Another Yom Kippur, another difficult fast. It never seems to get any easier. Toward the end of Avinu Malkenu yesterday, during the Neilah service with just minutes to go in the day, I had one of those brief fugitive experiences of transcendence, a chest-shuddering certainty of God’s presence, which justifies the fast. Maybe I was only dizzy.
Or maybe I was distracted most of the day and only cleared my head toward the end. Just a couple of hours before Kol Nidre on Friday afternoon I read a memoir-essay by Neal Pollack, the comical author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. Its title, “Yom Kippur for Shul-Haters,” caught my eye precisely because the essay was not written for me. I feel at home in shul. A skeptic’s view is always good, though, for concentrating the mind.
Pollack is remarkably open about his dislike for the holiest day on the Jewish calendar:
Since Pollack was the one to bring up theology, however, it might do some good to clarify his own. In a word, his theology is confessional. Or, to be less coy about it, his thinking is not Jewish at all, but Christian. It is the Christian who demands prior belief as a condition of performing religious acts. For the Jew, things are rather different. As Arthur A. Cohen explains, “All Jewish beliefs interpret and elaborate the mystery of acts themselves, determining finally that many, even those regarded as critical, derive their justification from no rationalization, no human logic, but merely because they are the will and ordinance of God.”
For the Jew, in other words, the act is prior, and belief trails along afterwards, picking up wrappers and butts of meaning, which usually turn out to be worthless—every Jewish authority interprets the act differently—eventually concluding that it is done because Jews do it. The truth is that Jewish ritual is the enactment, the physical embodiment, of Jewish belief. You don’t have to believe in its educational benefits to read to your children; nor abandon the practice when you learn that it has none. You read to your children to create and deepen a relationship with them.
No real surprise that Pollack’s religious instincts are Christian rather than Jewish. He is a secular Jew who takes his cues from American culture rather than Jewish tradition, although he tries hard to raise a laugh about his own Jewish ignorance:
Eating the soil thereof: this ye shall cast
Out, and not foster till all help be past. (vv. 110–12)
So too the Jews. At Sinai, God promised the children of Israel that they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—but if and only if they listened to his voice and guarded his covenant (Exod 19.5–6). God’s promise is conditional; Israel’s collective behavior during the rest of the year calls the if-clause into question; and Yom Kippur restores it.
When I worked out the logic of the day to my satisfaction and got his yuck-yuck prose out of my head at last, I was able to pray, and join in the atonement. Someday perhaps Neal Pollack will do the same. Next year in Jerusalem!