Yom Kippor 5773

Gmar hatima tova! I’m back in the world after a day of fasting for Yom Kippur yesterday.

I’m not exactly sure why I fast. I don’t believe in a God who will judge me for my transgressions and I don’t even know if I can consider myself a Jew. If I want to atone for my transgressions, I could do that any day of the year, and possibly in more effective ways than fasting. Gil explained to me that fasting is supposed to focus the mind so that we can concentrate better on our atonement. But I don’t think I have the right metabolism: my mind becomes as muddled as the grumblings in my stomach and around 1pm I start developing a black headache that spreads into my muscles and bones and makes me want to erase myself. When it's finally time for the Neilah service,  my head is throbbing so badly I can’t even read the prayers. But I love going to yom kippur service and the only reason I fast is because I don’t want to cheat by partaking in the prayers on a full stomach.

In fact, since we don’t know any Jews in Edinburgh, we hadn’t even planned on going to synagogue. (I had decided to fast and I expected that Gil, who always says he won’t fast, would, as usual, join me out of solidarity.) But on Tuesday evening (erev yom kippur), as we were making dinner and Dina and Miki were planning their TV schedule for the evening (they wanted to watch the British Bake-off, which they have been following faithfully for the past month), I found myself suddenly arguing to Gil that we should give the children a Jewish education and that if he wants Dina and Miki to celebrate their bat and bar mitzvas, it’s ridiculously inconsistent to let them watch a pie-baking contest on Yom Kippur.  I surprised myself a little bit. I don’t really care if Dina and Miki celebrate their bar/bat mistzvas – I went through life all right without ever celebrating one myself – but I don’t like inconsistencies and I especially don’t like the British bake-off. So, after a quick dinner, we took a cab to the orthodox synagogue of Edinburgh (which I had found on Google maps), and arrived just in time for the beginning of the Maariv service. Dina and Miki were too stunned to protest.

They were, of course, the only children at the service. And we, in fact, seemed to be the only non-regulars. “This is as full as it ever gets here,” the old lady next to me whispered and gestured with a sad frown to the empty benches that were built in the 1930s to seat the Edinburgh Jewish congregation at its peak. They now held only a scattering of mostly elderly people: the last vestiges of the Edinburgh Jewish community. When we had shaken everyone’s hand at the end of the evening service, we were committed, of course, to coming back the next day, and despite our secular, atheist intents, we ended up celebrating an orthodox yom kippur.

Although I say I don’t like inconsistencies, my whole life is one. I can’t believe in god and I distrust religious authorities, but I love religion. Nothing moves me as much as participating in a religious ceremony. Every year I cry during Yom Kippur service.

But I’m not sufficiently dedicated to Judaism to adapt my life to it. I am comfortable in my secular lifestyle and I don’t want to set myself apart from other people by adhering to complicated religious taboos. Of course, I could join a reform Jewish community (we’ve considered it). But in fact I’m much more attracted to the extremes of orthodox Judaism, even though I disagree with its underlying ideas: the inequality of men and women, the distinction between Jews and non-Jews, and the blind adherence to (seemingly) arbitrary rules.

I love the weight of orthodox religious traditions, but I resist the ideological commitment that is required to maintain them.

This leads me to something else that has been on my mind. We’re in Scotland at a time when there is a lot of talk going on about Scottish independence. I’m not yet familiar with the political intricacies behind the independence movement, but it got me to think about nationalism and localism.

My sympathy tends to be with small against the large and with the local against the global, but personally I am cosmopolitan. I resist the arbitrary exclusiveness of borders and when I’m asked to declare my nationality I always try to sabotage and confuse the question. While I hate the exclusiveness and narrow mindedness of nationalism, I love the peculiarity of local tradition and local culture and I dread the world turning into a bland, universal, monoculture.

I see a contradiction here that is similar to my relationship with religious traditions: If religious and local traditions are to be preserved, someone needs to be committed to them. But it’s obviously not me.

More thought about this is needed. To be continued another time...