What’s a sin?

Today is Yom Kippur – the Jewish day of atonement. I’m Jewish, you might not have known that. I love being Jewish.

I’m fasting – which you’re supposed to do sunset to sunset on Yom Kippur. I’m not working – as you’re not supposed to do on Yom Kippur. I’m not at the synagogue – where you are supposed to be on Yom Kippur. I’m writing a blog – which I believe god has yet to set a clear rule about although Jews being Jews it could be debated back and forward either way for the next few thousand years.

This is perhaps the main reason I love Judaism – I believe it is the only religion which encourages its followers to actively question it. Actually, that is another reason I love it – it is a religion without followers, you are either born Jewish or you aren’t (if your mother is Jewish, you are) unlike other religions, you do not follow it – you are it. It is also non-evangelical so if you aren’t it, you won’t find any Jews trying to make you it. This is perhaps also the one thing that sits uneasily with me as I know and have known people raised Jewish whose fathers are Jewish but whom the more orthodox of my people will coldly reject. I fully respect the religion that feels no need to be evangelical and attempt to indoctrinate but the snottiness of rejecting those who passionately want to belong is discrimination and smacks of the notions of racial purity which have threatened to destroy us many times over the centuries.

So, Yom Kippur is essentially the big one, the most important day of the year in Judaism. taken at face value it is the day when God seals and inscribes each person’s fate for the next year in his book. I can practically hear your eyes rolling. What a ludicrous and implausible image, right? The old man with a big white flowing beard sat at his desk with a pen – probably a quill – going ‘Hmmmm… Rosenberg? He’s fasted and is sat in the synagogue praying… he can have a GOOD year!’ That’s the first time the similarity between God on Yom Kippur and Santa Claus has struck me. How did that never occur to me before? both of them old men with big white beards making lists of whose been naughty and nice. Only one of them is going to come down your chimney and leave expensive electrical goods under a tree and the other is going to decide whether or not to bankrupt you this year. Wait a minute. These guys might be working together.

And why not? It’s very easy to dismiss the notion of God as easily as it is the notion of Santa. I’m fully aware I’m in danger of sounding like one of those twats on Radio 2 religious programming right now so I should declare my agnosticism. ‘What?’ I would hear you cry, if you were in the room with me right now ‘WHAT?’ Because some of you probably don’t know what agnostic means and those that do would assume that someone as enlightened and cool as myself would be an atheist.

I hate atheism. I hate it because I hate anything that is closed-minded. Do I believe in God? I don’t know. I did when I was younger. Nothing has happened to change that other than the continued assertion of his improbability. Why is that question even really important? At the end of the day, I find the people who are happy to absolutely dismiss the notion of a god as small-minded and ridiculous as those who absolutely insist he does exist and controls everything. The truth is, we don’t know, we probably never will know – not in this lifetime – and it’s absolutely OK to say ‘I don’t know’.

Why must we always be forced to make a decision? Especially on things we couldn’t possibly have the answer for? God, ghosts, aliens – I don’t know. I can see the argument for them, I can see how ridiculous the notions seem in cold reality. I can see how they could exist, I can see how they would be an emotional crutch for weak people. But at the end of the day… I DON’T KNOW. And I’m probably never going to know. So my opinion is just little more than a scraping together of things I’ve heard and the kind of personality I want to project.

My sister got married earlier this year to a lovely bloke. I was absolutely honoured to be his best man and it makes me so happy that she ended up with him. He treats her brilliantly, he’s so much fun to be around, he’s a cheeky fucker and I get to geek out with him about Doctor Who. Their wedding was a really really nice day, a fantastic atmosphere, no probs, fun from beginning to end. But I had some trepidation going into it. His family is Jewish and my family is Jewish. So, everyone expected that there would be a traditional Jewish wedding but it turned out that wasn’t what the couple wanted. That was weird. It actually really bothered me. In our family it’s only me and my sister left who were really raised practicing Jews. My cousins are all non-practicing. So, my parents only shot at throwing a Jewish wedding was for my sis. I felt bad for them. But it’s my sister and bro-in-law’s wedding, so it absolutely should be their choice what kind of wedding it is and how it goes. They shouldn’t feel under pressure from anybody to dictate how their day should go. And the day went great. It was my favourite wedding I’ve ever been to.

The thing is, when I talked to my bro-in-law about why he didn’t want a Jewish wedding, he told me it was because he didn’t believe in God. That made me so sad. not that he didn’t believe in God – I don’t think I know anyone who does – but that he was prepared to turn his back on all the amazing, brilliant, beautiful stuff our religion offers for that reason alone. A Jewish wedding is a fantastic thing – under the chuppa, breaking the glass, mad dancing in concentric circles and throwing the groom up in the air on table cloths and carrying the couple around on chairs. It’s a celebration like nobody else can throw and, as I said before, because of the nature of our religion it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or not, you’re born Jewish so you are Jewish so you’re entitled to all the wonderful stuff that goes with that.

You see, I think we’re cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We so proudly walk around declaring our atheism and scoffing at the notion of God that we throw out all the fantastic things that go with religion other than the dogmatic indoctrination. On face value alone, I love the music of my religion. I love the sound of a whole community chorusing in song – it’s absolutely beautiful. I like the sound and the look of the Hebrew language. I like the stories. I like the dancing. I like the arguing. I like the old Jewish guys who fall asleep mid-service. I like going to New York and eating in the Kosher delis. I like potato latkes and pickled cucumbers. I don’t like the ultra-orthodox Jews with the hats and curly bits so much. I think they close themselves off to a lot of what life has to offer by being so dogmatic. That’s their choice though and I respect it. But I don’t like that they are so fervent and self-righteous. That seems closed-minded and arrogant.

My grandmother died 2 years ago and it still upsets me. Especially on religious holidays like this. My sister no longer comes back to Oxford for them and my mother finds it stressful to properly ‘do’ the things that you’re supposed to. So it ends up, as it will tonight, my mum dad and me sat around a table eating a hastily prepared and partially microwaved (bleurgh) meal and just getting through it as quickly as we can. it’s not the same without my grandma, sister and also my great aunt who died several years ago. And I realise now that that is what defines my religion for me.

Yom Kippur is an arduous day – by 4pm you are feeling the lack of food and you still have about four hours to go before the fast is broken. But it was worth it because we’d all convene at my grandma’s house and we’d break the fast with honey cake and whiskey and chopped liver. Then we’d all gravitate to the dinner table and eat a huge meal with roast chicken (she always made an ‘experimental’ veggie option for me), loads of fluffy mashed potatoes, all kinds of veg, pickled cucumber and cucumber salad which she made with razor-thin slices of cucumber and acetic acid. and we’d talk and joke and eat into the night.

This is why religion is good. It unites you with your family and gives you a reason to spend time together appreciating each other and the culture you come from. It preserves your heritage and grants you belonging to a worldwide community of people who will consider you family, even when you have none. It connects you to your ancestors and by keeping going the traditional rituals brings you closer to them and allows you to pass on things that have been important and central to the circumstances of your own existence. That is beautiful.

So, do I believe that today my name is being written into a book and my fate sealed? It sounds unlikely. But you know what? It’s a pretty damn good thing to take a day off once a year, eat no food – so you don’t have the energy to get on with stuff – and just sit and think about how you might be judged on your behaviour over the last year. The people you might have wronged, the mistakes you might have made and to confront yourself with them. If once a year, everyone’s families expected them to do this, then closed the day off sat around a big table full of food stuffing themselves silly – wouldn’t the world be a little better for it?

The great thing about this day and age is that you don’t have to be dogmatic. You’re allowed to say that you don’t believe in the hokey pre-science (and indeed pre-Richard Dawkins) stories that are told but you’re also allowed to enjoy telling and hearing them and you’re allowed to take comfort in the beautiful ancient rituals that your own family have been doing for centuries. Eating special foods, lighting candles, singing songs. The feeling of magic and unity that most people only get on Christmas Day is kind of on offer throughout the year. It’s just a shame how proudly people reject all of the beauty, tradition, wisdom and community that religion has to offer over a matter as stupid as belief.

It is the fashion now to declare yourself atheist and turn your back on religion. It makes you feel enlightened and clever. But it’s so much better to just admit you don’t fucking know and have a good time with your people and all that your culture has to offer.

Published in: on September 28, 2009 at 5:34 pm  Comments (9)  

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  1. Another fab blog, but I’d like to point out a few things!

    I don’t think I said that I don’t believe in God – if I did, it was wrong, as I’m in the “don’t know” and “I believe what I believe, not what people tell me to” camp.

    My problem is with religion itself, but I’ll steer clear of that can of worms for now.

    As for the wedding – it wasn’t a religious one, purely because of me. I didn’t want to say things I didn’t believe – the words I said in the ceremony were the most important things I’ll ever say in front of a group of people, and more importantly, my wife. So I wanted to believe them 100%. Any religious context would’ve made them a lot less meaningful to me.

    I can’t get away from the fact that I’m Jewish – I half resent the fact that because my Mum is, I have to be, like it or not.

    There are things I like about it – mainly food related I have to admit! But there’s an awful lot I dislike about it.

    As for religion itself – granted, it does bring people together, but it also does a massive amount of damage in pulling people apart (see pretty much every war).

  2. Hey Gary,

    You absolutely made the right choice, obviously, because the wedding was amazing. I certainly wasn’t trying to impune your decision. And you’re absolutely right, it was much more meaningful using your own words and knowing that you meant them.

    What I was trying to say was that I think it’s a shame that the concept of belief makes people feel uncomfortable about their own family heritage and culture.

    It really isn’t religion that causes war, though, it’s idiots who appropriate it to disguise different political agendas. I don’t think there is a single religion that actually advocates and encourages genocide.

    On the subject of war, though, I just decimated your Bejewelled Blitz score – loser.


  3. Bastard.

  4. Best blog so far.

    I’m in agreement, from an agnostic Catholic perspective. I cannot stand closed mindedness in these matters. As much as Frankie Boyle makes me weep with laughter, he makes me want to slug him when he talks about the ridiculousness of God and religion. If someone chooses not to believe, then that’s fine by me, but mocking others for believing is as bad as hardcore evangelism (and we’ve got more than our fair share of that in Christianity).

    Fact is, as you say, no one knows for sure. But, amongst all of the bad things religion has brought forth, even if you can take something good from it, that benefits you and your attitude to those around you, then so much the better.

  5. Not dead yet. Book of life so far. I’m not counting my chickens though. Will let you know if I’m still alive this time next year.

  6. What a beautiful post.

    It makes me feel pretty shabby about the stupid one I wrote on my own blog – and which you rightly took apart. I think it’s only right to ‘fess up.

    We kids ourselves sometimes that invective is entertaining. Not nearly as entertaining as coming together in harmony and friendship, it ain’t.

  7. The presumption that there was a meaningful difference between agnosticism and atheism isn’t one that ever made sense to me – why should I qualify my lack of belief in something with the tangential issue of how likely it is that I’d be willing to reconsider in the future? I’m pretty sure I’ll never believe in a Judaeo-Christian God, or any other kind, but if some great Revelation were to occur one would be silly not to buck up one’s ideas into alignment with a new reality.

    Which is why, in a roundabout way, I agree with you. I don’t wish to put words into Dawkins’ mouth, but I expect he’d be forced to admit that he couldn’t prove there wasn’t divinities about. But he misses the point: religious belief is just a manifestation of cultural heritage, usually a particular one that brings you together with family members, and such there’s much that’s beautiful, and much that’s ugly, in that. It’s part of the stuff of life.

  8. Some thoughts:

    1. I’m so glad that you and your bro-in-law think deeply about these things. Your grandma was pretty sceptical about it all as she got older and I am, too. But I have inherited her sense of responsibility for not breaking the chain. People died for us to have the opportunity to make choices and I think we have a duty to allow future generations the same opportunity. You can only question your religion if you have some real understanding of it.

    2. The wedding was lovely but what comes after is much, much more important.

    3. Pinned on my study notice board I have the picture you drew of God when you were very young. He has awfully big hands (reminds me a bit of Kenny Everett: surely I never let you watch him when you were little?)

    4. Nothing was microwaved and I fried the fish cakes specially for you. I thought about cucumber salad but decided it would just make us even more sad.

    5. Impugn is a very good word but I do wish you’d spellcheck before you post.

  9. 1. I think that is kind of key – especially for Judaism. The arrogance of dismissing something that within living memory people died so that we could have is vulgar and ghastly.

    2. Sounds like a warning, Gary.

    3. Of course he’s got big hands, he’s got to make elephants and mountains and stuff (I definitely saw some Everett, don’t think I ever mistook him for a deity though)

    4. I very much appreciated the un-microwaved meal. Good effort!

    5. I insert delibberot speeling misstakes so as to make your boggle oppohnents think you have raysed me baddlee.

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