Last year, my birthday fell on the same day as the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur, which I discussed in “Strange Atheist: Reconciliation.”
This year, it’s festive Simchas Torah, another one of this atheist’s favorite holidays. At sunset tonight, Jews will gather to mark the end and yet another beginning of the cycle of Torah readings.
The celebration includes much rejoicing, singing, and dancing. In fact, there is a good deal of dancing with open Torah scrolls… an exciting endeavor even for the atheists in the crowd.
As an atheist, I don’t put much stock into any sacred text. I believe that bibles and other texts are man-made didactic tools: origin and meaning-of-life myths; cautionary tales; examples of exemplary behavior; and even entertainment (feats of strength–that sort of thing).
Like all tools, these texts can be used for good or evil. For mindless control or for benevolent guidance. For immovable mental rigor or for dynamic examination of philosophy.
It’s a lot like the internet.
And Judaism is like any other religion: it uses it’s sacred texts in different ways depending upon the congregation and its leaders.
But if I don’t put a lot of stock into the Torah itself, why do I like this holiday?
First, candy apples. Yes, the gleaming red ones that require you to smash through their hard candy shell with your front teeth. The ones that make mothers and dentists wince.
When I was very young (maybe four years old?), my father took me to a Simchas Torah service at a big Orthodox synagogue in New Jersey. It was loud and festive, and near the end, someone handed me a candy apple the size of my head. It was the best thing I had ever seen. It was the best thing I had ever eaten. As far as I was concerned, it was the best night of my entire life.
They don’t do candy apples at my current temple. Something about them being too sticky. It’s enough to turn someone atheist. (Not really.) But the holiday brings me right back to my first Simchas Torah experience: wide synagogue doors, unrestrained revelry, and giant, sticky, crunchy, heaven on a stick.
Second, drama. Let’s loop back around to the myths part of sacred texts. I was raised in a Conservative shul with a healthy respect for the Torah both ideologically and physically. Though my perspectives on both have changed, I still know, in that bodily way you *know* superstitions to be true, that if a Torah scroll hits the ground, bad things will happen.
You are not supposed to drop the Torah. You can’t even drop a prayer book without having to kiss it when you pick it up. No, I’m not joking. So imagine the Torah itself hitting the floor!
Everyone would gasp. I envision a small child beginning to cry without even knowing why.
People would want to scramble to get it off the floor, but hold on – each Torah is hand-written on parchment. There’s no room for Torah yanking just because some reveler has sweaty palms. So people would hold their breath while a couple of people very gently lift and re-roll the scroll.
Next, the fast would begin. The dropper of the Torah would need to fast for 40 days. Yes, a biblical punishment for a biblical user error. Some people say that the rabbi has to fast even if someone else drops the Torah. My guess is that changes from rabbi to rabbi.
And then everyone in attendance would relive that blunder every Simchas Torah for the rest of their lives. Maybe every time they saw a Torah handled. Who knows?
So there you have it: this atheist’s fascination with Simchas Torah: candy apples and a potential disaster scenario.
And here I’ll admit my Jewish leanings: L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, my ancestors have arranged their lives around the Torah. It marked the passing of time, the passing down of traditions (some good, some not so good). It represented something holy, something better than our petty, temporal concerns.
So there’s something nostalgic about holding it up and celebrating another year of survival…. whether one believes in its origin or teachings is another matter entirely.
When the sun sets tonight, the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, will begin. It’s a dark day, marked by fasting and the repeated confession of our sins against god. It’s also one of this atheist’s favorite holidays.
On the surface, it makes no sense that an atheist would be so moved by standing in a temple full of hungry, cranky people with bad breath singing prayers that sound like dirges. In some temples, including the one in which I grew up, people beat their breasts as they recite a liturgy of sins known as Ashamnu, which starts with “We have trespassed” (sinned), and moves on to “We have been violent,” and “We have had evil hearts,” and the like.
As a child, I liked the ritual but was confused that I had to confess sins I didn’t feel I’d committed.
As an adolescent, I was annoyed that my religion required me to publicly prostrate myself before god for any reason. It felt like ass-kissing.
As a young adult, I realized I didn’t have to confess anything to anyone, and I thought people who recited Ashamnu (or any other prayer) were mindless sheep, baa-ing into a cosmic emptiness to relieve themselves of guilt both accurate and inflicted.
As I aged, though, and as I came to grips with both my atheism and my Juadism-oriented spirituality, I began to see Ashamnu, and Yom Kippur as a whole, as a guided meditation. Ego is a driving force in our lives. It’s important to slow down occasionally, take a step back, and see how we’re doing in the larger scheme of things.
I realize now that I am deeply flawed, and I have committed transgressions against the greater good. I have been selfish. I have stood by while others did harm.
I have been complacent in a world rife with injustice.
Few people in my current temple beat their breasts with each sin in the Ashamnu, but I do. The thunk of my closed fist against my chest reassures me that I’m taking seriously these reminders of honesty and decency. Not for god or someone who’s keeping track of my permanent record, but for me as one tiny but accountable part of humanity.
And, oddly enough, it makes perfect sense that I love Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Merriam-Webster defines atonement first as “reconciliation,” and reconciliation as “the process of finding a way to make two different ideas, facts, etc., exist or be true at the same time.”
Like having an atheist brain and a Jewish soul.
And so, to everyone: If I have done anything to hurt or harm you, if I have let you down in any way, I am sorry. I promise to try to be a better human next year.
L’shana tova (Happy New Year).
Strange Atheist posts are about my logical and spiritual journey, which began in a Kosher Jewish home in NJ and continues in a traif Jewish-Atheist home in PA. It’s about having a brain that sees god as a social construct and a soul that’s a Jew through and through (and not just for the matzo balls). They’re about right and wrong and those pesky gray areas. I am including previous religion-related posts in this category.
Strange Atheist posts are NOT about dissing religion or atheism. It is possible to discuss spirituality, value systems, and good/evil without resorting to nastiness, sermonizing, or name calling. Neither is are Strange Atheist posts about discerning, once and for all, the Truth because that, dear reader, is a very personal destination.
This blog topic started with a tweet:
Rosh Hashanah, time to go to shul & sing prayers to a god I
see as a symbol & feel as my own soul.
I feel a blog coming on.
7:55 AM – 5 Sep 13 ·
I’ve confused people by saying things like:
My brain is an atheist but my soul is a Jew.
By telling them I’m Jewish, behaving like a Jew, and then later revealing I’m atheist.
By being an atheist and wishing people success on their own religious and spiritual journeys.
And even by using the logic of their own faiths to comfort them.
Why? We are used to categorizing and labeling everything: our race, our sexuality, our political views, our stance on whether Ryan Seacrest really works as the host of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (I’m thinking no.).
But I believe that most things defy labels. Race, sexuality, political views, Ryan Seacrest-related beliefs… and religion.
I’m tired of confusing people and ready to start explaining. That’s what I’m going to explore here. I hope you’ll follow along and even join the discussion.
(Original post date: Wednesday, December 19, 2007)
1. Most Jews don’t feel bad because we don’t celebrate Christmas, and we don’t decorate our houses for Christmas because we don’t care to, not because we’re somehow punishing ourselves.
2. The majority of American Jews are neither offended by Jingle Bells nor thrilled that the chorus has made sure to sing one Hanukkah song.
Most of us hate the dreidel song once we’re out of preschool, and we’d like people to stop singing it, then pointing out that they’ve sung it, and then waiting for us to be all appreciative. Please understand this… no matter how many times it’s sung, it’s still about a spinning top (one that’s used to gamble, BTW). The song doesn’t hold any special meaning. In fact, if not for the fact that non-Jews keep adding it to their “Holiday” concerts, it’d probably be something you had to learn in Hebrew school, possibly sing to your grandparents once a year until your bar/bat mitzvah, and then forget about until your own kids were in Hebrew school. Now it’s become this symbol of misguided inclusion. Oy.
3. Most of us are NOT offended if someone wishes us a Merry Christmas.
We are well aware that MOST people in the US celebrate Christmas, and generally people are only trying to be polite or share their own excitement about their upcoming holiday. I’m at the point that when someone I hardly know (or don’t know at all) asks, “Are you ready for Christmas?” I just say, “Yes, and you?” Most often, people are just being polite and would MUCH rather talk about their own Christmas-preparation meshugas, anyway. It only becomes an issue when people you know well insist you MUS T celebrate it somehow, or send religious Christmas cards every year, and it’s not an inside joke.
For instance, I had a friend who, in jr. high, sent me a Christmas card. When she realized I was Jewish she was embarrassed and apologized. I let her know that it was no problem, and that I’d thought the card was pretty. The next year she sent me another Christmas card w/a note that read, “To my Jewish friend who likes Christmas cards! Happy Hannukah!” It became a yearly ritual, one that made me smile every year.
In another instance, however, I had an adult friend who sent us a very religious Christmas card one year, and who then called to ask if I’d gotten it, if I’d liked it, and what I was doing for Christmas…. with NO trace of humor. I said, yes, it was beautiful, but did she know that I was Jewish? She said yes, but she thought it captured the true spirit of Christmas. Did I really just IGNORE the whole holiday? I explained the whole idea of being “not Christian,” and she seemed to get it. The next year I got another, even more religious (of the “Hark! Our savior is born” variety) card from her. The following September, I sent her a High Holiday card and then called to see if she liked it. When she said it was beautiful but then confessed that she was confused because it really wasn’t her holiday, I said I knew, wished her a good yuntif and shana tova and hung up. Guess what? I got a generic “holiday” card that year.
4. We don’t care if your neice or brother-in-law or college roommate was Jewish.
I guess that’s all for now. But I’m reserving the right to complain some more. It’s my blog and I’ll bitch if I want to.