Not So Awesome Days of Awe This Year

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Rituals, we know from the study of religion, are supposed to encapsulate a perfect order completely unlike the messiness of lived, daily life. In the ritual space, everything is supposed to go right. This is what marks the disjunctive quality, the profound discontinuity between ritual and life, between that which is pure, by virtue of being set apart and choreographed, and that which is impure, by virtue of being messy. The Days of Awe between Rosh Ha’Shanah and Yom Kippur are no different. The awe is itself performative, and everyone knows exactly how the ritual ends. In the words of the mighty u’netaneh tokef, Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water? Year in and year out, it’s the same script. This is how how things “ought” to be, even when they “are” not, allowing one to go into this period and its settings confident in God’s good forgivingness. One hopes to be inscribed into the book of life. Whatever personal disaster might threaten the individual between this time now and next year is incorporated into larger social systems, with their own rituals of healing, confession, and mourning. Usually the ritual contains the sense of its own ending, which is that life goes on, one way or another, and that there are ways to mitigate those things that go wrong. But this year felt different and uncertain in the synagogue.  but between this year and next year, who knows what horrors await, what mass and catastrophic miseries: flooding, earthquakes, refugee crises, nuclear conflict, Nazis in the streets, a ripping apart of the social fabric wrought by a white supremacist in the White House and his minions. This goes beyond the trite truism that reality overwhelms ritual. It is rather the case that ritual systems and the confidence they convey are only able to contain or manage so much dissonance (let’s call it quotidian dissonance), beyond which that confidence that is at the crux of ritual will simply collapse. It might be that under these kinds of situations a different kind of ritual other than rites of atonement is in order; for instance the rites of fasting and lamentations, with which most bourgeois people are unfamiliar; or maybe some performative mode of prophetic screaming, more primed as it is to disaster, and with it own strong sense of an end; or is it in the notion, also in the u’netaneh tokef acts of repentance, prayer, and good deeds might go some way in softening the severity of the decrees that await one.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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