Choosing Life in the New Year

When I was in sixth grade I won my Hebrew school’s essay contest by writing that Yom Kippur was my favorite Jewish  holiday. I figured — correctly, because I won — what kid would choose Yom Kippur?

But Yom Kippur was and still is my favorite holiday and it was a good one for me. The services and community at temple-shalom-of-newton/">Temple Shalom of Newton were meaningful and sustaining for me.

I woke up this morning still hungry, made my favorite breakfast, opened my computer, and found a lovely — I’m being sarcastic here — editorial from the Jerusalem Post, Debating Civil Marriage, with this lovely (sarcasm again) quote:

Though according to recent surveys of Jewish Israeli opinion, this is no longer the case, there was once a strong consensus that Israel, as the sovereign nation of the Jewish people, has an obligation to fight intermarriage through legislation that encourages Jews to marry other Jews. Intermarriage and assimilation plague Jews of the Diaspora. The State of Israel should reflect through its laws the desire of the Jewish people to maintain continuity. Admittedly, preventing Jews from marrying non-Jews through legislation or a lack thereof will not stop intermarriage. Love will overcome any obstacle. But the fact that the State of Israel does not officially condone intermarriage has some declarative value.

This is so wrong on so many levels. “Intermarriage plagues Jews of the Diaspora” and runs counter to maintaining continuity? Israeli leaders continue not to understand intermarriage in North America, that many interfaith families are engaging in Jewish life and are actively creating continuity. My op-ed in the Jerusalem Post to that effect two years ago apparently didn’t impress the editors (at least they publish contrary opinions).

“Love will overcome any obstacle;” legislation won’t stop intermarriage? The editors got that right — but they support that legislation any way — because it has “some declarative value”? What “declarative value” does it have exactly? If it won’t stop intermarriage, the declarative value is that it will alienate the interfaith couples who have to work around it in Israel. And worse, from my point of view, it will discourage interfaith couples in North America, especially the partners who are not Jewish who do want to be involved in Jewish life and community. Who would want to be part of a community whose intellectual leaders do not want them?

At my services at Temple Shalom yesterday, I saw at least seven interfaith couples, and those are just the ones who I know well, and I saw several parents whose intermarrying children have used InterfaithFamily.com’s Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. Yesterday, Yom Kippur, two couples, one in California and one in Pennsylvania, made requests for rabbis to officiate and to co-officiate at their weddings. The central lesson of Yom Kippur, as I understand it, is to “choose life.” For me, those interfaith couples at services and seeking Jewish clergy for their weddings are choosing Jewish life. The editors of the Jerusalem Post – they aren’t.

I try to be hopeful, especially at the start of a new year. There is a glimmer of hope in the editorial – apparently there is no consensus among the Israeli public that legislation aimed at preventing intermarriage makes sense. My hope is that that point of view grows and ultimately prevails.

Joyous Yom Kippur

I wasn’t expecting to find many (read: any) Yom Kippur parody music videos.

For better or worse, Yom Kippur is seen by many as a solemn, somber, serious holiday. Upbeat spoofs of top 40 songs don’t tend to match that theme.

But, and here’s the kicker, the Talmud (a canonical text of Judaism) actually describes Yom Kippur as the most joyous day of the year! Here’s what it says:

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says, “There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteen of [the Hebrew month of] Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such. These dresses required immersion in a mikvah. The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family as it is stated in Proverbs (31) ‘grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, a woman that is God fearing is to be praised’”…

Today, in some communities, people still honor this joyous tradition by wearing all white to synagogue on Yom Kippur. But for many of us, the haunting Kol Nidre service (Max Bruch’s arrangement for cello is played here), chanting the words of “who by fire, who by water” (as sung, in English, by Leonard Cohen), fasting for 25 hours and sitting in synagogue all those hours is far from joyous. So how might we see Yom Kippur as joyous this year? I polled some friends and colleagues and received these answers:

[list]
[*] – After fasting and asking for forgiveness, we are spiritually released from the strains of strife and pettiness – a cause for joy! [/*]
[*] – Our sins have been forgiven – of course it’s joyous![/*]
[*] – Having been sealed in the Book of Life for another year, we are optimistic and joyous![/*]
[*] – A favorite moment is when we dance during services on Yom Kippur, a custom I first found odd then came to love and look forward to each year. It comes at the point when I’m low energy from the fast, needing something to push me over the hump, and then we dance during the afternoon service and I’m back in there, reminded that the words in the prayers, my community, my religion can be – and is – joyous![/*][/list]

You might be a little puzzled at this point. Did he just mention dancing, during services, on Yom Kippur?!? Yes! Going back to that excerpt from the Talmud, the women would don their white dresses and dance on Yom Kippur. Some (admittedly, few and far between in North America) communities honor this tradition by dancing. The services I’ve attended that have included dancing put it during the afternoon Musaf service, during the Avodah section, to the Mareh Cohen (this tune, minus the accordion).

All of which is to say that Yom Kippur can indeed be a joyous day. In other words, this Lady Gaga parody is totally acceptable: 

[sub]Glossary: Hashem – literally “the name,” a name for God; Spock – his hand sign was actually taken from that of the ancient Israelite priests; Asseret Y'mei – Ten Days (of Repentance); T'shuvah – literally “return,” it means repentance; Tashlich – a service on Rosh Hashanah afternoon in which bread crumbs (symbolically representing our sins) are cast off into a body of moving water; Haba aleinu l'tova – it's up to us to do good; v'esarei, vacharamei, v'konamei, v'chinuyei, v'kinusei – first line of the opening chant on Kol Nidre. [/sub]

And, yes, I might just have pulled some Talmud out in order to post some Gaga…