Who by Fire … My Yom Kippur Problem

"Fire," by Ian Barbour, via Flickr.com under Creative Commons License
"Fire," by Ian Barbour, via Flickr.com under Creative Commons License

Editor’s Note: This guest post was contributed by Edmond H. Weiss, Ph.D.

Long before the Pharisees began writing about an Olam Haba, an afterlife that is a reward for righteous living, there was a simpler and less mystical idea. We are taught again and again that observing the commandments will extend our life. For example, the Torah instructs us (Ki Teze) that separating a mother bird from its young before one takes the young (or the eggs) is an act of compassion that will “lengthen your days.”

Underlying this mode of thinking is the proposition that the length of our lives, the day of our death, is a judgment—a righteous judgment—made by God. (Mourners praise the din emeth at funerals.) Put more starkly, our ancestors believed that the only way to receive our full allotment of years (120 or 70 years, depending where you read) is to satisfy the judge.

Another example: The Torah, just before the Noah narrative, has indicated that Adonai wants humans to live only to 120 years. But in Chaye Sarah, Abraham and Sarah exceed that limit. What is fascinating is that the Rabbis feel a need to explain why Sarah did not live as long as Abraham. Genesis Rabah speculates that Sarah should have reached Abraham’s age of 175 years, but 48 years were taken away because of her readiness to dispute with Abraham over Hagar. It seems that her years were reduced when she said, “Let Adonai judge between you and me.” R. Tanchuma says, “Whoever plunges early into litigation does not escape from it unscathed.”

The idea that one earns one’s longevity is the central motif (nowadays “meme”) in the High Holidays liturgy. While most adults remember little from their Hebrew School studies, they all remember the first time they heard about THE BOOK OF LIFE. This image makes sense to children who have been raised on a diet of fairy tales and magic epics. An aged God (looking just like the man in the Sistine Chapel painting) watches human kind march past Him, deciding who gets “written” to live another year. And, since none of us knows who has been marked for death, we’re all obliged to pray like crazy, heap scorn on ourselves, grovel, supplicate… anything to get a death sentence changed before it is sealed.

For a child this is a deliberate harrowing, an indoctrination into what may be the most psychologically crippling idea ever formed: That our imperfections are the explanation for our deaths—especially for those that die young. “What did I do to deserve this?” wonders the dying teenager. My late son, dying from cancer a few weeks before his 43rd birthday, decided it was punishment for sins against his wife.

And, by simple extrapolation, our children grow up to think that not only death but also lesser “punishments”—pain, disease, loneliness, childlessness, poverty, mental illness—are all the consequences of failing to observe the commandments. The Sh’ma promises rain its season (prosperity) to those who obey and, by inference, drought, flood, and poverty to those who don’t. And in Moses’ great deathbed oration he warns the Israelites that, if they fail to keep the commandments, they will be sold into slavery and, moreover. NO ONE WILL BID ON THEM.

The core of the Yom Kippur liturgy is not Kol Nidre (a weird text with a saddening melody, used to set the mood) but the Una Tanen Tokef a beautiful poem that imagines the Book of Life (along with other books):

Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates…

This poem tells us that God not only decides who dies but how: who by water, who by fire…. That God not only punishes our sins but suits the punishment to fit the crime.

To a sophisticated person, Yom Kippur is religious theater: a mixture of dark music, hunger, and fatigue meant to enable a sense of humility, a resolution to improve oneself, a reminder of how much pleasure there is in a single piece of bread. But to children it is a horror show, a brainwashing that may cloud their thinking through the rest of their lives.

Those of us who have exceeded our Biblical allotment would do well to tell our grandchildren and great grandchildren that, while there are many things we can do to make ourselves healthier and protect ourselves from danger, there is no reason to believe that failing to act righteously will shorten your life. Let us teach honorable behavior by our example and not by threats of divine punishment.

Perhaps we should teach our children Einstein’s conception of God instead: I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.



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