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Balancing the Books

Originally printed as “Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life”, Andi Rosenthal’s monthly column about “the continuing journey of a Jew by choice, navigating the joys and challenges of choosing a Jewish life, sharing my choices with my Christian family of origin, and living the legacy of a rediscovered Jewish heritage.”

Having been Jewish for more than a thousand days now, I have to confess that there are still days when I still feel more Catholic than Jewish. And three of those days–the Days of Awe–happen to be close at hand. More than any others, these days make me wonder when I will finally get it right, when I will finally feel Jewish enough to stop looking for–and finding–similarities between my new faith and my old one.

Even though it has now been more than three years since my conversion, I’m still not entirely comfortable with the High Holy Days. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m one of the lucky ones; since I work for a Jewish organization, I don’t have to worry about taking time off from a job in order to celebrate, cook, or atone. And given that I’m single, childless, and the only Jew left in my family, I don’t even have to worry about balancing the holidays against anyone else’s schedule. This time of year is something I handle on my own–especially since my father, the only other Jewish person in my family, passed away this past March.

Given how easy it is for one person on her own to show up at temple, reflect on the past year, and move on to a season of rebirth and renewal, I always think that the High Holy Days should provide me with a sense of spiritual cleansing and catharsis. But it hasn’t worked that way. To me, these days represent an insurmountable annual obstacle to the normal, placid cycle of my Jewish life, characterized by the challenges of navigating a different siddur, the unfamiliar chaos stirred by crowds fighting for ticketed seats in our sanctuary, and also, a somewhat familiar feeling of dread and fear, dredged up from the depths of my childhood. With their emphasis on repentance, forgiveness, reward and punishment, during the Days of Awe I feel almost as if I am being transported back in spirit to Catholicism, my birth religion.

I was struck last year by the reaction of a friend of mine who was then in the process of converting. At a “break the fast” pizza party after Yom Kippur services, we sat together, exhausted, and stared blankly at the non-Jewish guests who had not spent the day fasting. “Seriously,” she said, “that was just like church.”

I agreed. And perhaps it is because of my religious upbringing that I have never given much real consideration to the concept of being inscribed in a “book of life,” choosing instead to think of this idea as part of the same old blend of mythology, metaphor, and theatrics that I first feared, then tolerated, and then ignored as part of the Church. And yet, even though it is a central tenet of Jewish belief–that one’s actions and deeds will merit one’s access to life and prosperity–something about it feels to me like the same old carrot-and-stick routine.

It’s not that I object to a personal accounting–or accountability–for one’s deeds and misdeeds. What really bothers me is the same thing that bothered me about being a Catholic–the idea that “being good” is the right choice to make simply because one will be either summarily rewarded or punished for their choice. In Catholicism, the choice was much clearer–be good and go to Heaven, be bad and go to Hell. (And no matter what I did in my daily life, particularly as a young college student breaking commandments left and right, there was a certainty that I–along with all of my friends–was going straight to Hell.)

But in Judaism, the stakes seem to be even higher, because the reward–or the “severe decree”–takes place in the here and now, rather than the World to Come. One’s behavior is not simply a matter of being good or bad–because according to the liturgy, what it comes down to is a choice between life and death.

The Talmud, which is the Jewish code of laws, says:

Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith definitively inscribed in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are forthwith definitively inscribed in the book of death; the doom of the intermediate is suspended from New Year until the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death. (Tractate Rosh HaShanah, 16b)

I think, to some extent, the concepts of the Books of Life and Death are even more troubling to me this year, because for the first time, someone close to me didn’t make it through the year. And also, having recently borne witness to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, it’s hard for me to believe that such destruction could be the result of the wicked outnumbering the righteous.

When I practiced Catholicism, I was aware that the Confession of Sin during the structure of the Mass, and the sacrament of Penance, were meant to accomplish in a priest-penitent forum the same goals that we achieve as a community on Yom Kippur. What I didn’t know, however, was that the couple of hours of fasting before Confession and Mass, and weekly “release” from one’s sins was far less of an emotional struggle than a twenty-five hour fast spent reflecting on a year’s worth of bad deeds. (And that’s even before finding oneself wondering, as I am sure I will this year, why my father’s name failed to be inscribed in the right book in 5765.)

Yet as I practice Judaism throughout the year, taking part in the joys of Shabbat and the festivals, of community and covenant, I can’t understand why such a beautiful and complex system of belief and mitzvot can’t simply motivate one–in the words of the old song–to “be good for goodness’ sake.” Why does our motivation for atonement have to come, not so much from within, but from the external cues more often utilized by the ancient and modern purveyors of hellfire and brimstone? And why, in essence, does the structure of the Jewish calendar focus us on this life and death struggle for such a brief time–just once a year–if it is indeed a theological policy that is true for the rest of the lunar calendar.

As the Days of Awe approach, I know it will be another balancing act for me again this year. And maybe one day I will indeed learn to approach this challenging and difficult liturgy without the shadow of another faith hindering my vision. But this year, reflecting on this year as a mourner, contemplating the notions of the Book of Life and the Book of Death, and wickedness and righteousness, I think the best I can hope for is an inscription in the Intermediate book–the third one referred to in the Talmud–balanced between Life and Death, understanding and ignorance, joy and mourning, and, as always, the legacy of two faiths that may seem far apart, but sometimes are not.

Andi Rosenthal

Andi Rosenthal is a convert to Judaism, marketing director and freelance writer living in Larchmont, N.Y. She is a URJ Schindler Outreach Fellow and frequently lectures and teaches about issues relating to interfaith life. She also recently completed her first novel, The Bookseller’s Sonnets.


Author: Andi Rosenthal