Penitents are like voters. They face critical choices, ones that will set the course of their lives, and must make them in a situation of uncertainty. Committed voters try to grope through the fog of rhetoric in order to understand the true wills and predilections of the candidates they must choose from; penitents seek to dispel the mystery and ambiguity that cloaks the divine in order to understand what God wants of their lives.
But when I look around me this year, three days before Yom Kippur and a month before the American elections, I have a feeling that a lot of Jewish penitents and American voters are not using an essential tool that they need to make their choices. I mean irony.
Irony? Doesn’t that have something to do with punch lines? Is the choice of the leader of the free world and the acknowledgment and correction of one’s sins a joke?
Let me quote from an essay called “The Anxiety of the Days of Awe” by the late Rabbi Shimon Gerson Rosenberg, better known as Rav Shagar :
Irony plays a positive role. It is not cynicism. Cynicism mocks a phenomenon and presents it as pathetic. But irony is the nuance that grasps a thing both from the inside and the outside simultaneously. As such, it is aware both of the gravity of the phenomenon and of its finitude and relativity. Irony underlines the fact that otherwise is also an option, and that other approaches also perceive themselves as absolute. The ironic reflex breaths a dimension of spirituality into physicalist perception. It does not allow the absoluteness of a specific statement, and as such it exposes its limits. With regard to the religious act, this is an matter of consummate importance, because the act is meant to connect the human being with the sovereign of the universe, with the infinite. There is a paradox in the very attempt to grasp the matter of God with limited means—actions, words, and so on. These induce disquiet in the serious believer. Irony extricates him from this disquiet. It inserts a dimension of lightness to the religious act and in doing so opens it out, not allowing it to become ossified and to perceive itself as absolute, and therefore in fact makes it possible.
If I’m a penitent, I cannot perform the act of repentance unless I have the ability to step outside myself and see myself as others, and as God, sees me. The penitent who remains caught up within his own self can never see his faults and never change his ways, because his faults and his ways are part and parcel of his being. To change he must see his faults and his actions as something separate from his essential being, and to do so he must be able to see the absurdity of the connection between his self and his flawed deeds. He must be able to laugh at the ridiculous person he is.
If I’m a voter, I need to be able to step outside of my prejudices, gut feelings, and misperceptions and see them for what they are. In this current presidential election, Jewish voters are in particular need of a little irony. Time and again I have heard from well-meaning friends that deep down something bothers them about Obama; in their gut, they don’t trust him and don’t believe that he’ll be good for Israel.
Here’s where the ironic act, as Rav Shagar defines it, is essential. Such voters must step outside themselves and see how ridiculous they seem. They may well find that their disquiet about the Democratic candidate comes out of the worst part of their characters, those very parts they should seek to shed on Yom Kippur. As recent discussions here on South Jerusalem have indicated (see Israelis for Obama—Now the Movie and Those Filthy, Lying Minorities), much Jewish-American hesitation about Obama stems from suspicion about his Muslim-sounding middle name and from a prejudice that a tough-sounding pilot and war hero is somehow going to protect Israel better than a community organizer and law professor. And, deep down, a lot of people—and I mean well-meaning, sincere people—still have a visceral problem with imagining a black man in the White House.
Objectively, Israel is much worse off than it was eight years ago. Quite simply, a United States whose armed forces are bogged down in a mismanaged war and whose economic infrastructure is collapsing cannot be good for Israel. Take an ironic perspective on America now and see just how ridiculous it looks. If your intestines are telling you to vote for the candidate whose party created this mess and whose candidate advocates a continuation of the worst policy predilections of the current administration, then your viscera, too, are a joke.
Jews, when you go to shul on Wednesday night for Kol Nidre, have an ironic moment. This Yom Kippur, step outside yourself and laugh your heads off. See that your sins, and your prejudices, and all that stuff in your guts, are not really part of you. Get rid of it all and vote Obama.
Disclaimer: This essay is not meant to imply in any way, shape, or form that Rav Shagar would endorse a the presidential candidate I like best, or that his thinking leads inexorably to political positions that I happen to hold.
More on Rav Shagar: Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice