Not everyone believes that God sits in heaven with a book open on the High Holy Days. But this doesn’t mean that these days are devoid of meaning; that it is not possible for atheist and non-literalist alike to experience the power of this period.
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The period from Elul through Rosh Hashanah, culminating in Yom Kippur, is an opportunity for us to engage more honestly with life. There may not be a God with a flowing beard judging us, but there is truth in our lives, demands in our soul, and at this time we must face up to that call.
Jonah the prophet is a powerful archetype here. He tried to avoid this calling, believing that an honest encounter with truth could be avoided by changing location, by hiding, by mounting practical objections to his mission. Jonah thought that truth was optional, a luxury, something that could be tempered by his pragmatic reason. But his attempts to escape led him into stormy seas, and he eventually sunk to the darkest depths, swallowed up by his own despair.
Jonah teaches us that we cannot run away from the truth, that it is a matter of life and death. These themes of the period – judgment and mortality – are not just about giving extra charity, perhaps saving a life along the way. They tell us that in our personal lives, in the murky world of the spirit and the psyche, there is an intimate link between falsehood and death.
When we make a pact with falsehood, when we embark on the slippery road of compromising our principles, we endanger ourselves. The crust of artifice starts to weaken us and hold us back, one wrong turn spirals into many, and before we know it we are totally lost.
Man does not live on bread alone, but he lives by the power and integrity of the spirit. This is the source of his courage and strength, of his hope and his faith, and it is traded away at one’s peril.
One might go so far as to say that being religious can actually pose a tremendous threat to our integrity, to our capacity for honesty. Many will tell us that we should believe rather than think, that we should follow rules rather than wrestle with ethics, that we should submit to authority rather than take responsibility.
I wish I could say that this isn’t so, but, alas, there is cause for concern. Orthodoxy is being overtaken by fundamentalism, religious education is becoming about closing down minds, and the conflation of the religious and political realm in Israel is like watching a car crash. Jewishness, in both Israel and the Diaspora, is becoming an ever more exclusive racial category, bringing in its wake the hatred and bigotry that always ensue.
One is reminded of Yeats’ words that "the centre cannot holdwhilst the worst are full of passionate intensity." Dogma, whether religious or political, gives people a much sought after sense of certainty, laying down firm barriers in a fluid and confusing world. It is no surprise that it seduces people, but it should worry us, for the closed spirit is the dead spirit and the movement of the mob always ends in horror.
For the engaged atheist, Rosh Hashanah offers a chance to reflect on one’s values, to ponder what truly guides one in life, and to think about how to be faithful to that.
For those who are more comfortable with God language, it should be a time of stripping away falsehood, of challenging dogma, of taking back responsibility. The days contain a theology of remembrance, of zikhronot (memories), telling us that nothing is forgotten, that everything we do shapes and distorts us, however hard we try to forget it.
God is our memory, our history, our psychic baggage, the fate that we cannot escape. He reflects the private truths that no one else can see, that our public role and persona keep hidden from view. He needles our conscience, letting us know that we must give an account of ourselves, that for all our success our inner life may be in ruins.
As our stubbornness and ego are worn down by prayer and fasting, as we get closer to a moment of surrender to truth and integrity, God also stands for forgiveness, for renewed hope, for the possibility of starting again. If we relinquish falsehood then there can be life, but if we cannot let go, if we cling to it too tightly, then we can be assured of a year of darkness.
Elie Jesner is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in London, Director of The Honest Theology Project and head of the JCoSS Bet Midrash. He studied Philosophy and Jewish Thought at Cambridge University, The University of Warwick, and Yeshivat Har Etzion. He blogs at thinkingdafyomi.com and has been broadly published.