Religion, as it’s talked about in politics and the news, is almost always a negative thing. It’s a source of fear or threat. Inflammation in the Middle East is triggered by competing visions of Allah.
It’s a marker of difference. Pundits obsess (pointlessly) over whether Mitt Romney’s religion make him unelectable; whether President Obama’s former church is a breeding ground for black separatists; whether any belief in any God betrays an ignorant, superstitious or science-phobic mind.
Religion is a stick, which the in-crowd uses to punish the outliers: As in, God hates gays, or God loves gays, or God hates the sin but loves the sinner. Polls have shown that the main reason a younger generation is abandoning religion boils down to this: It’s punitive and mean — too much of a bummer too much of the time.
The truth is that even in private, religion can feel like a weight. You go to church or synagogue because you feel obligated; you send your children to Hebrew school with reservations and over their protestations. The upcoming Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur in particular, can feel like an orgy of self-immolation. The fasting. The counting of sins. The beating of breasts. During this season, the liturgy forces the faithful to regard without blinking their mortality and worse: the chanciness of everything. One rabbi friend prefers to translate these holidays as “the Days of Dread” instead of the preferred but more anodyne “Days of Awe.” Over 10 days, he says, Jews “telescope the horror of life in general and of our lives in particular.”
At their best, the Jewish holidays require a downscaling of expectations. A Jew must recalibrate his or her hopes for the future against last year’s realities. And for so many Americans, reality — personal, political, financial — has fallen far short of dreams. During his staff meeting this week, Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in the District asked the leaders of his congregation to contemplate and discuss this passage from John Stuart Mill: “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” Hardly euphoric stuff.
Over the past several weeks, I have found myself anticipating these holidays, which my family celebrates, with foreboding. It’s not just their message that makes me tremble, it’s the work. Even Rosh Hashanah, that annual celebration of life’s sweetness, means extra chores for a Jewish mother. I am making lists of ingredients in my head, calculating errands with strategic preciseness, worrying whether last season’s tights fit. My mother would have spent this week polishing the silver, but I have a different life and have to fit my piety in between my deadlines. It might be easier, I sometimes think, to abandon all the effort: We could order Chinese and watch a romantic comedy instead.
But then I remember that, for me, religious observance is about duty, yes, but also joy. And pleasure. The Essenes, an ascetic sect of desert dwellers who lived around the time of Jesus, believed that when they sang in unison on the Sabbath, they were mirroring the songs of the angels in heaven. Even today, Jews’ Saturday morning prayers begin with a flood of thanks: for the roofs over our heads, for the breath in our bodies, for the eyes we have to see. We gather our children close, placing our hands on their heads, and we pray to God to give them health and peace. Saturday by Saturday, we watch them grow.
In this season, I asked the rabbis I know, where is that pleasure? In a divisive political year, in a fragile economy, with tensions simmering in the Middle East, how do we do that spiritual alchemy and turn obligation into joy? My rabbi friend who speaks of “horror” reminds me that although Judaism is a disciplined religion, it is not an abstemious one. We are to take pleasure in sex and in wine (when appropriate). We say blessings before drinking water and when reuniting with a friend after a long time.
Pleasure can even be found on Yom Kippur within the Jewish act of repentance, says Rabbi Gil Steinlauf at Adas Israel in the District. “Even as life can be harsh and painful and filled with loss, we always have the power to act to sweeten life and make it more bearable, even pleasurable.” Repentance in Judaism is a returning to our truest selves, he says; embedded therein is the assumption that “our best nature is good and kind, and the act of acknowledging our mistakes and owning them is, ultimately, a pleasure, a spiritual pleasure that is experienced bodily as we speak our truth and make amends in this lifetime.” In Hebrew, Rabbi Steinlauf reminds me, there are 10 different words for joy.