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Frank Gruber

That Old Time Religion

By Frank Gruber

As a Jew I have celebrated our High Holy Days the past two weeks: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

As a not-very-observant Jew, the services I attend each year are my best opportunity to think about being Jewish. Not that I'm unaware of the Jewish part of my identity all the time, but sitting there reading the ancient words both in the ancient language and in translation, and singing them in melodies old and new, does heighten the focus of mind and emotions.

The holy days are all about symbol, tradition, and metaphor, but with a lot of exhortation about "values" -- that loaded word these days.

While in ancient days, heralds went about the countryside of Canaan blowing on a ram's horn -- the "shofar" -- to call the people to festivals, today we blow the shofar inside the synagogue as a call to personal reflection. It's the moment when we are joined by the kids who have been over at the children's service.

One of the big metaphors is that on Rosh Hashanah God opens the Book of Life and during the "ten days of awe" leading up to Yom Kippur, decides the fate of everyone for the upcoming year. One of the prayers is translated as:

        "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed;

         How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;

         Who shall live and who shall die;

         Who shall see ripe age and who shall not . . . "

Even as a kid I know I understood that this was metaphorical. During the year, when someone died, no one said, "well I guess God didn't put his name in the Book of Life last Yom Kippur," and it's not like all the world's incorrigible sinners meet their demise during the year.

Every week during the year a different portion of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is read publicly in the synagogue. This practice has continued each week for almost 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Second Temple.

During the High Holy Days, certain specified Torah portions are read, and the choice of these readings indicates something about the priorities of the rabbis who over the centuries (actually, millennia) wrote and rewrote the service.

For texts that were written about 2,500 years ago, it's humbling how topical they can be. You don't have to believe in God, or that God (or Moses) wrote the Bible, to admire that.

The final Torah portion on Yom Kippur, in the most solemn part of the day's services, is from Leviticus, Chapter 19. It's from the "Holiness Code," a recitation of commandments that expands on the famous ten. While some of the Leviticus commandments involve rituals and admonitions not to worship other gods, most of them command what we today call "social justice."

Commandments deal, for instance, with leaving food in your fields for the poor to glean; with paying workers on time; with the dispensing of impartial justice.

This year one passage caught my attention in particular. It's about illegal immigrants, except that they didn't call them that back then. They called them strangers. Here's the passage:

"And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.

The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."

Keep in mind that this passage is not from some do-gooder prophet. It's directly from the Lord, by way of Moses, and the Lord is saying treat the immigrant like the native-born -- in today's parlance, give him citizenship, or at least treat him as a citizen.

Yet who in this country is most agitated about illegal immigration? Isn't it those social conservatives, particularly in the south, the Evangelicals who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God?

Judaism and Christianity are religions that have their origins in persecution, both real and that of legend. At their best, they engender, if not command, empathy for the oppressed. That's why they seem at their worst when the powerful and privileged use them to justify their power and privilege.

For my Jewish readers, and to everyone else for their next twelve months, have a good year.

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