman got sick of having me wait in her tiny outer office day after day under a poster that said “a teacher attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with the desire to learn is hammering on cold steel” (I asked her about that one, she didn’t like my disrespectful question at all), I was sent to wait in the plush outer office of the rabbi, Israel Moshowitz by name. Moshowitz was photographed shaking Nixon’s hand, of course. He was a big deal. I have no recollection of the pious speech he eventually laid on me about being a good Jew and just doing what I was told. I’m fairly sure it involved the Holocaust.
It took me many years to get over the antiSemitism that was instilled in me by my early religious miseducation at Hillcrest. I used to recoil from the well-dressed swarm of once-a-year hyper-religious Jews who congregated at the Yom Kippur service (the Day of Atonement is ten days from Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year). I’d feel real disgust watching them hurry home to break their fast, in a huge hurry, all full of the righteousness of not having eaten in 24 hours. I’d walk to the synagogue to meet my father, shouldering my way past these hungry, rushing, bad-breathed creatures, and walk him home to break our fast.
I had no patience for the meaningless “please rise, please be seated” ritual of the Hillcrest gymnasium, where cheaper seats for High Holiday services were made available to those who were unable or unwilling to pay top dollar for an expensive seat in the sumptuous main chapel. Once in a while, in the gym, people would faint, and fall off their folding chair on to the lacquered wooden floor where, on other days, I’d played basketball.
No need to mention the vengeance of Frieda Berkman, who snarled at me over a loudspeaker during assemblies, or the united fucking by the synagogue itself, first in not presenting me with the Bar Mitzvah kiddush cup I had earned by reciting a few lines of Torah when I turned 13, and then by inviting me to a special service, in the Ferkauf Chapel, where, I was promised, I’d be presented with my kiddush cup. I put on a suit, went down there, “please rise, please be seated, please rise, please continue to stand,” and, at the end of the ponderous droning, there was no kiddush cup. I think of this every time I celebrate shabbat with friends who have their own, and their adult children’s, kiddush cups on the table filled with wine. I also think of how telling it was that my parents never intervened on my behalf.
So ritual for me, for the most part, so much contemptible horse shit. I say this with God Himself looking down on me, only slightly hurt. Worse things have been said by Jews, by Christians, by the otherwise righteous of all nations. If you experience a sense of community and spiritual completeness by sitting in a temple with others of your faith, God bless you, more power to you.
For me, religious ritual just reminds me of the super-religious Amy Coney Barrett, quickly ruling that religious gatherings during Covid-19 must be exempt from all health regulations, because God requires worship, and then, a short time later, ruling that an unconstitutional abortion ban in a state with a notoriously high infant and maternal mortality rate, a law designed to kill more poor women by forcing them to give birth whether they want to or not, is perfectly fine because the unconstitutional law is administratively complex. You can keep the ritualistic, inhuman religion of fanatics like Amy.
I emerged from a scarring childhood of incoherent religious idiocy, years later, to separate the moral teachings of Judaism from the empty rituals. There is a moral core to the teachings of the rabbis that is worth embracing. If you hate something, don’t do it to others. Be not intimate with the ruling authorities. Remember that you were a slave, do not tolerate the enslavement of others – freedom demands it. If you hurt somebody, do your best to make amends. A pretty good set of core principles, I believe.
These are moral precepts I have gleaned, some during interminable services (bar and bat mitzvahs, usually) where I flipped to the back of the prayer book and read Pirkey Avot, Selections from the Fathers, a short collection of pithy sayings that is part of the Mishnah, a vast book explaining every aspect of God’s laws. “Be not intimate with the ruling authorities” is in there somewhere, and it makes a great deal of sense to me. “What is hateful to you, do not unto others” is Rabbi Hillel’s famous formulation of what would later become Jesus’s Golden Rule “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and, to my mind, it provides a much more concrete guide for how to live an ethical life. If you hate something, don’t do it to somebody else. We humans know few things more deeply than what we hate.
Love, on the other hand, while precious beyond poetry, is a much shakier guide for how to act. A woman I used to know, who loved me, once gave me some counsel I argued against following. She countered that she wasn’t telling me anything she wouldn’t tell herself. I told her I knew that, but pointed out that in the past she had told herself to shut all the windows, turn on the gas and put her head in the oven, something I would never consider doing myself. In fact, I’d fight somebody who tried to insist I kill myself. She had the grace to concede that I had a point. Love is slippery as hell, and many of us don’t love ourselves as unconditionally and faithfully as we should, making it hard to love our neighbors as ourselves in the kindest possible way. At the same time, we, and those we love, are all we really have.
So I was happy today to see my smiling friends, regular synagogue goers, video me from a beautiful beach where they are celebrating today. “The beach is our shul this year,” my friend said, smiling from her beach chair, a light breeze tickling the shade umbrella under a perfect blue sky. I told her how beautiful their shul was, as she got up to take a panoramic shot of the sand, sky and ocean, and stop filming our other friend, who’d said hello but, like me, had had enough of the video conference after a short time. “Please be seated,” I should have told her.