By Jessica and Moshe Mordechai
During my year in the Cardozo Think Tank, I found myself at odds, not so much with the answers people were discussing as with the questions themselves. The friction seemed centred on the fact that my religious life over the last few years, though I still live it reflectively, seems to be characterised by an approach that is now lighter, less driven by the quest for truth and authenticity, than that of many of the members of the group, or indeed of myself at some times in the past. The following is by way of an attempt less to justify than to describe what we came to refer to as my “Wishy-Washy Judaism”.
The primary metaphor of the Bible is that of the journey – I read that in an article about the Song of Songs. The lovers get up at night and search for one another; they search and they do not find. They find one another for a moment; they flee off again to the spice-scented mountains.
Thus the People travel down to Egypt and are trapped there. They rise up from Egypt. They wander; they follow the pillar of cloud. They enter the Promised Land and they are exiled. They search after wisdom which ever evades them. They find no resting place for the soles of their feet.
In this metaphor it is the landscape that changes and the traveller, vulnerable as he is, who remains: passing through, observing, acted upon. It is only when he stops moving that he begins to conquer and to build what is permanent, to give himself a name beyond “Hebrew” – “the one from the other side, not from here”. Then he begins, cautiously at first, to gather, master and build up what is his around him. But there follows a danger that he will become too involved in this illusion of ownership, of stability and entitlement. If he does not relax his grip every seventh year and every fiftieth, then the Land will claim back its Sabbaths and the traveller, once again, will be living out his rootlessness in geography as well as in consciousness.
And while the wanderer moves about he is exposed in two different lenses: seen from the inside, from his perspective, the camp is filled with uproar and confusion, faithlessness, conflict and uncertainty. The way is hidden from those who tread it; just a series of wearying movements after a restless cloud. But viewed from a distance – “How goodly are thy tents, o Jacob” (Num. 24:5) – modest and uncorrupted by decadence. Simple and true, drawn by an unseen hand, by cords of kindness (Jer. 31:2).
Down on the ground the traveller believes that he is fleeing. At the journey’s end he will come to realize that he has all this time in fact been travelling towards – to his destined task, to his wisdom, his inheritance, his love. The heroes of the Bible do not set off from home with great things in mind, do not strike out to capture the castle. It is in fleeing the sword that they find grace in the wilderness (Jer. 31:1).
I grew up with a different metaphor for Judaism; that of the quest. The challenge of religion is to perfect the world, to perfect ourselves. And so each Ellul we strike out to conquer ourselves. We measure ourselves against an impossible standard and find ourselves lacking, set ourselves rigid goals and make plans to overcome ourselves this year. If we are sufficiently honest or jaded we then learn to expect the inevitable fall from grace after Yom Kippur. We ask ourselves whether we are fulfilling our destiny: that one great but unspecified Mission that God has surely entrusted to us. The order of the day is to engage in “calculations of the soul” and measure up to a common, imposed standard.
As we develop a habit of constant self-assessment, however, we are not encouraged to observe carefully what is outside us, or to allow ourselves to be affected by undesigned encounters with people and the world. However selfless we make ourselves, we are trained to hold the designing of our own selves at the focal point of our attention, and to keep our eyes from straying about us, even to the rippling effects of our very actions; to the small impressions we leave upon others and the world (for the good, we pray, but cannot be certain), before we move on. Our eyes are fixed on the destination, and the way itself becomes secondary.
The way, however, is wiser than those who travel it. And whether we like it or not, if our eyes are open, we are on our way. And so, this Tishrei, I would like to suggest a different approach to repentance. Guilt and shame are not necessarily the best motors for propelling growth, and shifting from a prescriptive and judgmental gaze to something more delicate, more understanding and descriptive of ourselves and of the ebbs and flows of our movements, could allow us to take possession of our own wanderings without confining them.
Yom Kippur atones the sins we commit against God, and, after appeasement, also the ones by which we harm one another. Perhaps we need not doubt so constantly that assurance of almost unconditional acceptance. Perhaps from that basis of modest security we could think more freely about the path we find ourselves on. It would be a great loss if this season really did make angels and martyrs out of diverse and decent mensches, picking their careful ways through the desert, in the age-old tradition, finding grace.