It’s Yom Kippur season, and that’s not good news for the Jews.
I know everyone thinks this is great, because the synagogues are full and people are fasting and also turning a fast day into a feast day because of course we need to eat before and after and that’s at least as important as fasting, right? It’s great, because people are taking off work and missing school for this most epically momentous day of the year.
But I demur.
I don’t think Yom Kippur’s widespread popularity is a good thing, because to my view it is largely based on guilt and fear. And guilt and fear are a terrible basis for a relationship with God. I can’t tell you how many times people write me things like this: “How should I approach going into Yom Kippur with sins – that I am not working on correcting now. How can I come to God with tremendous feelings of shame and guilt?”
Yom Kippur’s success is precisely its failure, because your average Jew goes to Yom Kippur services on the most serious, austere day of the year, but does not attend synagogue on Purim, the most jovial and hilarious day of the year. Yom Kippur has won a total victory with fear, shame and guilt leading the way; joy, warmth and love are straggling far, far behind. This is not good, people.
Of course Judaism is about doing the right thing and behaving yourself. Of course there are Ten Commandments and 613 mitzvot and dos and don’ts. Of course cheeseburgers are bad and kosher brisket good; gossip bad and kindness good; antisemitism bad and Jewish pride good.
But there is also a loving God who’s your biggest cheerleader and who wants you to succeed. A heavenly Father who cares for you deeply. A divine Mother who anticipates all your needs. A celestial King who is going to flex His supreme power to make things OK. A spiritual BFF who wants to hear everything that’s on your mind and will hold space for all your feelings and make you feel heard and understood and will give you time and space to figure out your path.
And this is the part of Judaism that is suffering from a severe PR problem.
So here’s the Orthodox rebbetzin’s advice: don’t come on Yom Kippur. Come instead for Simchat Torah, when we dance and sing and give out candy. Come instead for Purim, where we dress up and make Purim shpiels and make fun of ourselves and laugh and play. Come for Shabbat, where we’ll celebrate with community, learn a bit of Torah, talk to God, and enjoy a sumptuous kiddush. And perhaps most importantly, bring Judaism home, so everyone gets to see and feel joyous Judaism every day, where Judaism need not get outsourced to synagogues like it’s too scary for lay people to tamper with.
And then, if steeped in all that richness, in all that joy, in all that love and luminescence, there is one day of the year where you go to shul and there’s lots of praying, and seriousness, and no food – it won’t define your Judaism. It’s just a part of the cycle; it’s the emotional journey of the year. The High Holidays are serious; Sukkot is joyful; Chanukah is grateful; Purim is celebratory; Passover is regal and familial; Shavuot is pomp and ceremony.
A cycle like that puts Yom Kippur in context. And that’s good news for the Jews. Shana tova, dear readers. May it be good and sweet… and mostly, joyful.