I’m not an observant Jew in any conventional sense, but being Jewish* matters to me and informs my morality and my ethics. I try to honour the major religious festivals and holidays, but if I’m honest I’m quite isolated in this, and often miss the dates (they are fixed by an ancient lunar calendar, and shift around the secular calendar, just as Muslim festivals do).
So I have only myself to blame for the fact that last week I was busy on Rosh Hashanah, and this week I am working on Yom Kippur.
It’s not that I was brought up in an observant household. Though both my parents were (to a greater or lesser extent), together they decided that it wasn’t for them, and so I was brought up (just about) aware of the festivals but not participating in them. My greater interest in following and observing them came later in my life, particularly when I became a parent myself. Which you might find strange, as I am an atheist.
I describe myself when asked as a Jewish Atheist – oldest son’s description a few years ago, which struck me as just right. Because each of us has to decide on and live in accordance with our own moral and ethical code. When you strip out the detail, it seems to me that most religious and non-religious codes have a similar core, and for me the Jewish culture and life I grew up with gives me much to draw on and reflect on and act on.
I also find the circular pattern of taking time to think about (and do) certain things at the same point in each year a valuable one, and one that resonates for me. It appeals to my inner gardener (or is it the other way around?). It also feels important to acknowledge that I’m doing it in community with people around the world even when I’m doing it on my own.
Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a new year, but also holds in the space between it and Yom Kippur the requirement that we reflect on our own actions and thoughts over the past year, and consider what we should do differently. I find that space valuable and important.
I have been thinking about this a lot during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When I was at school I remember coming across some words by one of the ancients, Hillel the Elder. They stuck with me and went way down into my consciousness, and have guided me ever since:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
There is rarely an occasion or a dilemma when I don’t find this relevant.
I will find a day soon when I can mark my own personal Yom Kippur and fast. And I have at least put both dates in my diary for next year so I don’t make the same mistake again.
*or maybe I’m more Jew-ish than Jewish?