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Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?

What the High Holy Days teach us in a season of change


by Marty Kaplan

September 25, 2008 | 3:19 am

A full size version of this photoillustration<br />
by Dan Kacvinski is on page four of this story.

A full size version of this photoillustration
by Dan Kacvinski is on page four of this story.

These are nervous-making times.

No, I'm not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or -- at my temple, anyway -- whether you'll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it's a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: "Change You Can Believe In," "The Change We Need. "From John McCain: "The Change You Deserve," "Change Is Coming."

Clearly it's a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader -- whether Obama or McCain -- really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I'm not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation's place in the world. The issue I'm trying to get at -- and I'll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable -- is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain -- and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from -- that people really can't change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called "human nature."

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur -- says this point of view -- within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian -- the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: "Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is -- history." Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can't change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement -- abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism -- starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called "The Triumph of the Therapeutic": the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species' fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

As a member of a Reform congregation, I take full advantage of the theological autonomy that my movement gives its community. I wrestle with God; or rather, I wrestle with the idea of God. Generally, I am quite adept at silently, idiosyncratically reinterpreting the God language in any service, so that when I say those words, they reflect my own fumfering understandings of the Divine: more immanent than transcendent; more Ayn Sof than Adonai; more mystery than revelation; more awe and reverence than dread and revenge.

But the notion of a 10-day interval during which my fate will be sealed? That has always exceeded my capacity for metaphor. I just can't wrap my soul around the idea of a spiritual amnesty that lasts only as long as the Nordstrom men's sale.

For me, the narrative of a God who takes 10 days to decide if I've been naughty or nice, a God who gives me one shot at appealing my sentence, a hurry-up-and-repent-or-you'll-be-really-sorry-when-the-gates-close God, reaches its apotheosis in the U'Netaneh Tokef. Is there anything in the service more difficult than this prayer? Difficult both in the sense that it is almost unbearable to say, and also in the sense that it is so resistant to understanding, or at least to my understanding.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.


It is impossible to speak such a list and not recall the people in our lives who reached the end of their days in the preceding year, not be reminded of the fragility of life in the year to come, of the way we all must live in mitten drinnen, in medias res, in the middest, always on the knife-edge between joy and grief. This, I get. And from these words, I gratefully receive the gift of awareness, of carpe diem, of appreciation for every moment, of don't-sweat-the-small-stuff.

But what I don't get, where I stumble when I try to translate it into the language of my personal cosmology, is the concept of a celestial chronicle in which my fate is foreordained. I don't believe in destiny, in beshert, except in retrospect, when it no longer matters. Yes, things do turn out the way they do, but not because they are meant to be, not because I did or didn't pray my heart out on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, not because I didn't take enough advantage of the loophole:

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge fan of tefillah, teshuvah and tzedakah. But it strikes me that these actions are good in and of themselves, and not because they can win us an 11th-hour sentencing reprieve from the great Governor in the sky. I just can't believe in the severe decree, except in the limited sense that we are all ultimately condemned by our mortality. I can't believe in divine predestination; I can only believe in the unknowable vicissitudes of life -- life the roller-coaster, not life the horoscope; the unfathomable journey, not the oracle's predictions, or the palmist's, or the prophet's.

The best I can do with the U'Netaneh Tokef is to release it from the High Holy Days narrative, to free it from the book and spring it from the gates. The best I can do with fate's severe decree is to take it as a statement of the tragic sense of life -- the idea that biology is destiny. The best I can do with the escape hatch of repentance, prayer and righteousness is to understand it as the contradictory assertion that history really can happen, that we hold in our own human hands the possibility of change. It doesn't have to be that way, the words whisper. You can get on a different path. It's not too late. It's hard, it's a struggle, you may not succeed, but in principle, it is possible.

And when I do that -- when I find in this piyyut both of the two great warring ideas about change, and both in their uncompromising fullness -- I can bask in this prayer's uncanny power to encompass each of them; to balance these countervailing powers; to choreograph these contrary torsions into a single, strangely comforting ballet; to offer an aesthetic and sensual experience of the paradox of change, instead of requiring us to be philosophers, or scientists, and take sides.

When we sing the U'Netaneh Tokef this year, we will be enacting its timeless dance of change during a presidential election all about change. But when we leave our congregations and return to this roiling political season, it is not as though we will be leaving that paradoxical prayer behind us. Instead, we will be recapitulating its themes in the theater of democracy.

Democracy, despite the sentimental barnacles we attach to it, is as fraught with the contradictions of change/no-change as are our souls. Utopian forms of government, like communism, are built on the premise of the perfectibility of man, the earthly achievement of an ideal society once thought only to exist in the afterlife. Cynical systems, like fascism, proceed from the premise that human nature is fixed and not at all pretty. Needless to say, both of these polar conceptions of changeability have resulted in the deaths of freedom and of millions.

But unlike those systems, American democracy is a whirligig of counterweights, of checks and balances, because -- like the U'Netaneh Tokef -- it holds fast simultaneously both to an optimistic notion of progress and a pessimistic view of human nature. On the one hand, Jefferson tells us in the Declaration of Independence that governments are instituted among men to secure our unalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness. But on the other, as Madison tells us in Federalist 51, government reflects human nature -- and since men are far from being angels, government must divide power, must check branch against branch, chamber against chamber, level against level.

And so we are represented in the House by one man, one vote, because we are equal in the eyes of the founders, but in the Senate by virtue of geography, because it is in the nature of the many to try to overrun the few. We all vote for president, because we share a common stake in the future, but we do it through the Electoral College, because direct democracy is also dangerous. We put time limits on executive and legislative branch terms, because we want those officeholders to face the political winds every two, four or six years. But we give lifetime appointments to justices, because we mistrust elections as much as we value them.

I know, I know: It is depressingly easy to find contemporary examples of this system of checks and balances being gamed, thwarted, abused and evaded. The post-Watergate cheer -- "The system worked!" -- has not been much heard in recent years. But the fallibility of this magnificent constitutional contraption does not negate the intent of its premise, its concurrent belief both in the glorious destiny of a free people, and in the nasty, brutish ways those same people, unchecked, exercise power.

When Yom Kippur's last shofar sounds, when the gates slam shut, we will greedily taste the challah, gratefully sip the wine, and then we will re-engage with the political maelstrom. Energized by the possibility of progress, we will write checks for our candidates and work phone banks, send e-mails, hang doorknockers and get out the vote. Yet at the same time, we must forgive ourselves for feeling helpless, immaterial, acted upon as much as acting -- unknowing agents of other people's purposes, as much as agents of the change we seek.
This duality should be no more surprising in politics than it is in our spirits. Come next year, whoever is elected, we will be back at the U'Netaneh Tokef, as though nothing had changed, and also as though everything has changed. For a people who have both changed, and not changed, over thousands of years, this precarious equipoise may turn out to be our destiny.

L'Shana Tova Tikatevu.

Marty Kaplan has been a White House speechwriter, a deputy presidential campaign manager, a studio executive and a screenwriter. He holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

ALTTEXT

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.


Photo illustration by Dan Kacvinski

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