I snuck into Thorne Hall’s Daggett Lounge for Yom Kippur services a few minutes late on Wednesday morning. About three quarters of the seats were full; clumps of students—who had abandoned their jeans and sweatpants for business casual on this somber occasion—accounted for about a third of the congregation.
There were a handful of professors and administrators, several with remarkably quiet and well-behaved children in tow. President Mills sat unassumingly towards the back. The rest of the congregation was mostly older, accounting for, I imagine, a significant part of the Jewish community of the greater-Brunswick area.
Rabbi Simeon Maslin had already begun the service. I took a seat in the back row, foiled in my attempts at inconspicuousness when my chair scratched loudly on the floor. I sunk a little into my seat and flipped through the prayer book, though I had no idea where to begin—I’d never been to services on the Jewish high holidays before. After a few moments of chanting in Hebrew, the rabbi told everyone in English what page to turn to, and I relaxed a little.
Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement; it is one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar.
On Yom Kippur you reflect on a year’s worth of sins. It is about humility, taking responsibility for shortcomings and asking forgiveness. Diving into this tradition and participating in rituals that I didn’t grow up with is strange. My family members are non-practicing Jews, subscribing to what can only be dubbed aggressive atheism. When I told my mom that I was fasting and going to services, she paused before saying, “that’s nice.” My dad, who is not Jewish, laughed and warned me not to tell my grandfather.
I consider myself Jewish, though I never had any Jewish education; the main thing that has brought me inside synagogues is other people’s bar and bat mitzvahs. My mom took us to services on Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—once or twice when I was very young, but it didn’t stick.
I celebrate Hanukkah in the winter, but it’s perhaps less an expression of my family’s Jewishness than standard operating procedure on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I grew up, and where many residents spend December 25 eating Chinese food and going to the movies.
In the spring my family gets together for Passover, but that’s more about indulging our predilections for good food and turning minor political disagreements into arguments than it is about remembering when our ancestors were the pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt.
At my family gatherings, we deign to acknowledge the traditions underlying these holidays; but are careful to note our disavowal of the religious stuff, lest anyone think we actually believe in any of it. I can’t say precisely what I expected to get out of the Yom Kippur service in Daggett. I’m a religion major, as it turns out, and a lot of my impulse to do this came from what I’ve learned in classes at Bowdoin. But participating in the service wasn’t the transformative thing I thought it might be. Yes, it was important for me to do what Jews around the world have been doing for centuries in order for me to feel like I was a part of that community.
However, I didn’t feel that way sitting in the back row of Daggett Lounge between two people for whom the whole thing was an old hat. The prayers about God’s greatness, human subservience, indebtedness and insignificance made me feel like—for lack of a better comparison—a sheep. I couldn’t bring myself to recite along with everyone else—it felt insincere—and I found myself wondering if any one else in the crowd had similar reservations. The low rumble of voices chanting together in Hebrew indicated that was not the case.
But then we got to the sermon, “The Jewish Vote.” Rabbi Maslin began by assuring everyone that he would not presume to abuse the power of his pulpit by telling us for whom we should vote. But, he said, he had thoughts on what we should vote for in this important election.
The Torah outlines a set of values that organize and inform Jewish society. They are spelled out in stories about wars between ancient tribes and parables about how many goats you have to give a prospective bride’s family before you can marry her. The stories resonate across the millennia and the messages at their core are still relevant today.
Rabbi Maslin zeroed in on the Jewish principle of tzedakah, which in the Torah determines how farmers are supposed to harvest their grain. But the bigger idea of tzedakah is that society has an obligation to provide for the less fortunate, that the have-nots are entitled to basic assistance from the haves. One candidate for the highest office understands this, said Maslin, but the other fundamentally disagrees. His words alluded to Mitt Romney’s now-infamous characterization of 47 percent of the population. A vote for Romney, Maslin implied, would be a vote against this foundational value of Judaism. He didn’t say Romney or the President’s name explicitly.
Of the entire service, the sermon resonated with me the most. Religion is a formative part of how you understand yourself, Maslin suggested. Walking out of the service, several of my friends remarked that it was crass to exploit this holy day to make a political case. They saw it as a misuse of Rabbi Maslin’s authority—a criticism any member of my family would also have leveled.
But I felt the opposite. What is the job of a rabbi—or a priest, or imam for that matter—if not to offer an interpretation of what religious texts mean and why they matter? Most importantly, the sermon explains that the value of old traditions amount to more than just blindly going through the motions.