In defence of Yom Kippur

Part two of my Yom Kippur ramble. See here for part one.

So last week I had a long post lamenting the decline of Yom Kippur and the fact that I couldn't get a goddamn drink of water afterwards. That brings me to what was supposed to be the point before I got side-tracked by other things: Yom Kippur.

I first have to explain a little about my personal beliefs and practises. I am not a “believer” in the sense that I believe that the bible is the unbreakable law dictated by God itself and preserved word-for-word since. I am a believer in the sense that I have yet to be given a better explanation for the fact that I not only exist, but am able to sit here typing into my iPad and questioning the meaning of things on WordPress. I am also a Jew — I was born a Jew, I was raised a Jew, and I see a great deal of value in some Jewish traditions and beliefs.

The key word there being some. There are other Jewish traditions and beliefs (mostly traditions) that I see no value in or even disagree with. My approach, therefore, is to try and learn about everything, follow the parts that make sense, ignore the ones that don't, and fight against the ones that are harmful. In fact, that's the approach I try to take with everything, not just religion.

For example, I am not currently keeping the festival of Succot, which began today. Succot has just never made sense to me. I understand that it has to do with the harvest, but I: a) live in the Southern Hemisphere, where we are not currently harvesting; and b) am not and have never been a farmer, therefore do not know much abut harvests. I also kind of understand the point about spending time in crude, outdoor structures like the ones our ancestors had to live in when they were wondering through the desert, but I have never found much meaning in the experience.

And that's not even getting into the whole shaking the branches around thing. I mean, seriously! What's up with that?

On the other hand, I really like everything about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When I contrast these two festivals to the secular new year, there is really not much comparison. There is a tradition in the West of making “new year's resolutions” that you break within a month and, otherwise, it's just marking a milestone/an excuse to get drunk (not that I don't like an excuse to get drunk, but still).

The Jewish approach to the new year just seems much more valuable. You have to take the time to be with family and to reflect on the good and bad things that you have done over the past year, apologise to those you have harmed (and that means a real apology), and think about how you could be a better person. Yom Kippur is the pinnacle of the whole tradition. It's a day out of each year when you are supposed to devote purely to self-reflection, to the extent that you forego usual distractions like eating and drinking to give you more focus.

I know a lot of people say “but fasting just makes me think about eating more”, but I disagree. You would be thinking about eating anyway, you're human. The fact that you think about eating but can't eat forces you to dwell on why you are depriving yourself of food, which means that you spend the whole day of Yom Kippur remembering that it is Yom Kippur. It's actually quite a powerful experience if you think about it. And of course, there is the test of willpower that I think can't possibly be a bad thing – knowing that you can eat and still depriving yourself for a purpose is something that a lot of spoilt people are not capable of doing (no names mentioned).

And there are other aspects that I like. The idea of communal confessions, for instance. There is something very powerful in the idea of the whole community coming together and all confessing at once to being flawed. It's a very egalitarian concept and very humbling. Compare it, for instance, to the Catholic idea of confession — a private confession to a priest of your sins. The dynamic there is completely different: you are inferior to the priest, who is absolving you on God's behalf. Your sins are private and secretive – ie something you do not want other people to know about.

In synagogue on Yom Kippur, on the other hand, everyone is a sinner – from the rabbi to the wealthiest and most powerful members of the community to the criminals and drug addicts. And that happens publicly. Everyone confesses to each other and to God that they are not perfect, that they did things that were wrong, and they promise in front of each other to be better people.

These are things that would only ever come through a religious tradition. My atheist friends tell me that they are “always trying to improve themselves”, or say things like “well I could do that any day of the year”. My answers are: “no you are not” and “but you don't”.

You do not live your life constantly improving yourself, because that is just not how human beings function. There is no way to be self-reflexive in that way without taking a step back – as Yom Kippur compels you to do. And I do not know any non-Jews who take a day each year purely for that purpose, let alone doing it communally.

For all those reasons, I think that Yom Kippur is a very positive tradition and it is one that I will continue to keep. That is why it saddens me that so many in my community do not feel the need to keep or respect it. I feel that it is kind of a knee-jerk reaction more than anything else – they have decided that they don't want to “be Jewish” for one reason or another and therefore it is all meaningless and it is all a waste of time.

The worst part of it is that the person boasting to me about the bacon roll that they ate on Yom Kippur morning is still letting their life be defined by Judaism. Doing that is not actually “ignoring” Judaism, so much as being unnecessarily spiteful. No matter how they may rationalise it to themselves, the reality is that they know that it is Yom Kippur and are cognicent of the fact that they are deliberately doing something slightly disrespectful to the day in order to prove a point to themselves and – judging by the fact that I was being boasted to – to others.

It seems like teenage rebellion more than anything else, like the kids who wear the wrong socks to school, even though their teacher keeps telling them not to, just because they can and “YOU CAN'T TELL ME HOW TO LIVE!!!”

It's puerile and its pointless.

The vast majority of people who are not keeping Yom Kippur have never thought about why they are not doing it, they are just allowing what they do not do to define what they do – ie “I am not religious” therefore” I do not keep festivals”. But why define your life in black and white terms like that? Just because some Jewish things are annoying or pointless does not mean that there is no value in others.

To me, it's not a smart way to live and will definitely not make you a better person.

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