Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sin and Atonement

Today is Yom Kippur and being an atheist and unobservant Jew, the fact that I remembered is unusual for me.  A collection of ritual and remembrance and appeals for mercy to some doddering old imaginary reprobate in the upper troposphere aren't the sort of things I often occupy my mind with, but for the random musings I sometimes indulge in on gray mornings such as this. 

I don't know all that much about the origins of  this holy day.  Vague memories from childhood religious school attempts at indoctrination, involve the guilt of pretending to be Christian following 1492.  I'm not sure it's quite true, but then even the true myths aren't quite honest, are they? Besides that was a few years before I was born and I never pretended not to be a Jew.

Anyway, Judaism is hardly unique in being soaked to the bone in feelings of guilt and sinfulness and the feeling of remorse for things that need not produce it; things that often never happened. There are sins we get from sexual thoughts not approved by authority ( few are) and sins we get from mythological ancestors who didn't exist and couldn't have committed them. That's more of a Christian thing, of course and even if a childless, non-Christian God might forgive you ad libitum and with regard to your subsequent actions.  We can't avoid it though, even as Jews, and prophets from time immemorial were there to tell you that every misfortune you'd think God would have prevented happened because -- well just because you're steeped in sin. Whatever happens, there's always a prophet there to cash in by blaming it on sin and with his hand out for offerings.

People will tell you that prostitution is the oldest profession, but of course freedom to exchange favors didn't originate until some priest, some prophet, learned to control his tribe by threatening them with some imaginary god; by inventing sin and selling a way to make it go away.  Give part of the hunt to God by letting the priest eat it, support your synagogue and maintain the kind of ethnocentrism needed to support the clergy and government by expiating the guilt, atoning for the "sin."

And sin, almost by necessity, has nothing to do with  harming anyone.  The original sin had to do with disobedience to arbitrary command ( he's jealous by his own admission, remember) and in particular the disobedience involved in learning about morality -- taking moral decisions into one's own hands as one takes a piece of fruit into one's mouth. It involves a forbidden improvement of our human lot for which we will be punished -- unless. . .  Upon that unless is many a church founded.

So if you're a Jew, you may be afraid not to spend today hungry and thirsty and miserable, chastising yourself for committing all those sins we surely must have committed  but not necessarily reporting to the police or the IRS or our spouses so that old whoozis in the clouds will let us live another year and you'll do it in full knowledge that there's no correlation whatsoever between ritual, sin, expiation and living another year.  After all we've made decisions and had thoughts the priests and prophets, rabbis and our relatives didn't decide or think for us and  Yahweh-in-the-sky-with-lightening wouldn't approve of us making all by ourselves.

But of course, this is a Jewish holiday, observed by many Jews simply because they are Jews and feel in need of that sort of identity for one reason or another even if it's only to set them apart from others with their own ways of expiating their innate feelings of unworthiness.

CNN's Belief Blog asks us what we are atoning for, and some of the answers gave rise to this post.  One sad response was about pushing his sister down the stairs and blaming it on the dog. Another pointed out that as a Catholic, she atoned for her laziness and impatience, as though she somehow owed some cosmic entity much hard work without asking for any return. (40 days longer than those flaky Jews as she pointed out) Perhaps that lack was somehow as bad as pushing someone down the stairs, but I'll leave the ranking of sins to the self-appointed experts. All I can do is talk about the harm one does to another. Perhaps therefore, an apology to the sister would do more good than religious ritual or the profession of a credo, but I fear an apology to the dog would be as effective in obtaining forgiveness from the infinite and uncaring cosmos.

Then of course was the writer who tweeted:
"I don't need to atone for anything. Jesus Christ already atoned for every wrong thing I've ever done or will do."
I don't know if he or she was standing on a pedestal while tweeting, but that's how I imagine it.  Forgive me if I find that to be dangerous and arrogant and a rejection of moral scruple and if I cannot imagine any mystic process by which the execution of an ancient political and religious dissenter  would free one of moral responsibility (or any trace of humility) but that's religion for you.  Chum the waters with fear of unavoidable and dire consequences and then offer a hook with a way out wrapped around it that's so entirely meaningless in moral terms it can't be dealt with by appeal to fact or reason and perhaps only with Tertullian's 'Credo quia absurdum' which, being in itself absurd really doesn't deal with it anyway.

So anyway, I'm a Jew and it's Yom Kippur and even though there are countless things I'm sorry for having done or not done, my thoughts are my business and I go where they lead me and I don't expect special favors or indulgences for not eating bacon or sewing a cotton shirt with linen thread or any of the 600 some odd commandments or for not atoning for things that never happened or can't be made better or be undone because I don't matter all that much.  It all comes to the same thing and our Earth will boil away and our Sun die and the universe disperse forever into the cold and dark and all our gods and atonements in vain, time without end.

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