Last week I had to write two papers, to sit an exam and to atone.
Saturday was Yom Kippur. This likely did not escape your notice, because Yale groups are very good about rescheduling auditions, rush meals, executive meetings and everything else devouring our time around what is meant to be the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Yalies are not exactly orthodox monotheists, or so we’re told. What’s the appeal of Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur was not really about God for me this year. I don’t know what God means. That Saturday of suits and starving in Battell Chapel (cleverly renamed “Bait El,” or House of God, for the duration of the Jewish holiday) was one in which a good number of my friends, usually classmates or debate interlocutors, were next to me, standing and mumbling words we don’t understand, similarly suited, similarly starving, fellow Yalies and Jews. The rest of Yale’s campus joined us, smiling at us as we walked down the street — they always do on the holidays, strangely, thankfully — and helped us celebrate our fathers’ custom.
Religious life at Yale is rarely about theology, nor should it be. It is and should be about community. The society system is about this: friendship in the face of ritual. The college system is about this. The first letters in the 1930s explaining Harkness’ new system laud its ability to bring small groups of students (then less than 200) together, to set the master in loco parentis, to force the fellows to challenge the students about their greatest ideas, and to eat and drink and celebrate life together. In short, each college was a family, helping her sons (and then it was always sons) to grow up. To some extent each college still is this family. But where it is not, a religious community can be.
In theory, we should not separate the intellectual life from the emotional life, but more and more we seem to. We should be talking with our pastors about the material composition of the universe as we should be talking with our professors about the best way to live our lives. Instead, we have section. I hate section. Everyone hates section. Everyone would hate section more if forced to sit through a section with me. (Imagine how the grad students feel!) But the reason we undergraduates hate section is because it has become utter and meaningless ritual: We tentatively repeat what the professor said, and when 50 minutes are up we all get to leave. We can imagine that the dead rituals of Old Blue may have once housed some real meaning. The new rituals replacing practices such as compulsory chapel (abolished, to be fair, in 1920), are meaningless, such as prefacing comments in class with, “I don’t know, but,” or “I mean, I feel like.” These allow for no meaningful claims, not even practice reaching for the good life; they are just dry, subtly formal and deeply boring. This is not teaching. This is not philosophy. We sit in section for four years and then set off into the world.
Maybe we stumble accidentally upon the real moments of college, when we consider what it all means and where we ought to be going, in the 2 a.m. weeknight discussion about God or the senior-year anxiety attack in the middle of a club meeting. We meet these real moments, inevitably, with guilt: “I should be doing a problem set.” Why not let the sun shine on these moments? Our professors and masters and fellows should be at the heart of this. Office hours should be about changing souls and changing minds, not just about changing grades. This sounds like religion, and it brings us back to Yom Kippur.
I know the temptation to see Yom Kippur as another thing to do: a meeting with my editor; a meeting with my teaching fellow; and, if I get time, a meeting with the God of my fathers, instead of calling my aunt in Philadelphia or hanging out with the girls downstairs. But religion is a way of life. It is ritual for a purpose. If we see congregating with friends at holidays to sing and to argue and to eat (most of the time) as part of the rhythm of Yale rather than another thing to do, we can see our time at Yale as part of this rhythm. College is life itself, not just preparation for life. And if it is life, let’s hope that is a good life, full of philosophy and friendship, eating and drinking. All of us should be inscribed for that good life this year.
Michael Leo Pomeranz is a junior in Silliman College.