"It’s better to pray as a group,” my nephew said. He is twenty-two, newly married, and he studies in a kolel (an institute for full-time advanced study of the Talmud). Everyday, that’s what he does. No job, he just studies. So you’d think he might know. But when someone says something so definitively about something as personal as prayer, I take the other side.
“You do realize,” I say, “that’s not a fact. We don’t really know.”
There is dead silence.
Let me set the stage. It is the first night of Rosh Hashanah. We’re at my husband’s sister’s house. My sister-in-law is gregarious and kooky. She is an artist. But mostly she is big-hearted and open-minded, which is why it’s not unthinkable that her daughters wear wigs and skirts to their knees, and her sons wear black suits and yarmulkes.
The table is set for twenty. The roses are the color of the apples and the pomegranate seeds, which adorn the table in monochromatic fashion. Tonight the dining room table is her canvas.
To illustrate the contrast, I will tell you that one of my daughters showed up to the holiday dinner wearing pants (as opposed to a skirt) and my other daughter realized upon arrival that her shirt was more see-thru than she’d known. My son looked like he was headed for band practice.
My husband’s family has gone in different directions. Some wear black hats and won’t make a move without consulting a rabbi, while others wear electric blue sports jackets (with matching socks) and won’t make a move without consulting Vail snow conditions.
“Uh-oh,” my niece whispers to my daughter in regards to my comment, “she forgot where she was for a minute.” She imagines my comment won’t go over well in this setting.
But here’s the thing: it goes over fine. I mean, there was that awkward moment; but there were no hard feelings. In fact, there was even some laughter. “Why don’t you just ask if there’s a God, Mom?”
I didn’t say anything but I wondered when it became taboo to contemplate existential questions like: Is there a God or what happens to us when we die?
Literature shows me the world through other people’s eyes providing perspective beyond what I personally know or believe. This family dinner does the same.
Charles Baxter, an American author, questions his own beliefs in his essay, What Happens in Hell, published in The Best American Essays 2013.
Asking questions is at the heart of literature, every essay, poem and work of fiction. It is at the heart of every painting. It is at the heart of Judaism.