Not really: Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, when you stand before God and He sees you, really sees you, not normally a "happy" experience. Before the last (second) Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE., the temple contained a physical space for the Yom Kippur meeting with God: the "Holy of Holies," in which a high priest or (according to some traditions) a common person who represented everyone, entered the space, where this person would be joined by God. Today, at least before we fight World War III to get the space back, we must conceptualize that space, and each Jew is supposed to enter it on Yom Kippur to confront, or be confronted by God.
Imagine how it would be to stand in an enclosed space the size of a closet, no one in there with you except God. Clearly an intense experience. To add to the intensity, Jews must fast for 24 hours, the duration of Yom Kippur. I have made the decision not to fast, because I see the holiday as a meditative one, and I can't meditate when I have a headache and can't think of anything but a grilled Reuben. Further, I'm not sure that being in the presence of God (defined here as any force affecting human life that we can neither see nor understand) requires mortification of the flesh. I find guidance in the Book of Genesis where Jacob struggles all night with the angel of God. In the morning the angel proclaims that Jacob's name will now be "Israel," meaning, "He who struggles with God and prevails." In my personal Yom Kippur meeting with God, I don't seek to "prevail, " but to make contact, to communicate, laying bare my weaknesses and mistakes, and my strengths, and then, as in a conversation, awaiting a response. Mortification may ensue, but that's not my job.
Yom Kippur comes one week after Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish new year. As noted in the next essay on this blog ("Happy Jewish new year!"), my wife and I celebrated Rosh Hashona at our Reform temple in L.A., but planned to observe Yom Kippur in the Twin Cities, the morning service at the Orthodox temple in St. Paul where we were married, the evening service at my sister-in-law's Conservative temple in Minneapolis. So here I sit in a St. Paul Caribou Coffee the day after Yom Kippur, enjoying the 40 degree early fall outside (it's 105 in L.A.), recounting my experiences yesterday.
In the morning, my father-in-law, Max, my brother-in-law Steven and I, with my wife Susan and her mother Edith, set off for their Orthodox temple in St. Paul. I describe us separated by gender because the temple experience described us so. On arrival, Max, Steven and I entered the sanctuary, where I saw the Lubavitcher rabbi who married me and Susan 43 years ago, standing at one of several podiums before a prayer book, chanting and rocking back and forth in a form of physically expressive prayer called "davening," scores of men around him absorbed in similar fashion, creating a soothing cacaphony of recitation.
I took note of the gender screen at the back of the sanctuary, actually a wooden partition topped with tinted glass through which I could see all the women- daughters, mothers, sisters, wives- wearing hats (as the men wear kippahs) and watching the mens' service intently. I was surprised, because in my memories of the segregated women I see them talking and laughing, basking (as I write in "Happy Jewish new year") in a secret knowledge that Judaism, if not human culture in general, is female driven and directed. But Susan told me that my new impression was correct: the women were fascinated by the men's service and watched it quietly for the many hours duration. I found this revision in my understanding so surprising as to be almost disorienting. The "war of the sexes," as we used to jokingly call it, does not seem a joke anymore, but, at least in certain arenas, a real war for dominance and redefinition. Yet here these women sit, many of them younger, reverently watching the men monopolize spirituality. I don't think this precludes their having a female world of irony and revisionist history, but it's startling enough to see, anywhere in the modern world, a seeming acceptance of patriarchy. Susan, who normally views patriarchy as the failed experiment it increasingly appears to be, explained that the experience behind the partition was comforting: viewing the men, not as megalomaniac, but humbled, joining with each other in common search for sense in the universe, with entire extended families together in the small building, youngest to oldest, set to come together in a communal meal at sundown.
In the sanctuary, my memories of freedom of movement and expression and family togetherness were confirmed. Young boys davened or horsed around with each other amongst the men, accepted both as spiritual and childlike. How often do you see that? A little girl wandered in to try to tickle her praying brother. I expected some sort of outrage, but she stayed for a long time, her father clearly happy to see her.
It appeared to me that the magic of orthodox Judaism is that, for those it fits, many modern obstructions to family life are transcended. The need for men to think and feel like men; their need to be loved by women even though they think and feel like men; the reciprocal need of women; the need for adults and children to be "on the same page," to see the same world and agree on what they see: these treasures, so hard to come by in the "real world," seem to magically arrive, at least once a year, for orthodox Jewry.
Further notes: doctrinally, I could find no major distinctions between the orthodox and other Jewish denominations. I did note an indifference to architecture. The orthodox temple is an unremarkable structure on a residential street, the sanctuary all dry wall and plaster, even the Ark of the Torah a simple plywood cabinet.
Which brings me to the Conservative temple in St. Louis Park (a suburb of Minneapolis) where we attended evening services. This temple was architecture intensive: visible from many blocks away, its imposingly arced and thrusting spire enveloped in a huge stained glass window which, from within, rises above the altar, beautifully illuminated by the setting sun. Women, of course, were everywhere, sitting with the men, standing and singing on the bema, though the rabbis were men. A final note: Conservative services entail considerably more mortification of the flesh than do Orthodox, with long periods of motionless standing (one such period lasting about a half hour).
The Twin Cities are great for religion and art. Sitting in the middle of what seem infinite plains, either freezing cold or blazing with new life, its monuments to spirit and art seem painted into a surreal tableau. Later today we're going to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where religion comes to rest.