Tonight at sundown begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It is the most sacred of the High Holy Days, and I’m left, as I am every year, trying to figure out my own faith and my place within the larger construct of organized religion. And, like every year, I’m no closer to an answer.
I was raised Jewish, attending services at a Reform synogogue. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Jewish faith, Reform Judaism is widely considered the most liberal movement of Judaism in the U.S.) I attended Hebrew school as an after-school program, was dutifully Bat Mitzvah-ed, and then promptly stopped going to temple at about age 14. I will admit that I was far more religious when my grandparents were alive, because they kept so many of the traditions around and part of my life. I’m from an area with a small Jewish population, and where I live now is very much the Land of the Catholics, so I’ve always been a bit of a religious oddball.
Add to that the fact that I don’t consider myself religious, but still self-identify as Jewish, and you can see the beginnings of my conundrum. I’m not a huge fan of the Judaism-as-ethnic-group school of thought, mostly because Jews around the world vary so vastly in language, culture, appearance, and pretty much every other way that people can differ from one another. All religions have traditions and rituals, language and writings, and those things all exist layered on top of the national or ethnic identities that exist. Put another way: I can choose not to be Jewish anymore, but I can’t choose not to be German or Polish or Scottish. I can choose to become a Christian, and someone else can choose to become Jewish. So, to me, Judaism is strictly a religion.That’s a debate we can have for days.
So why do I, an admitted non-practicing Jew, still self-identify as Jewish? Why am I the go-to girl for answers on all things Jewish, especially for the people I encounter in my daily life, many who have never met a Jewish person before? How can I hold a fairly low opinion of organized religion in general and still consider myself as a part of one? This is the time of year, every year, that these questions arise.
The evening service that begins Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre. It’s a serious, beautiful service in which we atone for our sins of the past year and ask God’s forgiveness. Kol Nidre is one of my favorite of all religious rituals, aside from the fact that it’s really, really long. (Catholics, I’ve been to some of your masses, and trust me when I say that I know where a lot of that neverending ritual comes from.) I haven’t been to a Kol Nidre service in probably ten years or so. Most years, I do adhere to the fast (you are not permitted to eat on Yom Kippur; it’s a full-day fast). Some years I don’t. Some years I’ve had to work. So you can see where I’m a pretty bad Jewish girl, if I can’t even follow the basic rules of our most holy of holidays. But does that make me any less Jewish? That’s something I think I might never be able to answer.
So tonight, I’ll observe my own personal version of Kol Nidre. Yom Kippur is for asking for atonement for your sins against God. I’m choosing to, in my own way, also atone for my sins against fellow people, against my various and often contradictory beliefs, and all of the ways that I could have been better in this past year. My uncertainty in belief may not allow my name to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, but I hope that my small participation in this ritual, however I have adapted it, and whatever significance it holds for me– whether for the sake of tradition, belief, or for my own personal fulfillment– will allow me to hang on to the narrow thread connecting me to the faith I grew up with. And for now, that’s the best I can do. I hope my Bubbe wouldn’t be too disappointed.