[Note: The following was written when I was an adherent of Humanistic Judaism. I have since left the movement and revised the post, but the basic ideas still apply.]
“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increased noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation. Tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego.”
If you live anywhere in the Western, civilized world, you are aware that Jews worldwide are celebrating the New Year.
You’re probably also aware that it is 5700-something years since the creation of the world, that the Jewish New Year always comes in the fall (which is a much more natural time for most people), and that most Jews blow the shofar (ram’s horn) and read from the Torah (1st five books of the Bibe) at their services.
You are probably also aware that the New Year (which dates back to ancient Day of Judgment ceremonies) is a time of repentance, atonement and, for Jews who believe in God, a time of begging God for forgiveness and for a good year. This kind of thing is among the more degrading and distasteful of religious practices, in my opinion.
But lots of Jews are hard at it, hour after hour. In fact, the first thing I’ve learned this year (make that “re-learned”) is that people are very different when it comes to religion.
I was saying to a friend that some people don’t care what something says – in this case, the hypnotic davening, or chanting, at Rosh Hashanah services — as long as it sounds good. To my amazement, he informed me that he is one of those people.
This is a very bright guy, a doctor, a pilot. And yet he walks into a Jewish service and falls into some kind of primitive, nostalgic, I’m-at-the-right up-place-at-the-right-time kind of feeling (even told me that it made him feel good that Jews all over the world were doing the approximately the same thing), never bothering to look at the translation on the facing page, which, as every Humanist knows, tells you in your native tongue what the prayer is doing: thanking, imploring, begging, more thanking and praising, more begging and praising.
As Rabbi Adam Chalom pointed out in his Rosh Hashanah remarks, this kind of thing works with people, so why not try it on God?
Sitting still for humiliation
I wanted to scream at the person on the phone. How could any self-respecting person sit still for this kind of crap, hours of brown-nosing to nobody? But I was silent.
I’m sorry, but attending services because you like the chanting and it makes you feel good, regardless of what it actually says – how can I possibly respect this behavior? And that’s the difference between him and me.
Fact vs. song
To me, words have meaning and consequence. They refer to reality. Unless it’s a “song,” which I enjoy as a song — or as a play, a novel, a movie, or whatever narrative I am perceiving — but I know it’s not real, even if it has words and they say something. It’s not real. Just a story. Like the Torah.
If you like the chanting so much, why not just buy a CD and play it all the time at home? But no, it’s more a get-your-ticket-punched kind of thing. This is as deep as religion goes for this fellow.
And that’s because of another difference between me and him. Unlike the lives of most people, his has been totally free of any major illness, forced career change, accident, or in fact of any derailment or disruption of any kind. He leads what seems to be a charmed life. He doesn’t need religion for anything, certainly not for comfort, so he doesn’t have to do anything about it.
Meaning what you say
And that works for him. And that’s fine. But there’s some part of the concepts of “dignity” and “say what I mean; mean what I say” that he doesn’t understand.
After I explained the above to him, once, I was silent.
That’s what this year has been about for me: Silence. I know it may seem a little inconsistent to be posting stuff to my blog all the time, but this is really my only outlet. It’s public and private at the same time.
One can spend hours and hours reading about Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays on the Internet alone. I’ll try to provide something different.
High Holidays for Humanists
The High Holidays are very important to humanists, also. We simply take God out of the picture. Forgiveness, atonement, repentance, restitution, resolution — these come from within us and from other people, or they don’t happen at all.
Plus, the High Holidays for humanists are a time of introspection and goal setting. Since they don’t involve God’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people, as with Hanukkah or Passover, the theological element is separated quite easily, and the High Holidays appeal to modern psychological sensibilities as well.
If there’s anything I have to add to the voluminous literature on the High Holidays, it would be the concept of focused practice.
Early on, I learned from Rabbi Wine that Humanism, like Zen, is really pretty simple; you practice a few ideals until you get them right. Even though they are very difficult and challenging and it may take a lifetime to get them right, at least attention and practice will help.
That is a concept I put into practice every New Year. I just finished a year of Silence. Everything is additive, though. I will add Silence to next year’s concept, and I’ve even started to be more quiet than in the previous year, when now I think that maybe, considering how far I have to go, all I was doing was considering Silence.
But no, I did make some progress:
–I tried very hard to keep my opinion-giving to a minimum and to speak only when spoken to or when I had something genuine to say; I studiously avoided counter-productive discussions and arguments.
–During the silences, I tried to learn from other people — from their behavior, from their knowledge and experience; one of my favorite sayings is that you can learn nothing while you’re talking.
–I also increased the silence of my environment, which is already pretty quiet; it gives me pleasure to do the exact opposite of hordes of people who are increasingly plugged in and incapable of silence — indeed, I would challenge any Generation Xer to a quiet-sitting-still contest and perhaps make my fortune that way.
–I try to work on inner silence; there’ll be more progress in the coming year.
–Finally, I tried to incorporate silence into my piano playing, being more elliptical and economical, not so prolix in the use of notes, trying to, as Dizzy Gillespie is to say, “play the rests.”
Over the years, I’ve worked through the basic Zen/Humanistic virtues, in one form or another, many times. One year it was a year of Detachment. When my wife got cancer, it was definitely a year of Healing — that’s all we could focus on. I tried a year of Not Knowing (the Concept of “Beginner’s Mind”) and acquired a lot more compassion for people who don’t believe as I do.
Some progress is inevitable.
So this is my New Year’s suggestion to you: focused practice. The rationale is that if you concentrate on one ideal for an entire year, some progress is practically inevitable.
What is it that you need in your life? What habit of mind, what strength of character do you need to develop in the year ahead? What is life asking of you?
Then boil it down to one word or phrase, with a subtitle. My Year of Not Knowing was subtitled “Beginner’s Mind.” Silence was subtitled “Outer and Inner.”
Then spend the year practicing that particular quality. Every day will offer a chance, I promise you. Because that’s life.
If you can, pull together some quotes to guide you. You can get these off the Internet or from books of quotations. I cut mine out and tape them to a page so that I can look at them a lot during the year. Coincidentally, the best one appeared right at the end of the year, and I put it at the top of this post.
So that is how Humanists make sure that they – not God — will write themselves down for a good year, to the extent that they can. Not by praying and begging, but by actually doing the work to improve their lives and those of others.
L’Shana tovah, everyone! May it be a year of truth, reason, and peace.