Oof. This part of the year is *full* of Jewish festivals. As full, to steal a Douglas Adams metaphor as a pomegranate is of pips, which is an apposite image because pomegranates are one of the symbols of the season (I think it has to do with fertility). So I am quite busy but in a good way – socializing, a bit of praying/meditating/thinking-about-stuff, making foods… Making the most of the season before winter comes to get us.
For Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year which was 19th and 20th September, I attended the Grassroots Jews services. This is a wonderful new venture – services focused on spirituality and community rather than the strict letter of anything. It neatly avoids the whole problem I talked about when I went to the Liberal Synagogue – that liberals can be quite as dogmatic in their beliefs as the Orthodox. My best example of this: in the email that went around giving details of the arrangements for the services, they had *both* of the following:
a) details for people who wanted to bring prayerbooks and food to the venue before the Sabbath started (because Orthdox people don’t carry on the Sabbath)
b) details about parking on the day (Orthodox people don’t drive on Sabbath, but non-Orthodox do).
Neither set of arrangements was presented with a slight snigger (how silly these people are) or a note of disapproval (of course the *best* people won’t do this…) as it might have been elsewhere. I was very impressed.
Anyway, I delivered a sermon of sorts on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. I began by announcing that it would be an atheist sermon. Or an agnostic one. Perhaps. Maybe. I’m not sure whether it’s agnostic or not.
I’ve written it up into some notes, so you can get the gist – it’s hard to write down talks though, they inevitably lose something in the translation. But here’s broadly what I said:
1. When I was a child, my parents took me to this ‘spiritual’ synagogue in London (Yakar), where people seemed more concerned about talking about their relationship to Judaism than about arranging a ladies’ guild. And therefore when I was a teenager I thought my parents were crackers and in my early 20s joined a shul with a ladies’ gallery and a kiddush rota etc etc. And of course now here I am back in a place much like where I started – a service committed to egalitarianism, to tolerance and to, yes, spirituality.
2. This is a natural development of our relationship with our parents. We start off thinking everything they say is right. And then we go through a stage of thinking everything they say is wrong. And then we reach a place of forgiveness, where we can say “this was right, but this was bullshit”. We’re grateful for the things they got right, and at first we’re angry for the things they got wrong but later we can forgive them.
3. This is the first time I’ve been in a shul on Rosh Hashanah for eight years.
4. Why? Because eight years ago, I was living in Manhattan. Rosh Hashanah was two days after 9/11. 9/11 was the Tuesday and Rosh Hashanah was the Thursday night. And I stood in that shul, with the stench of death and destruction in my nostrils, and read the prayers about how God is a just God and a righteous God and I thought: fuck this.
5. At that shul my parents used to take me to, the Rabbi Mickey Rosen, of blessed memory used to talk a lot about his spiritual problems. And at the time, as a child, I thought “my god this is boring”. Children don’t really have spiritual problems. (This got a good laugh, although I’m not sure why…) But with the understanding that some of you might be bored by this, I’m about to talk about my own spiritual problems.
6. There is evil in the world and it is a problem. It is, in fact, the problem of evil. Why would a good, loving, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow it? If God were truly good and just and merciful surely he would prevent terrible evils like 9/11 and the many daily tragedies that surround us. Some people are satisfied with the answer to the problem of evil that goes “ah well, we can’t see the whole picture. God causes plagues and floods but there’s a giant tapestry and we only see a small bit of it.” I’m not satisfied with this at all. I don’t accept that there can ever be a justification for the evil things that happen in the world.
7. So, here’s a thought that I’ve had. Not a solution. A thought. It’s based on the therapeutic insight that often we end up giving other people what we need ourselves. Maybe we want to be nurtured, so we end up nurturing others. Maybe we want to be listened to, so we spend a lot of time listening to other people. I was thinking about this as I was contemplating the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur service, with all of its emphasis on forgiveness. “Forgive us!” we cry to God, and God says “I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you.” And it made me think…
8. Perhaps, if you have a spiritual problem like mine, you could try what I’m trying. Perhaps we can try to forgive God.
9. Maybe this is a mature relationship, a two-way relationship. We talk about God as a parent, a father. Maybe like a parent, we can be grateful for some things we’ve been given but for others… all we can do is try to forgive.
10. Thank you, and Shana Tova
Naomi Alderman is an author, living and writing in Hendon. To lean more about Naomi visit her blog at http://naomialderman.typepad.com/