Uncommon Journeys

Excerpted from "Common Prayers: Faith, Family and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year" by Harvey Cox. (Houghton Mifflin, $24).

It is September. The trees are in full leaf, and here and there a splash of amber or scarlet presages the foliage feast to come. The air has a bite; the atmosphere crackles. Energy is high. Children have returned from camp suntanned and taller. Back-to-school sales are under way. It is a time of year fairly popping with new beginnings. But before they officially ring out the old and ring in the new, most people will have to wait until the end of December. And it will happen during the darkest days of winter, crammed into an already crowded "holiday season.

For those attuned to the Jewish calendar, however, which follows the lunar rather the solar cycles, early autumn is precisely when the new year does begin. It would be nice to think that the rabbis took all these seasonal and psychological elements into consideration when they set the date, but I doubt it. Predictably, there were centuries in which Jewish authorities differed over when the new year should begin. Their argument, recounted in the Talmud, goes back to a more basic dispute about when the world itself was created. Was it in the Jewish month of Nisan, the one in which Passover falls? Or was it in Tishrei, which comes in the fall? The debate was eventually settled that, in effect, both parties were right, and some different "new years" in the Jewish calendar. The first day of Nisan is used as a year marker for the length of a king’s reign (although admittedly there are not many kings — let alone Jewish kings — in business nowadays.) It is also the new year for months. The month of Elul is used for counting the age of animals. The fifteenth of Shuvat is the new year for trees. But Tishrei marks the creation of the world and is the new year for years, so that is when the Jewish New Year’s Rosh Hashana falls.

This may sound unnecessarily confusing to those of us who are used to taking up a new calendar, popping a bottle of champagne, singing "Auld Lang Syne," and putting the wrong date on checks during January. But I rather like the idea that for Jews, the matter of exactly when the new year begins — like so much else in their tradition — was never definitely settled. Not only does the coming of the "new year of years" in September cohere well with the way many people live their lives, but the implication that there are different kinds of new years for the flora and fauna also makes sense. It reminds us (though this may not have been the original intent) that poodles and ostriches, scrub oaks and long needle pines, may live in cycles that are different from those of human being. Why should they all be squeezed into our human calendar? But I have learned something even more elemental from Rosh Hashana, something that is at the same time both unnerving and heartening. I have learned that it is a holiday about life and death.

The truth is, I have always found something acutely unsatisfying about the way most Christians and nonreligious gentiles and non-observant Jews commemorate the New Year. As a child I looked forward to being allowed to stay up until midnight on December 31. The next morning, while my parents slept late, I found the silly hats and noisemakers they had brought home from their merry-making the night before. In my later youth I looked forward to the dancing and singing and — to a limited extent — the drinking.

But all along I felt there was something missing. It seemed to me there should be another dimension to the coming of a new year, something that was being overlooked or even avoided. As I got older, I came to recognize that what was being left out was the apprehensiveness, even trepidation, that gnaws at each of us with the realization that our time is limited, another year has passed, and a new one is beginning. If only to ourselves, we inevitably ask some difficult questions. What does the new year really hold for us? Will it be just another 12 months or could it be my last year?

New Year’s Day is simply not on the Christian calendar, and as far as I know, only a few Methodists still celebrate the custom of a Watch Night service on New Year’s Eve. I think this is a loss for us all. Human beings need rituals as punctuation marks. They signal changes in our lives and allow us to become more fully aware of them. Some are relatively minor changes, marked by commas and periods. Others like new paragraphs, demarcate new but still relatively minor changes. New chapters, however, cue us that something more significant is beginning. Maybe that is why the medieval monks illuminated the first letter of each chapter in the manuscripts they copied with elaborate curlicues and gold dust. The coming of a new year is definitely a new chapter. This is why clinking glasses and cheering the descending ball in Times Square does not speak to the powerful mixed feelings New Year’s Eve evokes.

Early in the twentieth century a German philosopher named Rudolf Otto published an influential book, later translated into English as The Idea of the Holy. In it he suggest that the original impetus for all religions comes from what he called — in a phrase that has become commonplace to theologians — the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The holy, he says, awakens in us both a trembling shudder at its uncanniness, and a sense of fascination with its beauty and seductiveness. For thousands of years the different religious traditions have grappled with ways to do justice to both these dimensions, and they have devised a variety of patterns. In the bible, the anxious shudder is evoked by "the wrath of God." Those familiar with Buddhist iconography will recognize it in the so-called dreadful and grotesque deities that are especially evident in Tibetan iconography, although this dark side of that tradition is not often mentioned in the gentle version purveyed by the Dalai Lama. In Hinduism, the malicious face of the divine can be seen in the figure of Kali, with her belt of dismembered arms and her necklaces of skulls.

Of course, no religion leaves it at that. Each also has its way of projecting the merciful, benevolent — even approachable and loving side of the holy. But one reason that so many people see contemporary American versions of Judaism and Christianity as shallow is that the fascinans side has completely overwhelmed the trememdum side. A few years ago Cheryl Bridges Johns, an American theologian and religious educator, took a year off to visit churches throughout the United States in order to appraise the health of religion at the grass-roots level. What she found discouraged her. She discovered what seemed almost to be a conspiracy across denominational and even interfaith lines to remold God into the most pleasant and obliging deity imaginable.

The Yahweh who thundered from Mount Sinai, drowned the Egyptian army, and who the prophet Amos says will bring destruction upon "who oppress the helpless and grind down the poor" has disappeared from altar and pulpit. Both churches and synagogues have tried to devise a "user-friendly" God. Indeed, some of the most successful "mega churches" now plan their services, music, and preaching on the basis of market surveys.

But this presents a problem. When tremendum is short-circuited, the fascinan also seems to fade away. It is hard to imagine anyone shuddering in the presence of the God of American cultural religion today. But this oh-so-nice God does not seem to evoke much passionate affection either.

Still, the shudder persists, if somewhat muted. For example, Jewish religious leaders often speculate on why, even though weekly synagogue attendance is usually low in America, their buildings are full to overflowing on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Indeed it comes as a surprise to anyone with a Jewish spouse to discover that one has to get tickets in advance for the high holiday services or no seat will be available. Why the crowds? Some observers point out that Judaism actually has two calendars. The first is the annual one, which includes all the holidays. The second one is based on the individual’s own life cycle, which encompasses birth (and circumcision), coming of age (bar and bat mitzvah) marriage, and death. In an individualistic society like our own, life-cycle rituals loom much larger than the prescribed annual holidays. Then why such a crowd at Rosh Hashana? I think it is because, for many people, the start of a new year is not just a collective event, it is also a pivotal road mark in their own lives. But I think there is something else in the picture as well: the Rosh Hashana ritual itself. It strikes exactly the right note to resonate with the mixed feelings that well up in most of us when an old year ends and a new one begins.

"Judaismis a religion of life against death," Rabbi Irving Greenberg says in "The Jewish Way." Even the most uninformed Gentiles often recognize this. However dimly, they know that Jews have survived more threats to their individual and corporate existence, and for more centuries, than any other people. Someone once referred to Jews as "the always dying out race." Their disappearance has been confidently predicted time after time, most often by their enemies, but sometimes even by Jews themselves. Yet, after thousands of years filled with perils and pogroms, and even after the Nazi’s attempt to murder them all, Jews are alive and well. It could even be argued that at the end of the century that treated them most harshly, most Jews are thriving today more vigorously than at any time since the halcyon days of David and Solomon. They still bury their would-be pallbearers and still stubbornly offer toasts to life, "l’chaim." As even the most casual observer has to admit with some degree of puzzlement, they must be doing something right.

An outsider participating in Jewish religious life soon learns that the way Jews affirm life is not by denying death but by facing it down. The Rosh Hashana ritual takes the form of dramatic confrontation with death and mortality. This happens in part through a carefully staged courtroom drama in which God is the judge, and everyone who comes before his presence is being tried for his or her life. In fact, to my astonishment, according to one Jewish prayer book, even the "hosts of heaven" are called to account at this time. Nobody, human or angel, escapes this sweeping indictment. In the end, life and mercy win out over death and judgment, but the Rosh Hashana liturgy is designed to elicit the same cold dread anyone would feel in a human courtroom under such formidable circumstances.

The trial actually goes on for days and ends only on Yom Kippur, a week and a half after Rosh Hashana, when the verdict is finally announced. But getting to that final acquittal is not easy. Between the two come what are called yamim noraim, the Days of Awe. During these 10 days the defendants must undergo the most intensive sort of self-scrutiny, reviewing a year’s deeds and misdeeds, both major and minor. They must ask forgiveness from anyone they have wronged and — when possible — make restitution. God, the tradition says, forgives only the sins we commit against him, not those committed against other people. The objective is to move the soul to teshuvah, "repentance." The symbolism states that throughout the trial, God is pondering whether to inscribe our names in the Book of Life or in the Book of Death. The hope is that, having undergone such a rigorous moral inventory, the new year can begin with a
clean slate.

The concept of taking a personal moral inventory has become familiar to millions of people who are not Jewish and may never have heard of Rosh Hashana. It is one of the first and most basic steps one is required to take in a "12-step program," like Alcoholics Anonymous or Alanon. Scholars estimate that one out of every four adult Americans is involved in a "support group," many of which use the moral inventory approach. Christians who were raised with some exposure to the traditions of pietism and revivalism will sense something familiar about the Days of Awe. None of it should be particularly surprising, since the Christian tradition of setting aside certain days and seasons for self-examination and penitence are adaptations of earlier Jewish traditions, and the 12-step programs evolved from the Oxford Group Movement, an evangelical Christian enterprise. The Days of Awe have shaped modern culture much more than most Jews realize.

As Rosh Hashana ebbs, everyone anticipates the unearthly blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is sounded several times during the Days of Awe. It emits a strange sound, like nothing one hears anywhere else in modern life. It seems to cut through the buzz and static to what must be a primitive part of the brain. But why does it pierce so deeply? The answer given by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, one of the last of the great Hasidic teachers (he died in 1905), makes sense to me.

"The shofar blasts," he said, "are sounds without speech. Speech represents the division of sound into varied and separate movements of the mouth. But sound itself is one, united, cleaving to its source. On Rosh Hashana the life force cleaves to its source, as it was before differentiation or division. And we, too, seek to attach ourselves to that inner flow of life." Commenting on this interpretation, Rabbi Arthur Green says, "The sound of the shofar takes us to that moment of outcry from deep within, to a place prior to the division of our heart’s cry into the many words of prayer."

But for me there is another reason that the shofar slices the air and stabs the soul. It signals, as nothing else does, the chasm between the past and the future. It splits time in two. As the old year fades and the new one begins, we realize that the old one is gone forever and that, try as we will, we can never know what lies ahead. The shofar, since it is wordless, can both scream in terror and shout for joy with the same breath. Nothing else is worthy of the beginning of a whole new year in the only life we will ever have.