The last two days were the end of the Jewish autumn festival season. I went to shul (synagogue) for Shmini Atzeret evening, but not subsequently. I felt stuck in No Man’s Land. I wasn’t doing weekday things, but I wasn’t going to shul, so it didn’t feel fully like Yom Tov (festival). I didn’t feel great, emotionally. I had some anxiety and guilt, not to a huge extent, but some. I missed E a lot and had a lot of thoughts and feelings that I guess are related to loneliness, about wanting to be part of a friendship group and not really knowing how to do it. I had a headache last night which didn’t help; I went to bed late, but then the headache started and got worse lying down, so I stayed up even later reading until the paracetamol I took kicked in.
Since Yom Tov finished a couple of hours ago my mood has got worse. There may be some anxiety about work tomorrow. I helped Dad started to take down the sukkah (although there’s still a lot to do). I had a lot of self-critical thoughts doing that and I’m not really sure where they came from, although I have a few ideas.
Because I wasn’t doing much else, I read a lot over the last two days, both religious and secular. I started The Guide for the Perplexed by Rambam (Maimonides), but haven’t finished the translator’s introduction yet. The translation is by Michael Friedländer and was made in 1881. The introduction is more critical of Rambam than a contemporary Orthodox translation would be, which is interesting (Friedländer was the Principal of Jews’ College, the Orthodox rabbinical college in the UK that eventually became the London School of Jewish Studies), but the print is tiny! I don’t think I could read it for long periods without a break. I also started the new annual Torah cycle, which always seems more exciting than when we’re stuck in the middle of Vayikra (Leviticus). Reading Bereshit (the first reading of the Torah, from the start of Genesis), I had an idea that is potentially worth expanding into a devar Torah (Torah thought), but I doubt I’ll get the time or energy this week. In terms of secular reading, I finished You Only Live Twice and read a lot of the latest Doctor Who Magazine.
Going back to religious reading, I also read more of the book of thoughts from the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) on Pirkei Avot (the volume of Talmud dealing with ethics). This book and its companion volume on the festivals are very “fire and brimstone,” which surprised me a bit. The Chofetz Chaim died less than a hundred years ago and it seems a little strange for his writing to seem so dated. To be fair he was very old when he died and was born in the 1838, which must have influenced his worldview. Even so, it feels like somewhere in the last generation or two there’s been a big change in the focus of “inspirational” religious material in the Orthodox world from, “You’re going to die and be punished, or even be punished before you die, so make sure you do what God wants” to “God loves you and just wants to do good things for you, so just make an effort to build a connection with Him so He can reward you.” It’s strange.
E and I have discussed it a lot. Is it the effect of the Holocaust, of the ba’al teshuvah (return to Orthodoxy) movement, of pop psychology and self-help culture, of the mainstreaming of 60s counter-culture? I don’t know. But when we do our parashah (weekly Torah reading) discussion each week, we often feel that the Torah is a “hard sell” to modern audiences. Obviously the Torah is 3,000 years old and we probably shouldn’t expect a text originally understood by Bronze Age tribes to resonate in a straightforward way with Millennials (not that either E or I are Millenials…), but for someone who lived just about within living memory to seem so dated is more surprising. For comparison, other authors who published in the year the Chofetz Chaim died include George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, W. B. Yeats, James Thurber, P. G. Wodehouse and H.P. Lovecraft. To be fair, the Chofetz Chaim lived in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, which was a world which doesn’t really exist any more, and which was not directly comparable to the Western Europe or American East Coast of the same era, but it’s a mistake to think that that world was so different to ours. There were plenty of non-religious Jews there too.