Being Good Being Religious
Rabbi David B. Starr, Yom Kippur, 5778/2017
This is my favorite haftarah. I look forward the whole year to Yom Kippur so that we can hear it chanted again. Why? Because it asks an important question: what is the point of being religious? Or perhaps more directly: how do we understand what religion is?
Religion isn’t self evident to us. It may have been for our parents or grandparents, or to people in times past in places like Poland, but it doesn’t feel that way to us. A friend of mine said that to be a modern person is to fear cancer more than hell. Someone else once noted, When I go to synagogue I read the words, when my father went to synagogue he PRAYED words. There’s a big difference between the two.
Consider the options. First, being religious means serving God. God creates us, commands us, gives us law in a scripture, and our tradition bids us to obey those commands. Second, religion involves serving others: we’re all created in God’s image, we’re all equal, unique, and precious in God’s eyes and therefore our obligation is to one another. Third, a la Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, religion invites us to heal ourselves. If I’m not for myself who will be for me? We have the right and even the obligation to a self, to our freedom and to self-actualize. Or perhaps religion includes all or some combination of these, and if so how?
Isaiah asks this in our haftarah. What constitutes proper piety? Ritual and/or good works? In the time of the temple a large part of the atonement process required cleansing the temple of the taint brought on by human sin, suggesting the importance of ritual. But once such a sacred space ceased to exist, the exclusive focus of Yom Kippur became the purification of the people, seemingly tilting the scales toward the importance of ethics vis a vis ritual.
Isaiah tells the people a few things as they prepare to reenter the land of Israel. The back story to this is the saga of exile and return: the Judaeans lost their first temple in a war of conquest waged by the Babylonians, then the Persian triumph over the Babylonians enabled the Jews to return from Babylonia to their own country.
It’s a time of celebration of celebration and anxiety. Do they want to return and leave everything they’d built in Babylonia? Perhaps exile has become home? Isaiah reminds them of an unpleasant truth: exile isn’t just a political condition. Rather exile speaks to the content of your community’s character.
Why do you want to return, Isaiah asks them. To enact a bunch of ritual gestures in a sacred space? That’s why the haftarah begins with the metaphor of clearing the road, dealing with the obstacles to your return. We must understand what the road is, what the obstacles are, what return really means. The obstacles are really yourself, he teaches. What about you gets in the way of living a good life? Your content weakens the frame of your lives as a people and as a nation. Restoration must be moral not just political.
The people don’t get that, which is exactly why they need to hear that message. They think they’re religious, they think they can check off all the boxes of being a pious religious community. They think that’s what counts: a close connection with God.
The prophet responds to the Jews: You’re mistaken. It isn’t about being close to God. It’s about what enables your return to God. Religious consciousness must be transformed. That explains the metaphor of the road: the journey matters more than the destination. They must learn from the God of Deuteronomy, the God of widows and orphans. They must learn to walk in His ways, not to think of spirituality as something done for their own sake, but as a way of life of service to others. This for Isaiah is true inner renewal. Rituals must somehow cue them to larger goals beyond themselves
The rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. continued and deepened the prophetic project. They taught that atonement isn’t automatic, that ritual should not be viewed as magic. No repentance, no atonement they stressed. Before the Lord purifies you, you must purify yourself. Yom Kippur purifies only re. Lord and humans; the interpersonal requires forgiveness of the Other: YOU CANNOT AVOID TESHUVA—the CONFRONTING OF YOUR SIN I.E. THE OBJECT OF YOUR SIN.
The most radical rabbinic teaching pushed further: Yom Kippur works ONLY WHEN I’ve repaired sins against others first. As Rabbi Shai Held teaches, “ONE CANNOT SIMPLY ERECT A WALL BETWEEN ONE’S RELIGIOUS LIFE AND ONE’S ETHICAL LIFE….The interpersonal sphere is so fundamental to Judaism’s conception of what it means to be religious that we need to deal with the harm we have done before we can really even approach God about anything…There is no theological access without a commitment to healing the interpersonal first.”
Thus we hear Isaiah roar: “Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high! Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?…No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of lawlessness, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.” (Isa. 58:4-6).
Held continues: “Does Isaiah imagine God saying, in effect, “I’m glad you’re here to repent for violating Shabbat and eating forbidden foods; but as for your interpersonal crimes, go apologize to your victims first and then come back”? HARDLY. Isaiah imagines God saying, “I cannot fathom what you think you’re doing here. Until you have dealt with the wrong you have done to others, you have no business here at all!”
This is so important: when we hurt others, we fall short of God’s expectations and our capacities. We ignore too often the possibility of real forgiveness and repentance i.e. we live as if it’s “one strike and you’re out.” In that world friendship is impossible, parenting inconceivable, marriage, covenant all out of the question. Teshuvah, mehilah and kapparah are what make life and relationships possible. This is why the Talmud declares that teshuvah was created even before the world itself. Without human repentance and divine forgiveness, life would be little more than a series of irredeemably broken relationships. With them, the possibility of healing and renewal emerges. If that’s the case, why then the fasting and all of the rituals. Perhaps we honor God by honoring His image in His creatures. When we hurt them we hurt Him.
On Yom Kippur we ritually enact our own death. We don a kittel as a death shroud and fasting mimics the body wasting toward death. This is all a dress rehearsal for death, designed to ready us to return to life and more fully embrace the gift of it all, now with a clear-eyed awareness of our fragility and mortality. The more we think we’re the center of the world, the more we need to hear a message calling for honesty about our flaws and practicing an ethic of self-transcendence. That’s what Yom Kippur teaches.
To return to why I love this haftarah so much, I hear the words of Heschel. Once a year, he taught, we need to do a deep dive into our failure. “We are all failures” he declared. “I have failed so often. At least one day a year we should recognize it.” I am sure those present here have also failed. We have to be contrite about it; we have missed opportunities. The inadequacy ought to be at the center of the day.” His fellow Eastern European, Joseph Soloveitchik lamented that the problem with modern man is that he needs to succeed at everything. How can we repent if we cannot accept that we fail? Perhaps our narcissism ironically constitutes a deeper moral failure: it’s all about us all of the time.
The haftarah ends by exhorting Jews to honor and delight in the Sabbath. What’s the connection between the Sabbath and the conversation about piety and ethics?
“Let my people go, that they shall serve Me”. The Sabbath is part of a larger conversation about the relation of work and human dignity. Life in Egypt for slaves equals work without respite, working against one’s will. Can service involve something other than the bondage of slaves to their master? Can labor honor and enhance one’s agency? A tale of two masters: the human master prohibits the Sabbath; God mandates it—God mandates Israel to take its dignity seriously. The Sabbath then reminds us of the God of creation who rested after His labors, and His commitment to our freedom and dignity. The Sabbath then epitomizes a ritual that encodes a deep ethic about how the most basic aspects of life like work can be transformed from degrading to dignified, honoring God and people in the process.
It is sad for me that Shabbat remains the most beautiful Jewish practice and yet is dismissed as the least practical, most strange, and hardest Jewish ritual. This reflects our assimilation into a non-Jewish society. We know Saturday not Shabbat. Shabbat symbolizes a Jewishness that we fear might prevent our acquiring the status prestige and achievement that we seek within our society.
Shabbat lives differently in Israel. Jewish civic space there makes Shabbat easy and intuitive, however one practices. There, almost everyone enjoys Shabbat that usually involves Friday night family dinner. The laws of the country support Shabbat, with little or no public transportation or commerce on Shabbat. Even the most secular people typically have Shabbat dinner and spend quality time with their families; soldiers go home to families: it’s woven into the fabric of the country. Most diaspora Jews appreciate and enjoy observing Shabbat when they visit Israel; as opposed to when they are home and it often feels more like a chore/punishment than a gift. Because we live in a secular, but Christian society, assimilated Jews don’t want to give up Friday night football games, parties and doing errands etc. in their precious and limited free time.
I recently read an essay comparing two modern artists, Chaim Nahman Bialik and Marcel Proust, one a Jew and the national poet of early Zionism, and the other half Jewish. Each man believed that art redeemed; Proust thought that art redeemed the individual artist, Bialik believed that Jewish art redeemed the Jewish people. His proof: Shabbat. Our greatest creation, an art dedicated to the art of living, via education, producing goodly life and action. An art greater than cathedrals, mere works of stone to delight men’s senses.
Shabbat answers the question of the necessity and sufficiency of ritual and ethics to live a good life; a discipline that helps us to be good. That constitutes true freedom. As Bialik put it: “our concern with halakha…as a concrete and definite form of actual life, of a life which is not in the clouds, which does not depend on vague feeling and beautiful phrases alone, but has physical reality and physical beauty.” Art is for the sake of life. Isaiah knew this, the necessity of ritual to guide us, ethics to inspire us, and Shabbat to build a world in time that combines both.
Gmar hatimah tovah
Rabbi David Starr