Yom Kippur Away From Home

Maxwell Zachs
September 16, 2013
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Last year I left North London with its over abundance of Jewish communities of all kinds and moved to Stockholm where I was faced with a decision I hadn’t thought I would ever be faced with: Orthodox, Chabad, or Masorti. It was a decision I was not equipped to make since hitherto I had only ever had to chose between Liberal, Reform, or dinner at the pub with the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group. It wasn’t much of a decision, I went with the Masorti shul (after being assured by several people that they had adopted egalitarian policies). Upon entering the Stockholm Great Synagogue for the first time it was everything I had feared and hoped it would be- it was really really Jewish, it literally and metaphorically reeked of tradition. My first kabbalat shabbat there did not disappoint, I was shocked when the Rabbi stayed seated in the front row and a cantor lead the service, even more shocking was that he stood with his back to us! Having come from a shul where hoards of noisy children occupied the steps of the bimah, and the service was lead by the team of Rabbis who guided us through like pre-school children calling out the page numbers and arguing contentedly about which of the jolly melodies we would sing this week, the unsmiling formality of this new experience was more than a little lonely.

As the weeks went by and I became more used to my new community, I started to enjoy the more traditional aspects of the services, I began to value the theatrical sense of drama, and the seriousness which people brought to their worship. I enjoyed having my own seat in the shul and the privacy it afforded me. With anticipation, and some trepidation, I turned my mind to the High Holy Days that loomed ever closer. The Rosh Hashana service was pure magic, surrounded by a sea of swaying tallitot I finally felt able to take myself seriously and as the sound of the giant shofar echoed off the cavernous walls all the way up to the abandoned women’s gallery it felt like I had personally been called to stand present. Like I said it was pretty much pure magic. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, was more difficult. So I can hear you saying already that Yom Kippur is not supposed to be easy and I agree, but I would have at least liked to have a clue what was going on. Despite the differences in style and delivery the actual structure and content of the services I had attended in my new and more conservative community were mostly the same, even though the siddurim where translated into swedish it was all similar enough that I had been able to follow along with my mediocre hebrew. On YK, however, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before, the service was radically different and I felt lost. The point at which everyone knelt down on the ground was the point at which I felt most like a fish out of water, longing for the High Holy Days back home where things made sense. All of a sudden the novelty of being in a space full of ritual and mystery had worn off. Kneeling it seems, was the final straw.

For my own sake I decided to find out more about the traditional Avodah service which is so frequently different in the Reform and Liberal communities I call home, and to try and give it some personal meaning so that next year I didn’t feel so cut off.

The Avodah service represents the only time of the year during which the high priest would have entered the holy of holies. These days however, it is a central part of the Musaf service on Yom Kippur in which we (read:mostly orthodox and conservative communities) reenact this temple ritual as a means of fulfilling the commandment, even though technically the destruction of the temple precludes us from doing so. If you read Leviticus 16 in which this ritual is first described you will see its pretty dramatic, theres lots of ‘lest you die’ stuff going on and if thats not enough we are instructed that these laws apply ‘for all time’- just in case we were wondering. The first verse contextualises the whole chapter in reference to ‘the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord’. I think we can be pretty certain Moses was listening very carefully when God was laying out the rules. Mishna Yoma describes how the Kohen Gadol would even undertake a seven day preparation period before he attempted this ritual to make sure he got everything just right, and not just because of the ‘lest you die’ stuff either, his life counted on getting it right as did the confessions and absolution of the whole Israelite community: very important. After the ritual was complete the Kohen Gadol, probably quite relieved that he didn’t get burnt to smithereens like Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, would throw a big party for his buddies to celebrate. Given the circumstances I am not surprised.

I find myself quite carried away by the drama of this ancient ritual, observing the care and devotion we as modern Jews bestow on the ‘temple compound’ in Jerusalem it’s not difficult to imagine the extreme reverence with which the ancient Israelites would have treated this place. The passion and fear I feel upon entering the Plaza, for very different reasons, is still enough to remind me of the power of this place. Whether or not you believe that God exists, God certainly exists in the pages of my tanakh, in the giant stones of the Kotel, and in our reenactment of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur. This is what we’re doing during the Musaf service, we’re recognising the extreme power of God, the power to endure ‘for all time’, the power to bring us together, the power to absolve and forgive and even the power to burn us up into smithereens. Personal beliefs aside, there’s something inherently valuable about being reminded that we are not the ultimate masters of our destiny, that by believing we are we run the risk of over stepping ourselves and replacing God with our egos. Is there anything more dangerous and annoying than self-worship? The Avodah service is a metaphor through which we recognise our fallibility, submitting our fate to the abstract we acknowledge that we are not perfect and that like the Kohen Gadol, preparing for seven days to perform his sacred duty, we need to act in a measured and responsible way or pay the price.

As my first year in this new community draws to a close and the High Holy Days approach once more, I look forward to the Avodah service in a way I assumed I wouldn’t. I hope that through the study and reflection I have done during the year on this topic I will be able to participate in a meaningful experience. When you enter the Kotel there is a sign thats says “The Shekhinah has never left the Western Wall” and by reenacting this ancient temple ritual, this year for the second time, I hope to remember that the Shekhinah has never left us, regardless of where we are in the world and how we worship together and that by careful and truthful preparation of ourselves we can atone for our mistakes.

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Maxwell Zachs is a well-known transgender advocate in the Progressive Jewish community in the UK, having formerly held the position of National Secretary of Keshet and currently chairing the Queer and Transgender Jews Forum, he is also the Patron of the Rainbow Jews Project. Max finished off a year working for the Quakers as a Peace Worker where he had been working on counter-militarization of youth projects to take up a year's fellowship at Paideia- The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Stockholm. Paideia allowed Max to follow his dream of intense and close study of traditional Jewish texts, whilst a Paideia fellow he also completed several academic and literary works including his thesis 'Queer Theory and Babylonian Talmud', his first published novel and a number of plays based on Queer readings of the Torah. Max writes regularly for a diverse collection of publications including: The Guardian, The Independent, Pink News, Huffington Post, Original Plumbing, The Transgender Studies Journal and Kartoon Kippah.

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