An Agnostic Goes to Synagogue: A Rosh HaShana Post

Terry Pratchett's 13th Discworld novel, Small Gods, charts the evolution of a virulently missionary (in the extreme sense--crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings, that sort of thing) religion into a more permissive, liberal one. Brutha, a simple-minded but fervently devout novice in the Omnian holy city, finds himself in the unlikely role of prophet when a one-eyed turtle speaks to him in the voice of God (it's Pratchett. Just go with it). Together, they topple the institution that has sapped Om of his power (Om is fueled by belief, and his believers have long since transferred their faith to the religious establishment that has calcified around him), and erect a more tolerant, benevolent one in its place, a religion that respects the individual's right not to believe.

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.

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.
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?

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.


Anonymous said…

I just got back from spending a wonderful Rosh Hashana with a Jewish family in Columbia. I had such a good time I'm going to spend Yom Kipor there. We went to a conservative shul and, allthough I'm a very unorthudox person, I went up and gave the blessing of the Cohanim (Which I am, you may send cash if you like:)

As an Israeli Jew now in America (And not an American Jew in Israel) And also as a man. I think my stand is the usuall Israeli one. "I don't usually go to shul, but the shul I don't go to is a conservative one." Reform Judiaism is not, to me, a religon but a sociall club. Is this offensive to the many American Jews who find it right and proper for them and their needs? Maybe. I am not an American Jew. And this is just two friends talking. Seeing gay people under the Hopa doesn't do anything for me and for some reason woman rabbies seem laughbal, again, to me. For all I care they can wrap themseleves in Tefilin and nail their asses to the kotel, it has no meaning in Judiaism. It's nothing but therapy for them.

I say, on with the tribal mindest of blood and fire! Why? Becasue there are 360 days of the year during which I am a western white man. But there are five days which are mine as a Jew. And during these days I want the gentails dead, their kings brought in chains to Jerusalem, the temple rebuilt, and yes, messaih too. Sensetive Jews don't like it? Too bad!!!

This is becasue I have two mindests. The tribale mindest, and the democratic-American mindest. In my DA mind, all people have rights and deserve good lives and peace.

My tribal mindset is simple:
1) Be proud of being a Jew.
2) Don't take no shit off fools.
3) If someone gives you shit about being a Jew- kill them.

And, if my tribe is endangered, I'll kill half or creation to ensure it's survival. Very simple.

Re-reading what I wrote I find myself in a bit of a jam. Allthough this is true people reading this may think I'm this macho type who walks around in IDF T-shirts and jerk-off with a poster of temple mount in front of my face. This is not true. However, as much as I enjoy the learning in Judiaism. The gentelness and humer, the warmth and acceptence of human faults. Indeed, like them more then the half-wits who want to kill kill kill - When I am alone before a God I've been arguing with since childhood I want those things. Messiah etc, not a pat on the head and a nice bagel with cream cheese and lax.

Hugs from Baltimore and a shana tova:



Ur book came back in the mail becasue some form was missing. I'll send it again tomarrow.
Anonymous said…


Abigail's blog is hardly the appropriate venue for a discussion on religion -- we'll do better after a good meal, over a cup of coffee once you're back home (you are always welcome) -- still, I feel a need to comment.

Researches agree that all religion was originally "female:" the worship of Mother Earth and the mystery of fertility. Over time a balance was created between the religious (female oriented and probably female-led) forces and social (male oriented and male-led) forces. You can still see such a structure in many "primitive" (i.e. pre-Christain) societies. [The American Indians are the first that come to mind.]

As societies grew more sophisticated, more structured, male-dominense increased but there is still evidence of a balance. Look at the Jewish High Holidays: Rosh HaShana is unquestionably a "female" holiday balanced by and balancing "male" Yom Kippur.

No, this is not modern feminist babble. It's good source-based religious scholarship.

Rosh HaShana celebrates birth and renewal, the anniversary of creation. Look at the TORAH readings selected by the (male) religious hierarchy of ERETZ YISRAEL for the holiday: they are all about fertility (the births of Isaac and Samuel) and the importance of women (Sarah, Hagar, and Hannah). Sarah is the one who wears the pants in Abraham's household. Hagar talks to God. Hanna invents prayer as we know it and then has to explain the concept to Eli (the High Priest).

Again, I have to make this clear -- these Torah readings were selected by men, men who understood and respected the importance of female themes in religion.

[The second day of Rosh HaShana is a much later addition. By this time the Jewish people have left ERETZ YISRAEL, the balance is broken. The Torah reading selected is the most male imaginable, the sacrifice of Isaac.]

Yom Kippur was from the beginning all about ceremony and the adherence to God's law, the official part of society.

If you will: Rosh HaShana is right-brain and Yom Kippur left-brain.

I don't want to beat this to death -- the UNATANA TOKEF is powerful because it speaks both to emotion and to logic -- but the assumption that religion must be male and that women have no place is [sorry Hagay] stupid, medieval, and totally wrong!

Anonymous said…
1) didn't say "No place", said "Not rabbies". There is a diffrence.

2) In south America, indians tore out human hearts on mass. I do not believe these "White goddess" ideas. You may, I may not. I may also add that I believe they are self serving ideas. (I wanna see an Indian say Ghost dancing was about getting rid of white people and not harmony with the earth).

3) The reform movment wrote a thing called the Pitsborg declerarion. Have you ever read it? Need I add anything more? "We no longer wait for messiah and the temple." Fine for German Jews who came to the US in the 1800's. Not at all good for me. (Of course, now it's the SF dec and so on. Things change.)

4) I'd love to have a coffe with you again!:) Please don't think that me disagreeing is a threat to what you believe in. I will never take away a woman's right to be a rabbi for Reform Jews if she so pleases. (I support the woman now in court becasue I believe if one brand of Judiaiasm gets my tax money they should all get it. Or non should get it. I prefer the latter myself but still. I won't go to hear that woman speak, but people who do should have a right to do so).

Cheers from Baltimore:

Anonymous said…
1. White Godess?

Really!! You know better.

The maternal aspect of primitive religions has been recognized and studied since the 19th century. If you are interested, I'll get you a bibliography. In the name of brevity I'll just quote this nicely worded summary I took off the net

"Goddess worship dates back to Paleolithic times. Many anthropologists speculate the first "God " or gods of the peoples were feminine. This coincides with ancient creation myths and beliefs that creation was achieved through self-fertilization. Within the concept of creation the participation of the male principle was not known or recognized yet. The Goddess was believed to have created the universe by herself alone.

From this belief came the agricultural religions. It was thought that the gods only prospered by the beneficence and wisdom which the Goddess showered on them. Evidence appears to indicate most ancient tribes and cultures were matriarchal.

Although this maybe true, there seems to be little evidence that the feminine portions of these societies held themselves superior over their male counterparts. Generally Goddess worship had been balanced by the honoring of both the male and female Deities. This is illustrated by the belief in and the observance of the sacred marriage of the Sky God and Earth Mother in many global societies.

Among the first human images discovered are the "Venus figures," nude female figures having exaggerated sexual parts that date back to the Cro-Magnons of the Upper Paleolithic period between 35,000 and 10,000 BC.

In southern France is the Venus of Laussel which is carved in basrelief in a rock shelter. This appears once to have been a hunting shrine which dates to around 19,000 BC. In this carving the woman is painted red, perhaps to suggest blood, and holds a bison horn in one hand.


Throughout the centuries the Goddess has acquired a thousand names and a thousand faces but most always she has represented nature, she is associated with both the sun and moon, the earth and the sky. The Goddess religion, usually in all forms, is a nature religion. Those worshipping the Goddess worship or care for nature too.


The beginning of the Hebrew religion with its God Yahweh is said to have marked the end of the Goddess' Golden Age. Approximately this was between 1800 - 1500 BC when the prophet Abraham lived in Canaan."

In Kabbalah, the 10th attribute of God, the only one accessible by man, is the SHCHINAH, the female attribute.

2. And, forgive me, I should have been more specific, I was talking about North American Indians. In many tribes (the Peublo, for example), all land and property belongs to the women. If a Peublo woman wants to divorce her husband, she simply tosses out his sleeping blanket. Poof! he's gone. And, I think it's the Iroquois where the men couldn't go to war without the women's permission.

The point I'm making is not that one sex had power over the other, but that those "primitive" societies were structured with delicate checks and balances such that neither sex was ever able to get the upper hand.

3. As for your comments on American Reform Judaism. They are totally correct, or at least they were in 1880 when the Pittsburg Declaration was signed. They do not apply to 20th and 21st century American Reform Judaism and they have never applied to any Jewish community outside the United States.

Again, if you are interested in a bibliography, I'll get you one. If not, just trust me.

4. As for the rest: sensitive, politically correct, kings in chains in Jerusalem . . . we'll leave all that to our cup of coffee. (It better be a pretty big cup).

Anonymous said…
That coffee sounds great!:)

Just got back from seeing this great bridge that's being built over the Potomac river. So I had a good day, hope you did too!:)

I do not accept your viows on most things but I respect your right to hold them. (Damn, I'm being corrupted by Yankee ways every passing day! LOL!:)


Dotan Dimet said…
Hagai -
1) Actually, the shul secular Israelis don't attend is an Orthodox one; our state-sanctioned Jewish religious apparatus and all our religious political parties follow Orthodox jewish practice.
The conservative movement is just a less "liberal" and more "traditional" variation on reform Judaism (I hope that wasn't too offensive to anyone). Like the reform movement, the conservatives have taken plenty of liberties with jewish religious doctrine and ritual, they just try to keep a more traditional flavour while modernizing.
2) I get the appeal of tribalism, but as an Israeli, I get my tribal kick through the mechanism of a modern nation state, with its own language, teritory, army, etc. I don't need to bring the gentile kings in chains to Jerusalem, it's enough to beat them at Soccer, Basketball or even the crummy Eurovision. Tribal religion I'm allergic to, becaue it just feels fanatic and racist.

Janet -
1) The "White Goddess" is a reference to Robert Graves, who invented a fanciful theory aout how Greece/Europe/Everywhere was once inhabited by peacful Goddess-worhippers, who were conquered by partiarchal and war-like worshippers of a male god. Graves, however, is a poet, not a scientist, and his theory is mostly poetic invention. I think that Margaret Murray, a 19th century writer that influenced modren Wicca also contributed to this idea of Goddess-worhip predating other forms of religion. However, I don't think there is any serious evidence of primitive religions that have a female goddess without including male divinities as well. Both are vital ingredients of a healthy pagan pantheon, as seen in all our favorite mythologies, and most canny religions recognize both female and male aspects - Christianity with its Holy Virgin) and Judaism (Reform jews didn't invent the Schina, they just gave her better parts).
I think this is because each of us has, regardless of faith, met two omnipotent beings in our life: Mom and Dad.
(To say nothing of all the rich symbolism that arranges itself nicely along the femenine/masculine axis).

And Abigail,
The secular Israeli choice, which Hagai nails nicely, leaves all the business of our religious legacy to the Observant Orthodox folk; on the one hand, we trust them to do it "properly", with their singing and incomprehensible Aramaic and peculiar rituals - those Rabbis do the form of Jewish religion right. On the other hand, a lot of us come out in hives just thinking of the content or meaning of this religion - anything from the status of women to the racist attiude towards our fellow humans - the religious official at the funeral of my ex-girlfriend's mother made an unfortunate remark to her about the way a jew is buried, in contrast to how you bury "a gentile or a beast".
It's not surprising, then, that our Orthodox rabbis have adapted, and their sermons (at weddings, which is where I get to hear Rabbis talk, mostly) are filled with clever wordplay and gematria, because these empty tricks are one way to avoid talking about the actual content of the religion. And also, these tricks leveage perhaps the only cultral component the secular Jews have with their Orthodox brothers - the Hebrew language and the alphabet.
Reform jews tore apart our heritage and put it back together in a form that they could live with, except they've got this nagging doubt it's no longer breathing.
Secular Israelis locked their heritage in closet and when we visit it, the only thing we can do togther comfortably is play scrabble.
Peter said…
i “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.”

Abigail Nussbaum @ 12:33 AM

Dear Abigail,

I am also a reform Jew with an entirely different view.
For one thing, I believe that all Jews today are reform Jews to some degree. The reformation started some 3000 years ago, upon the return from the first exile. While this was the time the Torah had been first written down by Ezra the Scribe, people were no longer satisfied with a hereditary priesthood and animal sacrifices. Note that none of the prophets were priests. Rabbinic texts state that the Torah was given to Moses who passed it on to the elders (oral tradition) who passed it to the prophets. No mention of priests. Jeremiah makes it clear that it is not sacrifices, but prayer charity and good works that God wants. Historic ruins show that even before the destruction of the Great Temple, there were already synagogues where Jews worshiped through prayer rather than sacrifice.

Thus the first reformers were the great Rabbis of old such as Hillel, Shamai, and Akiva, who laid the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism which all modern-day branches of the faith observe.

As for picking and choosing commandments, don’t feel so bad. Each and every man (and woman?) is commanded to ‘study” Torah. Some believe that the word study means rote memorisation. It is more commonly believed that it means also interpretation. All the Talmudic texts are re-interpretations of the original Torah by scholars. Should we memorise these, or is every person asked to interpret for himself (possibly with their scholarly input). This is why you should not feel too guilty about picking and choosing. I feel, it is what you’re supposed to do. That’s why even after 5000+ years, Judaism is still not a dead religion. Oh yes, just make sure that when you pick and choose, you do so for the right reasons. You need to recognise that you yourself are not perfect, so not all he choices you make will be perfect. We can only do the best we can, so don’t have unrealistic expectations of your own wisdom.

As for Une Sane Tokef

For me, the following is the grandeur of the prayer:

“This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. Lord, it is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live. Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You.

You have created us and know what we are; we are flesh and blood.
Man’s origin is dust, and dust is his end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.

But you are the King, the everlasting God.”

Apocryphal ? perhaps. But it is the perfect answer for two thousand years of attempts by some Christians to convert Jews and mock their faith. Every Jew in medieval Europe knew the charge for which this was the answer:

“The God of the Old Testament was an angry wrathful, vengeful God while the God of Christianity is the God of Love.”

Reread the book “Moby Dick” by Melville, and you will find that this is the theme of the book.

It was to prove this that so many Jews were persecuted murdered, tortured, burned at the stake for nearly 2000 years.
The prayer sets out the mercy of God as we Jews know it. As for Christianity’s God of Love, you will find Him not that kind to un-repented sinners. For proof see Dante’s Inferno.

The prayer does not make this last point, does not mock Christianity, nor does it even complain of persecution. It takes ‘the high road’ in proclaiming the mercy and grandeur of God. In so doing it becomes the perfect statement for the Ten days of Atonement.

Please don’t take this as a criticism of you, or how you feel. I am simply putting my view beside yours for your consideration. Nor do I wish to criticise Christians or Christianity. The above prayer simply cries out for historic context for full appreciation and understanding. Oh and by the way, it was part of my essay on “Moby Dick” some 30 years ago, and no, my professor was not Jewish..

Shanah Tova

Anonymous said…
I was googling "jam for pesach" when your blog came up. I found it very interesting, because although I attend an orthodox shul (in U.K.) I am of the same mindset of yourself. I waver between being an agnostic and an atheist, but I enjoy all the traditions of our religion - except cleaning cupboards for Pesach which is an absolute bore but a must-do to placate family members. It doesn't matter that I don't believe in God, it's enough to believe in my identity and to carry on being Jewish and support Israel. I have been to reform shuls, and found it similar to church ceremonies and not a very comfortable place to be for me. I drive on shabbat, shop, etc. but still feel more comfortable in an orthodox shul. Each to his own I say.

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