Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Archive for October, 2011

Reenactments of death: Kippur, prostration and judgment day

I scribbled this post right after Yom Kippur but then I told myself that all this talk about death was just not too coherent with the happy Sukkot season we were about to enter. Today, when we approach the end of the Tishri frenzy, some shocking and very sad news brought the subject back to my mind: two days ago my graduate-school friend Cantor Jason Goldberg passed away of a sudden heart attack at age 34. May his memory be a blessing.

 

While leading Yom Kippur services this year, I was meditating on what I call the Kippur reenactment of death. This is a very strange holiday, with ancient and a little obscure rituals. If you think about it, the whole idea of Kippur is to play dead. Many of the details prescribed by the ritual correspond to a metaphoric death: like the deceased, on Yom Kippur we wear a white kittel and no leather shoes. All of our attire is white, the color of purity and that of shrouds. Just like the dead, we don’t eat, drink or have sex, all actions that define the quotidian of living beings. We are, in a way, like the angels of Service, spending the whole day in prayer and praise to Ha-Shem.

 

It is not by chance that this day is also named yom ha-din, the Day of Judgment, because that is what we actually enact. Think of U-netane Tokef and its words: this day is full of awe and terrible, a time to come in front of the divine presence. The Book is opened and our destiny is now sealed: who will live and who will die, how exactly will the dead perish, who shall prosper and who shall not. A mighty shofar is blasted, but only a still small voice comes out, calling us to teshuvah. At that time of the day, I can’t avoid thinking of those who are aged or sick. I wonder how many will not be here next year for Kippur. It hurts to imagine that Jason may have had a similar thought when he sung that same dirge-like melody some weeks ago, with his limpid tenor voice, for what would be the last time of his life. Death –and even more when it is untimely and sudden– always falls on us with the cold shine of a knife.

 

One of the strangest aspects of the High Holidays, and particularly of Kippur, is the ritual prostration. Jews do not ordinarily kneel or prostrate when praying but we have this one time when we do. It is a humbling and deeply spiritual experience that –unlike some people think– it is not reserved to clergy. Next year, give it a try and you’ll tell me! I read somewhere that the prostration in itself is another reenactment of death: instead of falling flat at once, we slowly bow down, kneel and move to a full prostration. We are slowly breaking down and dying, falling back to mother earth’s womb. However, we are in front of the King, who has the power to raise the death, so lifne Melekh we suddenly raise back to life, like the earth revives in its cycle of seasons.

 

I am not an anthropologist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the origins of prostration are in fact reenactments of death. Bowing down and prostrating to the sun is probably the oldest form of human worship, as if our ancestors where telling the sun: “ we acknowledge that you are very powerful, that you give life to the plants and that you even can burn us to death if left in the desert for some time; see? just one stare from you and we drop dead!” Since the tribal king –as later the pharaoh– was often a personification of the sun, it comes as no surprise that the ancients begun to bow down to him as well. Many ancient religions –and even modern Islam– have fasts that last only as long as there is daylight. Somehow, maybe they “play dead” so that the solar god don’t see them “alive and eating”.

 

Wherever we look in the Yom Kippur machzor, there are constant reminders of the metaphoric death. There is a Yizkor service, probably the central one in the year. We have a long recitation about Jewish martyrs in history –modernly including those of the Shoah– with very graphic details of their death. A number of times we repeat piyyutim like be-yom din. Finally, there are a number of confessions: remember that the vidui is not only something we recite several times on Yom Kippur but also the prayer we are supposed to say at the time of our death. This text not only permeates the viduim of the Avodah service, but also many other places such as the end of Neilah.

 

And yet, Yom Kippur is a reenactment of death so that we can enjoy another year of life. No matter how we feel, life goes on. By “playing dead” in a way we try to conjure death once again. At the end of Neilah the mighty shofar blasts loud and clear, a sharp contrast with the shofar described in U-netane Tokef, and we respond with relief and with joy, already making plans to celebrate it in Jerusalem, next year. May we all indeed be there to celebrate.

 

Don’t curb your enthusiasm.

It is not a secret that the Jewish population is getting smaller and older. Much has been written on this subject and we all agree that we need to grow and we need it now. Some have even suggested we should lift the traditional ban of actively seeking converts. By this thesis, one should not only not make things impossibly difficult for candidates to conversion (we all know some contexts where this attitude is overdone ad absurdum) but rather go as far as to encourage people to explore our faith. But let’s leave this controversial subject for a future post.

Going back to the growth of Judaism, we can pinpoint many different causes of the demographic decline. For some rabbis, intermarriage is the big monster that is eating us alive. In my opinion, the trees maybe hiding the forest in this case. See, I grew up in a country whose language and culture are clearly receding. Many thinkers blame immigration and cultural intermarriage, as if the Catalan “purity” were watering down. Catalan speakers marry Spaniards and the whole family chooses Spanish as their home language, since it is always easier to favor the culture of a majority. However, it is evident that in some areas of Catalonia “culturally-mixed” families fare better than in others. A mixed family in Palma or Alacant is more prone to abandon the Catalan language in favor of Spanish than, let’s say, a family in the Garrotxa, just because in that area Catalan is more alive and enjoys better social prestige. Now back to Judaism: in a social context where Judaism is less alive, an intermarried family will be more prone to “go with the majority” and educate the kids as Christians. The culprit here is not intermarriage, but the weakening of Jewish identification. All in all, I think that it’s about lack of enthusiasm for Judaism.

As many of you know, I’m a hazzan with a bunch of part-time jobs. One of them is as a church organist. Two weeks ago I was sitting at my organ and listening to a visiting pastor. His sermon was about the church’s need to proselytize –what they call “the Great Commission”– and make disciples. His argument was simple: imagine your life without a personal relationship with Jay-Cee. How voided of meaning, joyless, purpose-deprived would it be? Now think of your relatives, friends, and coworkers who do not have that. Doesn’t it move you to action?

Allow me the somewhat-risky exercise of bringing the pastor’s argument to Judaism. Imagine your routine, your whole world without Judaism, without its ethics, life-cycle rituals, yummy food, music, and crazy idiosyncrasy. Imagine going through the week without the anticipation of Shabbat and without its rest, or going through the year without the excitement of the holidays. No shivah to comfort you, no seder to prepare for, no Purim frolic, no apples and honey for a sweet New Year. Chances are a considerable number of your Jewish relatives, friends and acquaintances have a life like that. You can’t miss what you don’t know.

Some rabbis and cantors get rather angry with the so-called Kol Nidre Jews. I just find them difficult to understand. Why on earth would you choose to come to shul only once a year, and pick the day that has more fasting, impossibly-long services, and weirder rituals? (Admit it: legally declaring vows invalid and the whole avodah service have some rather peculiar tinges). It is as if they wanted a confirmation that religion is this strange, foreign, depressive thing they witness once a year. To me, the worse part is that people choose to look at their entire Jewish heritage through the prism of a “sad” penitential commemoration. Ask some non-practicing Jews: they may have no idea what Shavuot is about, but they know most details of death and mourning rituals. Why live in “Kol Nidre mode” all your life?

Sukkot is a time of rejoicing, probably the most beautiful holiday of our calendar. Talking about the exuberance of these celebration, the sages said “he who has not seen the rejoicing at the Simchat Bet Ha-Shoeva, has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukkah 1:5). It is also the ultimate time to engage in an important mitzvah, hakhnasat orkhim, inviting people to share a meal with you. This Sukkot, make your love and enthusiasm for Judaism something contagious. Show the beauty and richness of Jewish life to those who still don’t know it, Jewish or not. Show your disaffected Jewish friends that there is so much more than fasting and long piyyutim. Show your non-Jewish friends that the external aspects of Judaism they know (all those prohibitions and picturesque attire) are nothing but a small detail in the whole dazzling picture. Let us all spend our whole year in Sukkot mode.