The High Holidays: A Time to Reflect
The month before the Days of Awe is the time to start thinking about our souls, rather than our politics.
In the West, we have been persuaded that religion is a system of beliefs that are supposed to determine how we live. The required belief in certain propositions is supposedly at the root of religion. And we often describe Judaism as a religion. But the word religion does not exist in the Torah — it only appears in the Book of Esther, in a Persian context.
The first actual religious credo in Judaism is the “Thirteen Principles of Faith,” which was written by Maimonides a thousand years ago. This means that for the first two thousand years of Judaism, there was none. But there were most definitely ideas and propositions that were fundamental to being part of that community of Israelites. The Talmud discusses these core ideas and suggests that without them, one cannot fully appreciate the spirit of our tradition. These ideas eventually became the basis of Maimonides’s principles. He formulated them in response to Christian and Muslim theologians of his day, who tried to undermine Judaism by claiming that it was not a legitimate religion because it did not have a core systematic belief formula.
But the Torah never says anywhere, “You must believe.” It does indeed assert that God is the source of everything, and that the Torah is God’s way of revealing a pattern for living and reinforcing the quest to become good human beings. But apart from the ambiguous and opaque, “I am what I am,” which God uses to reassure Moses, there is no specific definition or formula that we are commanded to believe about God. Rather, it is a matter of acceptance and commitment, which is what the Hebrew word emunah really means.
The Torah is a pre-philosophical document that expresses itself in very different ways than the Greek rational, scientific method, which lies at the root of Western culture. But the Judaism that we have today has been influenced by both the earlier non-rational, mystical tradition, as well as the later rational one.
This is so important to recognize, because it indicates that the word “belief” has different meanings and usages. The title of the earliest book of Jewish theology, written by Saadia Gaon in Baghdad in 933, is Sefer Emunot Ve Depot; this is usually translated as “the Book of Beliefs and Opinions” or “Doctrines and Beliefs. But I prefer the translation, “Convictions and Ideas.”
Ideas are much more flexible than beliefs. Beliefs have to be formulated, and human language is notoriously limited when it comes to describing feelings and emotions. I think intellect and rationality is very important. But I also think that feelings, experience and sense are equally valid sources for information, and guides for behavior. We often call this emotional intelligence. Ideas allow for such flexibility and emotional input. One can be convinced of something without either proof or belief — and to doubt does not mean to deny. Moses had his doubts, after all.
This is the time of the Jewish year when we devote ourselves to the cultivation of our souls. Yes, we should do it all the time. But we humans get easily distracted. That is why we need rituals. They demand our attention — and that we devote specific time to them.
But what do we mean by soul? The very word is ambiguous. There are at least five different words in the Torah and Midrash that describe it. There are concerts of a physical soul and a spiritual soul. There is no single definition that everyone agrees on. I would rather use the term to describe ourselves: the self — made up of different elements, both physical and spiritual, and nourished by such human tools as logic and feeling. To thrive, we need to engage them all.
Part of this process is self-examination, and the determination each year to do better, even as we usually sink back to established routines and ideas. That is why we use the metaphor of being judged during this period — of standing before God and having all our actions revealed and weighed. As the Talmud says, even the best of us is imperfect; we are neither all good nor all bad, but — like Benjamin, in the middle.
This is also a time to examine our ideas. What we think. What we value. Consider the words that the Torah uses to describe these days. What we now call Rosh Hashanah is called zikaron — a day to remember. But it does not tell us if we are supposed to remember God, or if God is supposed to remember us. It does not specify if we are to remember the things that we did badly, or the things that we did well.
And Yom Kipur is a day of initem et nafshoteyhem — “afflicting your souls,” as it is normally translated. But what does that mean? Is it a reference to suffering through fasting, or are we suffering because we realize how badly we have failed?
Our tradition is holistic. The distinction between body and soul is a Greek construct. Dividing the upper body from the lower with a girdle is not found in the Torah, although modesty is. Surely we cannot think that our bodies are intrinsically bad. Adam and Eve were only covered up after they realized that one could defy godliness. Besides, our brains and our hearts can do just as much damage as the “lower” parts of our bodies.
This is the time of year when we try to revert to a holistic awareness of all of ourselves. It is a time to be serious, to be reflective — to remember everything, for better and for worse, our successes and our failures — and to try to make it all better. Honest Milud!