Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Humanist Rosh Hashanah

For quite a while, I've struggled to imagine how our family would celebrate the High Holidays this year.

shofar at beach

As I have mentioned on this blog before, I have great difficulties believing in God. I am a pure atheist at heart and by my early rearing, but Judaism has been very important to me for a long time. Many years ago I converted after working closely with a Reconstructionist rabbi who held closely to traditional practice but interpreted that faith within a liberal theology. My partner David, who grew up Reform (a tradition which emphasizes more liberal practice but more conventional faith), soon adjusted to both my requests for more orthodox ritual and more "discussion" about what we actually believed--that is, what we really didn't believe.

*  *  *

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a holiday when we are asked to consider what we have done right for the world this year, what we have not done right, and how we want to do better in the upcoming year. This is a holiday ripe for a humanist interpretation. Although I became uncomfortable in any synagogue's religious HiHo service, I have always felt great power in the broad call which Rosh Hashanah sounds--for reconciliation with one's loved ones, with the world community at large, and with oneself.

Yom Kippur, though, is one of those holidays that really does not make sense in that kind of metaphorical way--at least for me. The message is that after you get right with the rest of the world during Rosh Hashanah, you get right with God during Yom Kippur. Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are in many ways really only one holiday (or at least one season of thought), my discomfort with the second commemoration has made me uncomfortable by default with the whole damn month.

*  *  *

This year is the first time my whole family has decided that all of us would not attend formal services at our old synagogue--or anywhere else.  We decided instead to spend the day in the world: in nature, and with each other in conversation..

We went to a nature preserve on the Delmarva peninsula--a place where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic ocean.

We took a picnic of leftovers from our evening feast in our favorite picnic ware.


It was lovely sitting on the sand, having long and quiet conversations--some related to the holiday, and some unrelated.

David and I watched our son slowly make his way into the water. Although we had dressed for a chilly day, the sun made the day quite inviting.

digging in the sand

in the water

As the day began to come to a close, we celebrated tashlikh, a ritual where one tosses breadcrumbs into moving water, symbolically casting one's sins away. Acknowledging our misdeeds is an important part of the High Holidays, but equally important is getting past those imperfections and creating a clean slate for the creation of our better selves.

For years we have tossed our breadcrumbs into a stream running near our house. This is the first time we've gone to the ocean.


It is somewhat disconcerting to have your sins come back to you, as the waves return the crumbs to their starting place.

It is even more disconcerting to have the seagulls eat the crumbs. Does them make them ScapeGulls?

Scape Seagull



Mikaiya said...

I think that is a beautiful way to celebrate and spend the holiday. I like the idea of a taschlich that comes back to you- we never really lose our past, or our misdeeds... but that doesn't mean we can't make the effort to move beyond them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a lovely reflection. I may have to commemorate Humanist Rosh Hashanah next year.


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