Monday, September 13, 2004

From the mouths of babes

I was brought up as a Chassid, in a home where contact with anyone less than ultra-orthodox was well nigh limited to decorators and storekeepers. Until my barmitzva I believed that anyone who shaved their beard or wore fashionable clothes was destined eventually to spend eternity in hell, unless they could be gotten off in the heavenly court with the Tinuk shenisba excuse (our equivalent of ‘They know not what they do’).

Since I rebelled at a certain age I have changed my own opinion somewhat and my perception of both Chassidim and the more liberal-minded has gone through several metamorphoses. I have discovered that many a deeply religious fervour can lie hidden behind a highly assimilated exterior and, as those many less religious people at work who used to call me Rabbi have learned, there can lurk a disturbing void behind the beard, big hat and dark coat too.

This week the Slichot dragged me out of bed at 5:30 in the morning at the annual start of a calculated and highly effective routine of ever more intense traditions and symbolic ceremonies designed to set the stage for my ultimate showdown in Shul Rosh-Hashana. The accumulated guilt of the entire year gradually comes to the fore to climax as I find myself standing before my maker waiting for the shofar to blow, feeling an abject failure unworthy even to ask Him for the things I need.


I was thus pleased to be humbled this weekend by a woman whom I had hitherto regarded as completely devoid of religious sentiment. We were discussing Rosh Hashana and I could not resist asking what she felt coming to Shul for the first of two annual visits and whether she did not feel like an impostor arriving at the party of a host who had been callously ignored all year. “No,” she said “I don’t feel that way at all. I see Rosh Hashana as a celebration of God’s reign. I don’t feel bad celebrating the Royal Birthday just because I haven’t thought about the queen once all year and I don’t think Americans who avoided the draft feel foolish celebrating the fourth of July. God says I belong and if I belong I can celebrate. If God loves me, as everyone assures me He does, then He will be happy to see me at least once.”

In this coming year, that by all indications will be the one when we finally acknowledge that the western world is at war with Muslim fundamentalism, I believe we Jews will once again find ourselves united before a common enemy. There is a belief among some that we the Chassidim have more in common with the fundamentalists than the assimilated Jew. To certain extent this is true were it not for our passionate belief that every one of God’s creations is worthy of his compassion, and certainly ours no less. I am grateful to her for showing me that side of our religion and reviving in me the chutzpah to beg for Him for a peaceful year.

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