This past Friday I attended Yom Kippur services with a Jewish Renewal community in Ann Arbor. Judaism isn’t my tradition — I was raised a Unitarian, which, in my experience, is a bit like being brought up in a Comparative Religion Department. As a child, I spent more time making dreidels and yin-yang symbols than I spent learning about Christianity. (The Towson Unitarian Universalist Church also offered, in the late ’70s, a spectacularly explicit sex-ed course, taught to middle-schoolers by the minister’s wife. Christine O’Donnell would not have approved.) As a young and now not-so-young adult, I’ve been interested in Judaism in a religious-tourist sort of way, but I’ve rarely sat through three-and-a-half-hour services, as I did on Friday evening. Was it strange to have been taking notes, even semi-furtively? It felt strange. But I pay much closer attention to the world when I’m able to jot things down — on napkins, usually, but in this instance along the margins and between the paragraphs of the Kol Nidre Service Guide. If any of the two dozen congregants found my scribbling distracting, well, I hope they’ll forgive me.
Forgiveness, of course, is central to Yom Kippur. Before services began, we were each asked to acknowledge, on a stack of color-coded index cards, the places in our lives where we felt we had fallen short. The red cards corresponded with failings toward ourselves; the blue with mistreatment of family and intimates; the yellow with failings in our community; the green with ways we had let down the world; and the white — the most significant of all, in this hierarchy — with separations from the One, the Divine, the Ribbono shel Olam. When I was younger, and hungry for ritual, I made a list of my various failings and dropped the list into a Baltimore stream. On Friday we shuffled the stacks and read some of the cards aloud.
What does it mean to ask the universe for forgiveness when one isn’t particularly religious? To whom, or to what, does one pray? I don’t exactly believe in God, but I do believe in Whitman — the Whitman who writes “a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” I believe in Blake when he reports, in one of his final letters, “I have been very near the gates of death, and have returned, very weak and an Old Man, feeble and tottering, but not in the Spirit and Life, not in the Real Man, the Imagination, which Liveth for Ever.” I believe in Dickinson’s particular form of revery.
I also believe in the occasional jolts of the ecstatic. When Kabir writes (with an assist from Robert Bly), “Oh friend, I love you, think this over. . . . / suppose you had to cut your head off / and give it to someone else, / what difference would that make?,” I want to shout Yes Yes Yes (admittedly from the head that still rests on my neck). I can remember exactly where I was, thirteen years ago, when I first heard this poem: driving on I-5 between Olympia and Seattle. I laughed so hard, and with such wonder, that I nearly veered off the road. It would have been an OK way to go.
Thinking on Friday about prayer and confession, I wrote down the names of poems that take up the subject: the first of Berryman’s “11 Addresses to the Lord” (“Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake, / inimitable contriver, / endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon, / thank you for such as it is my gift”); Milosz’s “A Confession” (“My Lord, I loved strawberry jam / And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body”); Jason Whitmarsh’s “Apology” (“That last love poem I gave you, I want to apologize for that. It was crudely put and several of the metaphors leaned too heavily on sea life”); C. D. Wright’s “Personals” (“Stranger, to tell the truth, in dog years I am up there”). Do some of these examples seem like half-prayers, like half-confessions? Poets are often, as Whitman puts it, “Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.”
The Yom Kippur service ended with an Iraqi piyyut, a prayer for peace. But the last thing I read — in one of the supplemental packets, and before heading to the parking lot — was a short poem by Galway Kinnell:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only
that. But that.