We live in a generation of doubt. To trace the roots of this pervasive sense of uncertainty requires an exploration that glides throughout the different worlds of academia. In contrast, here I hope to discuss the practical effects on a thinking Jew in their religious life. For the most part, a person can live their life as a practicing Jew regardless of their doubts. Shul might strike them as boring, and possibly purposeless, but they can find value in community. Rituals might lack a certain sense of divinity, but can infuse structure into life, and connect a person to a rich tradition. When it comes down to it, even if some disagree with the propriety of orthopraxy (i.e. the idea of practicing regardless of beliefs) as an extension of tradition, we cannot argue for it as an untenable lifestyle. In fact, for all intents and purposes I would claim that many people do not truly care about the foundations of their faith, or they do, and find them lacking, but enjoy Judaism regardless for what it still provides: meaning, structure, community, values, and a sense of historical identity.
Some though, obsessed with these questions will tire, will reach a point where nothing appears more compelling than any other choice, so why not choose Judaism, but either way, they end up in a less passionate place than during their naivete. Regardless of these artificial groupings, the biggest question for the Jewish community, the one that grounds and centers the rest of the issues facing our people is from where will the next generation’s passion come? Because as it stands now, many of us feel a dwindling connection to the Judaism of yore at the same time that we see few, if any, options for a future connection to organized religion.
However, as we encounter this month of Elul and the High Holidays, the end/beginning of the Jewish year, this path of ease and comfort begins to fade as the mood of the calendar brings us face to face with our beliefs. In these months, traditionally, we search our souls for the accumulated stains of time, for the misstep in our paths that brought us to a foreign version of ourselves. But to many, this idea itself will sound foreign. We can imagine what it entails to repent in relationships: to revive old friendships that died due to the winds of apathy, or fear of confrontation, or personal weakness or pettiness; to make time for our family, for those who truly matter to us; To actively seek out opportunities to actually help others, not just our friends, but the truly needy. To give of our time, to volunteer, to join that organization we always knew we belonged to but never took a formal step to join. But for me, and according to numerous conversations and my general impression, for large swathes of Jews, the concept of repentance in regards to our relationship with the divine will feel muddled at best. In this way the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the time of Elul, and the concept of repentance in relationship to God forces us to confront like no other concept and holiday what we actually believe and want in life.
Think of any other holiday. Each one can easily turn into a secular affair, into an affirmation of our nationhood, into a celebration of freedom, a celebration of our responsibility, or our historical culture. On Pesach we can get together as a family, sit around the oddly decorated table, pillows at our back, leaning to our left eating strange foods, while we marvel at our ability to survive and thrive, and celebrate freedom from exile. We can divest each holiday of its holiness, of its godliness in turning it into a familial or cultural day. However, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, those solemn days of endless prayer and repentance, of crowning God the sovereign king, do not lend themselves easily to secularization. God inheres so much in these holidays that at best we can begin to discuss apples and honey, or more seriously, death, but that saps these days of their celestial strength so that for many Jews these days serve as their connections to synagogues and Judaism, but the connection rests on the sacrifice of giving a day to heritage and nothing more, because its hard to attach ourselves to the great drama of the day without a visceral belief in a providential God.
No other holidays rests on the assumption of foundational beliefs as these two days, and consequently, in these two days I feel the pangs of my doubts the most. How can I read the frightening words of Netaneh Tokef without confronting my true beliefs? How can we read of who will die, whether by fire or water, without realizing that I need to assume that God exists, cares about my specific deeds, and would actually kill me, or my loved ones for their transgressions. How do we hit our hearts and apologize for the sin of cursing god, or licentious behavior, if we stand uncertain in the complete divinity of the Torah? In short, how can we embrace a holiday in which we doubt the truth of its basic fundamental assumptions? How can we return in repentance for “sins” we now value, how can we crown a king with pomp and circumstance when we doubt his existence? If this day enacts a cosmic drama of the most important ramifications can we partake in it if it signifies no more than barely plausible wishful thinking?
Some might respond that besides the idea of repentance as a return to what was, it demands forward movement. It is exactly at this time that we must revisit our concept of God from the days of our youth, a concept handed down to us by the previous generation to mold a more subtle, nuanced, less childish conception of God. One shorn of his need for vengeance, of hell and heaven, but at what point in our creation of a more palatable version of God do we lapse into self worship, or do we empty out religion of its power to grab hold of our lives, to comfort us on the deepest levels?
Others, using truth as a beacon to live our lives would demand we give up our childish playthings, our baby blankets, pacifiers, and see religion for the man made artifice we so desperately are afraid to see. One some days, I feel the pull of all of these claims compounding the doubt. I cannot run away from this total noise of the world, from the truths of philosophy, the claims of my family and my heart, and my deepest hopes for something else, something larger. I long for the years before secularism when these questions garnered as much relevancy as the existence of purple elephants, but for me, and for many others, we live in this world, a world so inundated by conflicting truths that it becomes easy to let it all wash over you and to simply not choose.
I don’t know answers to these questions. Today, repentance, for me, entails a movement towards completion, towards that elusive concept of self-actualization, and an acknowledgment that a ceaseless search for a personal understanding of God and Judaism is for many of us, all we can hope for in this era of uncertainty. The rabbis explain that Elul, the name of this month, serves as an acronym for ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me. In a time in which we still believe that love conquers most if not all problems, I find it comforting that for so long my ancestors believed simply that if you reach out to the infinite, the Almighty will reach back with unconditional love, even if, on most days, I cannot always feel His divine caress.