Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Day of Awe

Every year at this time I ask myself the same question: why do I go to synagogue only at this time?

To my Jewish friends, I unapologetically acknowledge I’m a High Holiday Jew. To my Gentile friends I explain that in my religion it is every individual’s prerogative to worship God as he or she chooses; consequently, there are as many kinds of Judaism as there are Jews. That suits me. My way is to disqualify all meddlers and keep it between what’s in my head and what’s in my heart.

If one of my favorite aspects of Judaism is its limitless array of choices, one of my sources of wonderment is how all of its people tend always to answer a question with a question. Even one put to oneself. Why, I could ask, only at this time of year?—but I, of course, can anticipate my answer: Do you know a better time of year? Isn’t it because you always discover something new? A line in the prayer book you’ve been reading or reciting for years suddenly taking on deeper meaning? Incisive or provocative thoughts expressed in a rabbi’s sermon? Or, as happened on one momentous occasion, something so unexpected, so inordinate, so heart-rending and indelible that eight years later it’s still difficult to relate dry-eyed.

The congregation I don’t belong to but collegially join for the High Holidays is that of an American Reform synagogue. To my delight, it is traditionally free-thinking and liberal-minded. For most congregants, a half-day is sufficient to celebrate the Jewish New Year,
Rosh Hashanah, but the most solemn day of the year, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, requires a full day.

A full day for Upper West Siders requires a break, one hour and fifteen minutes, between morning and afternoon services. Many years ago, the synagogue introduced a novel program, the “study group,” to fill the time productively (for Upper West Siders).

On Tuesday, September 18, 2001—exactly seven days after 9/11—we reentered the synagogue to find a different kind of “study group” seated in a row of eight chairs on the
bima, the raised platform in front of the ark. Six men and two women—five rabbis and three cantors who had conducted the morning service visibly in mourning and in anguish. One of the women, a cantor, had unavoidably wept openly every time she sang.

The topic was 9/11. The rabbi in the first chair, a noted scholar, spoke in mature tones and cerebral terms. He was followed by another rabbi and another, faces troubled, voices lowered, emotions guarded. So it continued until it became the fifth man’s turn, a rabbi visiting from another congregation, middle aged, face and spectacles round, nondescript. Until he spoke the unspeakable. In sorrow and censure, one sentence. “Today I think it’s God who should apologize.”

Stunned silence. A Day of Awe.


  1. Thanks for the unique insight!

  2. Wow...

    That coda sure did catch me by surprise. It makes me feel like an idiot after sitting here, waiting to post "שָׁלוֹם" in my comment. (שָׁלוֹם, by the way.)

    Those final words hit me like a punch to the face. Seriously, I'm seeing stars here! My mind is a maze...

    I think I was going to share about how I visited a synagogue for the first time in my life last week as part of a political event I was representing. During our discussions, I remember being taken by a stained-glass rendering of the creation which featured a not-so-subtle allusion to the Fibonacci spiral. Odd as it sounds, it made me smile more than anything adorning the walls of my church at home. It filled me with a euphoria that I often feel when reminded of my ancestral, spiritual homeland: Italy. (Actually, Sicily, to be specific.)

    I also remember raising the eyebrows of more than a few of my Dante's Inferno students yesterday when I described Jesus of Nazareth the way his apostles did in Matthew and Luke: "Rabbi".

    And finally, I remember detailing in that same class the fate of the fabled "True Cross", which legend held was quarried by Empress Helena of Constantinople from Golgotha itself. Whether genuine or not, this relic was arrogantly paraded by warmongering Crusaders into battle until it was carelessly discarded after their massacre at Hattin, and taken into the custody of Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, Sultan of Egypt and Syria. Since Jesus is considered a prophet of Islam, Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn preserved this relic, and even offered to ransom it back to the Christians. However, after a final insult from Richard the Lionheart, Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn took the cross deep into Syria to an unknown location "to keep it safe from Christians", as I described it. Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn's act might be the single greatest comment ever made on the Crusades.

    I don't know if it is my nature or upbringing that draws me to the Abramistic religions as opposed to others, but I, like so many others before me, cannot help but shake my head over how the Kingdom of Heaven is perverted by the religions of man.

    Should God apologize for these failures?

    I... I cannot bring myself to answer. The shock of the question has not yet left me.

  3. Regarding god apologizing in your day of awe post: She/he/it first has to exist before an apology (or much else) can be expected.