9/19/2009—I am in Florida visiting my ailing father. For him, my secularism is entirely theoretical. We still go to synagogue on the holidays. It makes me happy that for him nothing has changed. He has enough changes to deal with.
But, back in the Jewish calendar, so to speak, I am impressed again with its rhythm. The thirty days before Rosh Hashanah (today), that is, the month of Elul, are spent in regular introspection. The nine days following RH are spent in somber intensity, almost in silence. Then Yom Kippur, with its 25 hour total fast, is intense, mystical drama. All of this is aimed at purifying my soul.
Daniel Dennett, the well-known atheist and scientist, came to a New York conference last spring and announced to its largely secular audience, as he loves to do, “tell everyone you know that you do not need religion to be good.” And if the standard is not killing anyone or cheating on your spouse, that must be true.
But what if the standard is sacrifice of self? Is it then so obvious? Without a period every year of intense concentration on my failings, or even just my falling short, will I constantly renew my fresh promise? And even with such self-reflection, if I am not in the presence of that which exceeds my own existence, will I even begin to surmount ego?
The Jewish calendar has a rough symmetry. The question is always slavery. In the fall Jews ask, to what am I personally enslaved? (This can include of course enslaved to the need to be different) In the spring, at Passover, the question is, to what are we as a people enslaved? (This also can include a national illusion of difference). Where will secularism go without the institutionalization is such questioning?
But there is even more. The ultimate standard is sainthood. That might mean ultimate acceptance of myself. Certainly it means putting the world before myself without everyone knowing about it. I don’t know any secular saints and I don’t expect to meet any. Religion is a work-out regimen for sainthood, for ultimate salvation. I keep hearing that there are alternatives to it. But I have not yet seen them work.