First: Has the experience of writing Am I a Jew? increased your religious feeling (and if so, would you mind stepping away from the bacon cheeseburger, sir?)
And second: Well…are you?
Allow me to begin with the first. The simple answer would be no. I find myself in houses of worship no more today than I ever did, and if the spirit moves me of late it is only in response to the recent birth of my daughter, Mena. My journey into Judaism only occasionally (albeit pivotally) intersected with a personal search for what people like to call “faith.” I’m not a fan of this term, by the way. I have faith in a great many things—death, taxes, the futility of man and the Mets, the rain in Spain falling primarily in the plain—but “faith,” strikes me as an indeterminant word used in service of a vague state.
Better instead to say only that we believe in the God in which we believe, in the way we believe in Him (or Her or They or Buddha or the wind or a circle of stones in England), be the godhead’s proper name or pronoun capped or no; that we locate or adopt or adhere to our belief in the manner that seems to us most sincere or reasonable or likely or unlikely or inarguable or scientific or hereditary or miraculous or brave or foolhardy; that that we do so in cooperation with or resistance to or in dismissal of different or competing beliefs and modes of beliefs and motivations for belief—and leave it that.
Perhaps we should go with faith at that.
Either way, as we approach Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, ringing—or more accurately, blowing (more on that later)—in the dawn of the year 5773, I, for one, won’t be found in shul (here, in fact, is where I’ll be: join me!). Nor will I be at home, worshipping at the altar of finely marbled brisket, or deep frying sacred donuts in my trusty cast iron pan.
That is not to say that I will forgo all consideration of the holiday. Far from it. During the research and writing of Am I a Jew?, I drew great intellectual inspiration from Maimonide’s Guide for the Perplexed, in part because I was perplexed, both in the personal sense and after attempting to read this famously impenetrable work. A minor example:
He who is everlasting, constant, and in no way subject to change; immutable in His Essence, and as He consists of nought but His Essence, He is mutable in no way whatever; not mutable in His relation to other things: for there is no relation whatever existing between Him and any other being, as will be explained below, and therefore no change as regard; such relations can take place in Him. Hence He is immutable in every respect, as He expressly declares, “I, the Lord, do not change” (Mal. iii. 6); i.e., in Me there is not any change whatever.
You got that? This will be on the exam.
One thing in the Guide that is remarkably clear, however, is Maimonides’ take on the requirements of Rosh Hashana:
- New-Year is likewise kept for one day; for it is a day of repentance, on which we are stirred up from our forgetfulness. For this reason the shofar is blown on this day, as we have shown in Mishneh-torah. The day is, as it were, a preparation for and an introduction to the day of the Fast, as is obvious from the national tradition about the days between New-Year and the Day of Atonement.
Simple enough. Blow the shofar, feel bad about the past year’s sins, and remember (despite our collective forgetfulness) to eat well in preparation for the fast of Yom Kippur. As with all things Maimonides, however, a little research into just what about the shofar has been shown in the Mishneh-Torah (Maimonides’s master work, a compendium of the legal wisdom found in the Jewish bible, written in the 12th century c.e.), yields greater complexity.
I won’t delve into the details here, but know this, those Jews keeping the holiday, or those desirous of a post-book increased observance for me (for this, I’ve borrowed liberally from the Chabad website):
- The shofar must be crafted from a “bent” ram’s horn. Note: the halacha, or legal explanation, on the chabad website offers this with regard to bendiness: “Rams’ horns are always bent. [The bend] has homiletic significance, referring to the bending over of our proud hearts.” Homiletic sent me to the dictionary. Feel free to join me there.
- If the shofar is cracked, not to worry (these things happen), but only if the break is lengthwise. Cracks along its width render it non-kosher.
- You can plug a hole in a shofar, if it has one, so long as it is plugged with “its own kind.” Note: I have no idea what that means.
- Feel free to sound your shofar in a cave or pit. Likewise, if you find yourself situated outside of a cave or pit, it is acceptable to listen to the shofar being blown. Close proximity is essential, however: it is forbidden to listen only to the sound of the shofar echoing off the walls of the cave or pit.
- For sounding a shofar “into a giant barrel,” please see directly above.
- There are no religious prescriptions against making a long shofar shorter, if the should arise.
- Altering a shofar’s narrow end to make it wider, or its wider end to make it narrower—no dice.
- For those interested in understanding why circumferential improvements are forbidden, Maimonides recommends Leviticus 25:9. From the admittedly far-from-Jewish King James: Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.
- How that relates to the previous point remains beyond my meager capacity to comprehend.
- You can coat a shofar with gold, so long as it doesn’t change the sound.
- You can place a shofar inside another shofar and blow it (them?), so long as you can hear the sound of the inner shofar.
- No blowing the shofar without hearing it. Maimonides was, apparently, either opposed to inaudible shofar-blowing, or—sorry for this—he didn’t like deaf people.
Maimonides offers a great deal more in this vein. My reading of it demonstrates, I trust, that I have given some thought to the meaning of the holiday, beyond its conventional (and wholesome) role in bringing together Jewish families for celebration, amity, spiritual introspection, and fine food. If I seem flippant here it is because I am having some fun. But Maimonides, like the rabbinical scholars of the Talmud and other eras, provides the sort of intricate ethical and legal analysis that has always constituted the fundamental core of Judaism. It was this rigor, and its inexorable intellectual demands that sparked my renewed interest in Judaism, and set me on the path of my question and my quest. I laugh, and call on others to do so, with a reverence, admiration, and awe that is as close as I get to faith.
As for the second question asked above: Jew-ish.