While I do not accept the existence of a deity, believing the concept to be a man-made device to explain what was formerly inexplicable, I can see that a system of rules and a code of ethical behaviour are a necessity so that people can live in harmony together. Taken all-in-all, the system devised by the ancient Hebrews is no worse than any other, although over the centuries it has become hidebound and fenced-in by innumerable interpretations and explanations which serve no useful purpose as far as I can see.
Furthermore, I am one of those people who seem to feel impelled to break rules (except, of course, for legal statutes and those governing driving), and my childhood and teenage years were stamped by my innate inability to toe the line, whether at home, at school, or in the youth movement I attended. For various reasons, my family and my peers in the youth movement were very tolerant of my rebellious tendencies, and I was even the proud author of a regular contribution to our monthly newsletter entitled ‘The Rebel’s Column.’
Today I can say that I am a reasonably law-abiding member of Israeli society, though far from being an observant Jew. Someone recently coined the phrase ‘Gentile Jews’ to define people like me, Israelis who do not observe the rules and regulations prescribed by the rabbis, do not adhere to the dietary restrictions, travel on the Sabbath, spurn such self-flagellation as fast-days and refraining from the pleasures of life, and generally see our task on earth as being to enjoy ourselves as much as possible without harming others. Whether we do this in Israel or anywhere else is a matter for our own personal conscience.
But when the High Holy Days come around each year as summer comes to an end, Israel’s population is bombarded on all sides by images of prayer, religious observance, tradition and inward contemplation. There is no way you can avoid them. People who seem to be otherwise intelligent wish one another ‘may you be inscribed for another year of life,’ meaning something like ‘may the great accountant in the sky keep you in his good books until next year,’ which to be quite honest I find rather insulting. It sounds a bit better in the Christian version, the Requiem for the Dead, in the section sung as ‘Liber Scriptus Proferetur,’ which is pretty much the same thing, only after you’re dead. I fail to fathom the logic of either version.
But the concept of atoning for one’s sins is quite another thing, particularly those involving other people. I’m not talking about cancelling all one’s promises and undertakings, which seems slightly suspect on ethical grounds. Trying to get out of one’s obligations is one thing, trying to make amends for past misdeeds is another. This is one aspect of the Jewish religion of which I heartily approve. It is a hard thing to do to beg someone you have harmed for forgiveness, or to try and right a wrong you may have done, but it is good to clean the metaphorical slate and set relations on a fresh footing.
I’m glad I took the opportunity that the Day of Atonement presented and wrote to someone abroad with whom I had a falling-out in the past in an attempt to get our relations back on track. To my joy and relief the response was positive, and the fact that I made the effort and reached out makes me feel more at peace with myself. Of course, it’s easier to do in writing than in person, but in this day and age of instant communication that, too, is something that is meaningful. So, for all its antiquated and hidebound concepts, I feel that there is a core element in the Jewish religion that is worth holding on to — the paramount value of good human relations.