My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column for October 2016:
Binging at Weddings and Not Believing in Sin
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I went to a big Orthodox Jewish family wedding recently in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The music was so loud that some of my relatives, who had expected it, brought along earplugs. There was so much food at the smorgasbord and the main meal that the next day I weighed myself and saw I had gained more than three pounds in one night.
I’m tempted to turn down invitations to future frum family simchas just to keep my hearing intact and my waistline under control. Is that a reasonable course of action?
Binging in Bergenfield
Sure you can skip family weddings to preserve your health and well-being, and you should do that if you have no other solution. But some of your kin seem to have found modalities that allow them to participate and preserve their hearing. Surely ear plugs are an option for you too. Why not avail yourself of them?
And regarding the food, you know that you do not have to eat all of it! One possible alternative is to attend the smorg and the chuppah and gracefully decline the elaborate dinner that follows. Who needs to drive home at midnight from Brooklyn anyway? Of course, doing that you will miss the chance to bond and share at greater length with your family. But with such loud bands, how much schmoozing could you do with the relatives anyway?
You are challenged with the fact that some Jewish weddings are overly loud and can be exercises in excess eating. If you do go to one, use as much self-restraint and wisdom as you can.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
This time of year, around the High Holidays, I have some troubling religion questions. First one, I don’t believe in the religious idea of sin. I guess that makes me a heretic. And I saw that recently that a theologian gave a seminar at a local synagogue on the topic of whether a heretic is eligible at all to repent.
Second, I ask myself at this time of year, Why do we so overemphasize these 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Why do we not continually work on repenting all year long?
Sinful in Secaucus
Sin exists, of that I am sure. The Hebrew word for sin is chet, which implies missing the target. Actions are sins if they are not hitting the norm, not adhering to the highest level of behavior, as judged by one’s peers, community, society or religion.
When you say, you don’t believe in religious sin, I surmise that means you do not accept the narrative that there is a God, the heavenly accountant, who keeps records in a big book (or perhaps if it were written today, the narrative would refer to a giant data storehouse in the cloud), the all-in-one policeman, judge, and jury, who tracks each person’s actions and metes out rewards and punishments accordingly.
The moving High Holiday Unetaneh Tokef prayer assures us that such accounting is the case. That liturgy assures us that fasting, repentance, prayer, and charity all facilitate the mitigation of the punishment for the sins that are tracked.
But you don’t believe that story and you think that makes you an apikores, a heretic who denies the reality of sin. And therefore, you cannot repent.
And indeed, the medieval philosopher Maimonides makes clear his view that we cannot ever accept the repentance of a heretic (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 2:5).
Surely you could argue against that standpoint. Who better would we want to return to the fold than the outright rejecter? But it seems that the tough line prevailed in the medieval view. Like a spurned lover, the rabbi says to the heretic, once you walk out that door, you are not welcome ever to come back in!
Now I expect that you are a serious and thoughtful person who wishes to return to a better circumstance, to improve yourself morally and ethically. And as such, you can and should “repent of sin” in the conceptual framework that makes sense to you.
Let me give you an alternative repentance narrative that may fit your personality and beliefs better than the classical one that we sing and chant in the synagogue.
In the 10 days from the New Year to Yom Kippur you could take some extra time to consider how to get your life on a better track. Over the course of the year, everyone gets diverted or even derailed in one way or another from the direction that they set as optimal for themselves.
We fall short of personal goals. We mess up our interpersonal relationships. We may violate societal expectations. We may break laws. We may do terrible rotten things that we regret in retrospect and wonder what in the world motivated our missing the mark?
We often end up beating ourselves up for being bad, or lazy, or mean or thoughtless. And then there we are. In a place we don’t want to be, feeling lousy about our lives.
What to do? How to go forward? In the secular scenario, the path is not so mysterious. You need to have compassion for yourself. You need to forgive yourself of your shortcomings — to free yourself from all your bad vows of the past. And you need to chart a course going forward to get back to a better, safer, calmer place.
And let me tell you, all that is easy to say, and yet it is utterly hard to do. To accomplish that you likely will need help. Perhaps talking with good friends, family members, or a professional; a talented therapist can assist you along this road.
But many of us do turn to religion to seek support in this process. The whole dramatic arc of repentance in the Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur liturgy unfolds in two acts. In act one we meet the Lord, King of the Universe, the creator of heavens and Earth. He is no stranger to us having forged a relationship with us through several covenants. And we have proven our faithfulness, passing many tests along the way from the testing of Abraham and onward.
The Lord revealed to us his Torah, the template for a proper life. And here we are, unable to rise to the requirements of the revealed law, falling short of our assigned tasks and goals. Curtain falls — end of Act One.
Act Two opens at Kol Nidre with us, the subjects, standing in dejection and sin, wanting a way out of our sad situation. Before we address the Lord, we seek legal redress, we ask that our vows be released, that our bad habits be nullified. And throughout the Day of Atonement we ask repeatedly for our Lord’s compassion, mercy, forgiveness and pardon.
And at the end of a long day, and a lengthy 10-day period of seeking God’s compassion, we blow the shofar and we are sure that our sins are forgiven.
In the classical liturgical telling we rely on our belief that our great Lord will grant us forgiveness, release us from our past mistakes, and clean our slates to start over.
I hope you can value how the religious modality affords a strong means of assisting a way out of “sin” by calling on a higher power to help us, to forgive us.
The secular story arc puts the burden more on you to find the way forward to absolve yourself of bad actions. It seems simpler at first, but may end up being more complex to achieve.
And finally yes, I agree that self-betterment not be confined to one annual intensive 10-day period. Constant activity over the year to forgive yourself and fix what is broken in your life makes perfect sense to me. Go for it.
Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of many books about Judaism, including “Jewish Magic,” a new Kindle eBook on Amazon, and he also has published “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “God’s Favorite Prayers,” and “Talmudic Advice from Dear Rabbi,” which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all of the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org