The next time we meet an Omnian priest, in the 23rd Discworld book, Carpe Jugulum, several centuries have passed. The Quite Reverend Mightily Oats is tolerant, benevolent, respectful of the beliefs of others, apologetic for his church's past misdeeds, and crippled by doubt. He reads his holy book and notes only its contradictions and improbabilities. His every utterance of faith is matched by a faithless thought. By the book's climax, however, Oats has abandoned his milquetoast permissiveness for a hardcore, old-time-religion type of faith that allows him to defeat a supernatural menace. As the book ends, and as a sign of appreciation for his courage, Oats' putative but resistant flock joins him for a prayer meeting where
The singing wasn't very enthusiastic, though, until Oats tossed aside the noisome songbook and taught them some of the songs he remembered from his grandmother, full of fire and thunder and death and justice and tunes you could actually whistle, with titles like 'Om Shall Trample the Ungodly' and 'Lift Me To The Skies' and 'Light The Good Light'. They went down well. Lancre people weren't too concerned about religion, but they knew what it ought to sound like.It's a passage that's stuck with me, like a loose tooth that one can't help tonguing, for more than five years. Wasn't the point of Small Gods to get rid this sort of fire-and-brimstone religion? Didn't that book--and our own experiences in the real world--teach us that monolithic, dogmatic religious institutions could do terrible evil, and weren't we supposed to be happy about the end of old fashioned Omnianism? Why did Pratchett now turn around and speak so nostalgically about the same kind of mindset that gave us witch-burners and torturers?
These questions have stuck with me because, of course, I can see Pratchett's point. The fire that consumes and devastates is the same fire that empowers, that gives courage and strength in our darkest hours. There's an ideal medium between the two, but ultimately, true faith is incompatible with I-respect-your-right-to-disagree-with-me-about-the-fundamental-nature-of-the-universe tolerance.
Pratchett and his two competing approaches to religion came very powerfully to my mind this morning in synagogue (and if there is a God, I'm certain that's a smiting offence) as we were wrapping up morning prayers for Rosh HaShana. Following the Torah reading, we sang two hymns--Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) and Shechina Mekor Hayenu (Divine Presence, Source of Our Life). The former is a traditional hymn, several centuries old at least, in a standard call-and-response format: the audience repeatedly sings a short phrase, and the cantor replies with longer, varying phrases that constitute entreaties to God. The latter is a modern creation which follows the same structure, appealing to the Shechina, the divine presence that is Judaism's answer to The Sacred Feminine.
Here are a few things the congregation tells God when they sing Avinu Malkenu: We Have No King But Thou; Remember That We Are As Dirt Before You; Provide For Those Who Die In Your Name. Here are a few things the congregation asks from the Shechina when they sing Shechina Mekor Hayenu: Teach Us To Recognize Our Limitations; Show Us The Path of Gentleness; Provide For Those Who Struggle for Peace and Justice. Even the melodies make it clear which of these hymns was written by folks who truly believed in God's divine retribution and which by someone who wanted to be politically correct.
As the title of this post states, I'm an agnostic, but even on the days (and they are getting fewer and fewer) when I believe in God, I can't quite find it in myself to believe that the creator of the universe cares whether I drive on the Sabbath. One of the accusations that is frequently leveled at Reform Jews is that we pick and choose from the divine commandments only those that we find it convenient to follow. This is not without merit, but I prefer to look at it in another way: I'm a Reform Jew because being one allows me to keep in contact with a cultural and ethical heritage that's very important to me while maintaining my free will. Being Reform means that the onus of making the distinction between the important and unimportant aspects of millennia of accumulated religious worship falls on my shoulders, which is where I want it to be.
I dipped an apple in honey today, symbolizing my wish for a sweet new year, but I did so with the understanding that dipping-an-apple-in-honey is an accoutrement, one that falls far short of penetrating the importance of the day--a new beginning, but also the beginning of a period of judgment and reflection, a final opportunity to amend one's faults and begin the new year as a better person. It's a distinction that, all too often, I feel that my fellow Jews fail to make. Just ask my brother, who along with his fellow IDF recruits was treated to a Rosh HaShana talk from his base Rabbi. What should have been an interesting hour apparently devolved into Gematric explanations for the tradition of eating a fish head in the holiday meal.
But as much as I'd like to sneer at this Rabbi and his simplistic approach to our shared faith (or perhaps at his expectations from the level of comprehension and interest he would receive from his audience), who do you think had a more meaningful time this morning in synagogue? I'll bet you anything he wasn't making glib comparisons to Terry Pratchett novels. I genuinely do believe that injecting a permissive, tolerant, respectful tone into religious worship is a worthy goal, but it's hard to maintain that conviction when I juxtapose some of the modern Reform prayers--essentially an attempt to fabricate tradition out of whole cloth and with a multicultural twang--with something like the hymn U'netane Tokef:
On Rosh HaShana their fate shall be written, and on Yom Kippur it shall be sealed.According to tradition, U'netane Tokef was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz around the tenth century, as he lay dying from wounds inflicted by a Bishop who had failed to convert him to Christianity. The story is, of course, apocryphal, but the power of the hymn can't be denied. And if I had my way, we would never sing it in on Rosh HaShana. U'netane Tokef is part of the Musaf--the segment of the Rosh HaShana prayer that expresses the wish for the erection of a third Temple and the resumption of animal sacrifices, neither of which are on my wish list for the coming year. And yet, what in the entire catalogue of modern Reform prayers can match up to the fervor of this hymn?
How many shall pass on, and how many shall be born, who will live and who will die, who is at the end of their life and who is not at its end, who in fire and who in water, who by the sword, who by a wild beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who in an earthquake, and who in a plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who shall rest, and who shall wander, who will live peacefully and who shall be harried, who will be calm, and who will be tormented, who will be poor and who will be rich, who will be brought low and who raised high.
And repentance and prayer and charity shall lift the evil of the decree.
I wouldn't like for this post to be mistaken for a request for pity. I've never felt sorry for my inability to feel fervent faith. It's not something I've ever needed, or felt the lack of. I've managed to talk my way around the inherent hypocrisy of attending religious worship without feeling religious conviction, with various explanations that pretty much boil down to the fact that I go to synagogue, or light Shabbat candles or keep Kosher or forgo bread on Pesach, because I feel that I should. And whether or not we like to admit this, the fact is that Reform Judaism is a very comfortable place for people like me, who want contact with their birthright that isn't incompatible with a modern lifestyle (which isn't to say that there aren't devout Reform Jews. I haven't taken a poll or anything). I'm comfortable with being the agnostic in the synagogue, and when it comes to it I suspect I'll be comfortable with being an atheist in synagogue as well, but I do wonder if my brand of faith has what it takes to make it through the ages. When the bad times come, will our ersatz services and gender-neutral prayers be enough to help us get by? Will we even turn to our faith?
Shana Tova to you, if your tastes run that way. And if not, remember that each day is, in itself, the beginning of a new year--as holy as any other, and as worthy of celebration.