On Rituals of a Non-Skeptical Nature

Jews praying in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, painting by Maurycy Gottlieb.

Jews praying in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, painting by Maurycy Gottlieb.

Yesterday began Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. All over the world, Jews are fasting, and though I am a proud member of NYC Skeptics, I am among them.

By spending the day fasting, I do not feel that I am cowing to some angry sky-daddy, hoping he doesn’t put my name in the book of death. I do not believe in any god so petty that he would kill me for a year of non-perfect adherence to a set of mostly arbitrary rules designed to separate me from other people because my parents were Jews and their were not.

But to acknowledging that I have an origin, a people that have survived thousands of years of heartache and strife, for me the hunger is worthwhile. I believe that if one wants, even a skeptic can find a place for a little ritual in their lives.

We find them everywhere. In the order of how we make a meal, to lighting a cigarette, to any of the myriad things we do on a daily basis. Rituals can keep us grounded to each other, they can help us cope. When my father’s best friend, Charlie Purpora, died a few years ago, the rituals of grieving my father gained from Judaism helped him move forward. Charlie had been my mentor, and I can’t say I didn’t wish for a little while that I could take as much from those rituals as he could. Certainly, it would have helped me find time to grieve, and probably it would have stopped me from hiding in a failing relationship, just so I’d have someone else to comfort me.

But for me at least, observing Yom Kippur, in my small way, is more than just about the ritual. Judaism has been important to my life, and as strange as it sounds to my atheist friends, my skepticism is linked to it. The core that I have taken from my father’s father’s beliefs is the need to create distinctions, ask questions, and seek knowledge. Being a Jew allowed me to find a distinction between the beliefs and the practices of my people, and following some of those practices has helped me feel more connected to a people, a history, and a story that have helped construct my character.

As skeptics, there are many things we rightly reject. We come together to celebrate rationalism and the pursuit of science. We tend to deride each other’s “sacred cows,” and perhaps right now you’re seeing this article as little more than my justification for mine. And maybe you’re right about that, as I have no evidence to the contrary. But that doesn’t change the fact that as I fast today, I know that I am not alone in doing it. And that’s something I wouldn’t give up for all the rationalism in the world.

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3 comments to On Rituals of a Non-Skeptical Nature

  • I share your sentiments completely, very eloquently put.
    Jatima Tova to you and to all my atheist and non-atheist friends.


  • Lisa Bauer

    I totally get this, and believe it or not I think it references our discussion at lunch during NECSS.

    I watched the full 3 hours, live, of Michael Jackson’s funeral. I cried, and I knew I was not the only one seated at a computer or T.V. doing the same at that moment. I felt part of a community of grief, and ritualistic as funerals and ceremonies are, it was the comfort of feeling connected to thousands of people that allowed me (nay, compelled me) to experience the grief along with them all.

    It is a wonderfully human trait to want to be part of something bigger; whether it be your ethnic or religious background or finding camaraderie in shared interests. I think skeptics understand this feeling to be entirely metaphorical, but we can (and do) experience it. Thank you for this article, I really enjoyed it.

  • Mary

    I have a wonderful book titled, “The Art of Ritual” written by psych counselors. I love ritual but rarely perform them with others because they really believe in the woo and I use it, as the authors put so well, as a completely artificial yet transformative experience, such as the ritual of going to a movie: it is dark, everyone sits facing the same direction, an entirely “fake” scene is played out before the participants, but even though everything is artificial, one can be transformed by the experience of a viewing a movie- or participating in a ritual.

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