Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
Leonard Cohen is up there with the greatest songwriters and speaks with a poetic voice even greater than Dylan's. He only loses marks with me because he concentrates too exclusively on death and religious doubt so he's hard to sing in the shower. But that aside, the idea of repentance cuts to the heart of the problem of sincerity in religious life: Feeling sorry for anything is so difficult, let alone for pretty much everything.
Last week I took one of my all-too-rare early morning trips on the London Underground and I reflected on the scene before my eyes, which resembled those classic paintings about ageing: First, there were the new suits, immaculately attired in their tailored fits and quirky little ties, beads of perspiration pouring down their still excited faces; then, there were those in their mid-thirties who looked a little scruffier, some even wore T-shirts. They seemed less enthusiastic, clutching their coffees and smart-phones with a grim determination to persevere. But then I noticed a truly poignant sight:
A young woman, around 30, fast asleep, holding tight to the pole on the tube with an expression of such tiredness I could only feel tremendous pity; instantly, my mind conjured up the phrase 'A sacrifice on the altar of capitalism'. I have no doubt that she needed to be there to earn a living, but honestly, London can sometimes resemble some sort of intense, money-obsessed dystopia, so far from the beach life we have in Hove. Communist rant over.
Sometimes it feels like the high holy days are a sacrifice on the altar of Judaism. Something we see as necessary to continue but not much beyond.
Repent, repent? I can regret momentarily, I can commit briefly, I can introspect and aspire but in a world where we are bombarded by endless information, I am all too aware that these feelings, this model will be stored away somewhere where they can be re-opened at an appropriate time, probably in another year or so. The more I hear on the topic, the sturdier the file becomes.
Because everything we are meant to regret and improve upon are generally quite specific things and details that rarely touch upon the thing itself, a relationship with God, trying to understand my place in the greater context of existence and what on earth it means?
It is very possible to both mean something and not mean it at the same time, whilst being very sincere: For instance, when I read a list of the things I have not done properly this year, ignored or done wrong I may feel regret. And if I don't, I regret that I don't regret.
But this regret is utterly disconnected from the part of me that functions the rest of the year. Why? Because I have mentally filed that this is the time of year to repent and commit to something new and that file closes in about a month and a half.
It feels like the woman on the tube: an intense commitment to something that I feel compelled to do. The rest of the year I hate feelings of guilt - they seem counterproductive and fairly pointless, and is probably one of the worst ways for me to change myself. Call me postmodern, but the link between guilt, shame and God is highly tenuous in the world I occupy.
Once again, I know that I will be told I have missed the point, and that deep down all prayer is meant to lead to this true, sincere end. But truth be told, I think that religious society misses a general point when it comes to the God-man dynamic: These days, intensity is often counterproductive to religiosity because it is not something that ennobles us or makes us kinder, better people. Just more intense.
Following every word meticulously in the siddur whilst reading its translation in the artscroll might momentarily allow me to focus on a particular concept but it is actually withdrawal and space which brings me to a place where I can actually begin to perceive what it means to repent because with withdrawal I can see the whole, the total with honesty and I said last week, without honesty you aint got nothing but a life of self-deception.
Last week my wife and I briefly went to Devil's Dyke, an expanse of countryside near our house, which I had never been to before. I looked around me and suddenly I felt I understood. I had stopped concentrating and started absorbing the universe in a manner that reminded me of being a child with a siddur. And my mind cleared and I began to feel things that I actually regretted and where I wanted to go.
Call me a cliche but when you upset someone you care about, you want forgiveness not only because of the action itself but because you value the relationship itself. Without the latter, the former is pointless. Nature is a wonderful thing, gets me every time - I should have remembered that.
Someone who doesn't want to be named said something very perceptive to me yesterday: Jewish law is full of beauty but when it's taken to extremes I don't see that anymore. Either extreme: An obsession with every detail or reduced to rabbinic legal necessity. And when we see beauty, we are more likely to long for the mind behind it, I would suggest.
(Don't get all 'that's subjective' with me, sonny Jim, if you didn't love the feeling of keeping rules you wouldn't be preaching, we all play that game.)
Historian Jacob Katz made a very perceptive remark in his book Tradition and Crisis when he commented that the religious power of ritual observance brought communities together. When people are united by things they deeply care about, their differences are blurred in their common passion and aspiration.
I see this in small communities, funnily enough, even when the congregants aren't religiously observant. As someone said to me this morning, 'if I don't go to the minyan, the shul will die and I can't let that happen'. Once upon a time, the shul meant something deeply to people, and the older generation hold onto that with a great reverence in small communities. But Shul no longer conjures images of reverence, majesty, grandeur or even spirituality.
It is a shame but times change, it's importance has diminished as a centre of Jewish life in the modern world.
So, to all those, including myself, who find themselves praying for the final whistle during Rosh ha shana and the happy-go-lucky distinctly Ashkenazi final kaddish which I find myself humming throughout the year,
Maybe take a walk outside, you might find a friend. Maybe that's what they meant?
Yoseph Citron is a PhD student at University College London (UCL) studying Jewish mysticism and philosophy in the seventeenth century. His passions include Jewish history, education and Test cricket. Yoseph lives in Hove, UK with his wife, Rachael. You can read more of his writing on his blog.
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