In the second season of Amazon’s award-winning comedy series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (played superbly by Rachel Brosnahan) the Maisel family joins with others Jews of the Upper West Side of Manhattan in synagogue for Yom Kippur. It’s Ne’ilah, the closing service of the day. The shul is packed. The Maisels are not particularly religious. We have already seen them purchase their meat at a local Jewish-owned but not kosher butcher. We have seen them (except for the convert daughter-in-law) in their Catskill mountain summer resort feasting – not fasting – on Tish’a B’Av. But on Yom Kippur they are in shul along with other Jews of their ilk, more interested in timing when the fasting is over rather than contemplating what the fasting is for. The dutiful way in which each of the characters beats his or her chest with a fist while repeating the litany of sins for which they ask forgiveness is belied by their chatter and the speed with which they depart the sanctuary following the blowing of the shofar.
The scene is less a parody and more an honest description of Jewish life. The real question is why these Jews bother to go to shul at all. In an open democracy there is no peer pressure to conform to tradition. And nostalgia alone is insufficient to explain why Jews would retain allegiance to practices they disdain.
Remarkably, one answer goes back to Philo of Alexandria two thousand years ago. In his introduction to his commentary on the tractate Yoma, Talmudic scholar Hanokh Albeck even references Philo. It was Philo who explains why the Torah calls Yom Kippur “Shabbat Sabbaton” – the Sabbath of Sabbaths (Leviticus 16:31). Philo notes that alone among the Jewish holy days Yom Kippur is devoted entirely to prayer and supplication in the hopes of earning God’s mercy, compassion, and atonement. And no matter how distant Jews have become, no matter how alienated from tradition or lackadaisical in practice, seeking atonement from God still has resonance. It seems that Jews want to believe there is an abiding connection to a higher power who can be forgiving. Hence, Philo notes, Yom Kippur is observed by more than just the pious few but even by the marginal masses of Jews.
Perhaps this is mere apologetics. Yet the possibility exists that in every Jew there still remains that little spark that can be kindled into something greater. How to do so remains the challenge.