General Topics

Days of Pain and Joy


We are now in the Jewish month of Elul. In the Northern Hemisphere, we say goodbye to the ‘lazy hazy crazy days of summer’, as the song goes. Pleasure is over, back to business. The religious academies re-open. We blow the shofar every morning and say an extra Psalm as we start preparing for the heavy atmosphere of the Yamim Noraim, The Days of Awe. In some communities, we will say additional Selichot, penitential poems, every morning.  And yet the pinnacle of serious atonement is Yom Kippur which ironically is described in the Mishna as one of the happiest days in the year and one in which love and marriage, figure most prominently, when youngsters would leave the temple and dance in the vineyards. How can we reconcile these paradoxical moods? 

Mystically speaking, the month of Elul is characterized by love. The name Elul is fancifully described as standing for the Hebrew phrase from the Song of Songs Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, “I belong to my love and my love belongs to me.” This is meant to emphasize the nature of our relationship with God, one based on love. Instead of the remote theoretical God of theology, this is a very sensual immediate, and interactive passion. When Rebbi Akiva said that The Song of Songs was the holiest book of the bible, he meant that its passionate description of love between two parties best characterized the nature of the love between us and God and did so more accurately than any other part of the bible.

If that is so, then how come it is now believed that we must be scared, frightened, and required to appease an angry Power through self-denial, penance, and discipline?

Within Talmudic Judaism, one can find the ascetic as well as the ecstatic celebration of life. We have come a very long way from the Talmudic argument that we should be satisfied with what God has forbidden us without seeking more restrictions. And we have certainly deviated from the attitude that required us to account for every legitimate pleasure we might have taken but spurned. Somehow the killjoy aspect of religion has affected us, too. 

But it is certainly true that the Medieval, Pious Jews of Western Europe, introduced a very heavy layer of negativity and self-denial. At the time of the Christian mood of martyrdom that inspired the Crusades, Judaism in Europe, too, adopted the sort of mindset that led to suicides, such as those in York and Mainz, and self-imposed destruction as a response to oppression.  

The constant litany of oppression that followed the Jews eastward only added to the gloom and doom and joyless attitude to life and religion. And this can be found in the Yom Kipur liturgy too. Suffering seemed to be the language of religious worship and one hears echoes in the mournful way many Orthodox rabbis recite blessings under the Chupa as though they were at a funeral.

Mysticism acted as an antidote. But it too, was divided between those schools who focussed on discipline and self-denial and pain as the way to God, as opposed to those who stressed ecstasy, song, and delight in this world as an image of the pleasure in the next. Chassidism initially stressed the simple pleasures of life and tried to bring light into the lives of the downtrodden and religiously depressed or disenfranchised. But in the various arguments that divided the movement in the nineteenth century, the dominant, if not the universal, mood took on a rejectionism (of the sort that we currently see in European Islam) that delighted in making life as different and as difficult as possible.

So, instead of preparing for the New Year by determining to enjoy God’s world even more than hitherto, we automatically assume that we will have to be even more restrictive. Consider that the bible commands only one fast day in the year. How many do we have now? What are the dominant biblical festivals? Ones that command us to be joyful. What encounter does the average Jew have with Judaism nowadays? Only the pain.  And rules that tell them what not to do.

We may need to feel part of a community, all the more since our open society allows us so much freedom. And this inevitably imposes its mood and norms on us.  But we must not neglect our spiritual souls and we humans are not robots, we express ourselves spiritually in different ways. This is why if and when we enter a house of prayer one needs to find one part of the service that one can respond to, one idea, and then lose oneself in one’s spiritual world. If you focus on what or who you do not like, you will lose the mood. 

I am not one for thumping my breast. I am Happy Clappy ( up to a point), rather than the morose and masochist. But either way, the rule for Synagogue is ‘Meditate don’t vegetate.’