Recently it was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The crux of the prayer service is when we list our sins in great detail, literally hitting our heart each time a new sin is uttered. I realized for the first time that this might just be considered insane behavior. As I watched hundreds of congregants strike the upper left sides of their chests in unison, I felt like I was watching a movie. A satire of The Crucible. This custom, in which I had taken part for 33 years or so, suddenly looked unbelievably aggressive and harsh. Why is self inflicted violence, even if it’s just symbolic, necessary to communicate with God? It’s so punishing and cruel. We would never teach the community to hit others; Judaism is a non violent religion. So why get nasty on our own bodies? It’s such an expression of misguided piety, and I’m not doing it again.
I wasn’t thrilled with listing all the ways in which I’m a terrible person, but it’s no real sweat off my back to mindlessly read those words. I communicate with God every single day, throughout the day, so I didn’t feel that dialogue would be affected, though I inherently disagree with the content. I picked my battles. Does no one else question the lunacy of this?? At one point I did punch myself out of habit. When I realized, I gently rubbed my heart to atone for hurting it. I love my heart. I want to treat it with care. It gives me my superpower to love. I work every day to keep it open, which is a practice that is medicinal. Our hearts hurt, they break, they close, and yet still they keep us alive. They beat in service of us at all times. I want to treat it like glass, with compassion. I know it’s supposed to be symbolic, and that’s what disturbed me even more. I don’t want to punish myself like that. It’s mean and cold. I don’t ever want to send the message to any part of myself that I am deserving of lashings of any kind. No one in that synagogue deserves to be whipped (well, a few might). We make mistakes because we are human, but that doesn’t warrant corporal punishment. It’s such a fear based practice; we are scared NOT to do, it lest it appear as if we aren’t sorry. And if we aren’t sorry then we might instantly get struck by lightening when the ark is open. The whole idea of being inscribed in the Book of Life or the Book of Death is terrifyingly manipulative. The concept incites such fear. We clean up our act, starve ourselves, and suddenly attend services to save ourselves and our loved ones. This paints such a scary picture, of God weighing each person’s fate. I’ve said this before; this feels to me like we are really underestimated God. He loves us. He forgives us constantly, not just on one fateful day. We can better ourselves at any moment, and He designed us that way. He doesn’t want to kill off half the community with one swoop. Unless bad breath is that bad of an offense...
Look, I’m not trying to change the service. Not only is it not possible, but I don’t let it affect me. I opine on it, but I still go pretty often and pray how I like. To each their own. I just kinda wish these sacred practices originated from a place of love and safety, not fire and brimstone. I can tell you with certainty that a true closeness to God and spiritual (not observant) devotion is so much fuller when it’s born of warmth, and practiced without fear of getting whipped somehow. That’s when it becomes conditional, “I’m doing this or that on the condition that I won’t get hit by a bus when I exit this building”. No relationship is pure when it is built on conditions. If we strive for unconditional human love, then how beautiful would it be to feel secure in that with your Maker?
The whole hitting thing is filed away as something I do not want my children to learn. It’s the opposite of self love. I don’t like the message. My challenge as a mother will be to teach them to contemplate this stuff on their own, despite being taught it in school. Don’t smack yourself out of habit. Don’t assume you are always deserving of punishment. Assume you are to be treated lovingly, and let kindness guide you️