Monday, September 10, 2007

No Shul for Me this Rosh haShanah

I’m not going to Rosh haShanah services this week. Synagogue holds no fascination for me. Neither does the liturgy nor the babble of rabbis and pundits. Despite the fact— or perhaps because of it— that Rosh haShanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are the times when most Jews, even nonobservant Jews go to shul, I am staying home.

This will be the first time in over fifty years that I have not attended synagogue on the High Holy Days. I did not pursue a High Holy Day pulpit this year, and one did not pursue me. I knew that if I were to lead services other than those I myself would compose, I would be forced to pretend to beliefs I do not hold, or forced to mangle words in order to make them seem to say what I want them to say, rather than what they do say.

And what they do say is that there is a God “out there” somewhere who watches and judges and decides my fate. I haven’t believed this since I was a kid. There is no “out there” and judging and deciding require a human–like consciousness that God, as I understand God, just doesn’t have.

I have been told I should go to shul not for God but for community. But there is no real meeting with people at High Holy Days. It is too crowded, too formal. To sit in pews and read words that only antagonize me is not a catalyst for community. I would rather sit in silence and then speak intimately with others from the heart.

So I shall go on retreat for Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. I shall leave town and walk in the woods and make a sacred pilgrimage to the center of my being by walking a local labyrinth. And I will pray. I will pray as I always do: speaking directly to God without a fixed text; simply pouring my heart out to Her and having Her reflect my suffering and my joy back to me that I might better learn how to shoulder the burdens of my life and lessen the burden I place on other lives.

Yet I will pray one traditional piece of liturgy: “Who shall live? Who shall die?” This is the one liturgical insight that matters to me: who shall live and die and suffer and rejoice… We don’t know (though in a sense the answer is “me”). The prayer solves nothing, reveals nothing. It says that we cannot know today what will befall us tomorrow, but that we can live each day with repentance, prayer, and generosity. This is a New Year challenge that never grows old or stale or meaningless for me.

Another Rosh haShanah tradition I value is asking for forgiveness, so let me close with this: If I have hurt any of you this year, knowingly or unknowingly, advertantly or inadvertently, I ask your forgiveness. And if I have not caused you pain, just give me time.

L’Shana Tova


rbarenblat said...

Over the last several years I have developed a tradition of spending R"H in my own community (which, it's true, becomes strange and lumbering at this season; we'll go from our Shabbat crowd of 15 or 20 to a room of 150 people) and spending Y"K on retreat at Elat Chayyim. It turns out to be a good balance for me.

Thanks to this retreat practice, I look forward to Y"K all year. I know it will be a time when I can sing and dance and walk in the woods and reflect on who I mean to be. When I spend it with people who care about it deeply -- who sometimes take turns meditating all night in the sanctuary in order to hold the prayerful space until dawn -- it truly feels like the holiest day of the year, to me.

Anyway. I hope your observance offers what you need it to. And I thank you for your words and your online presence over the year now ending.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro said...

Thanks. Have a good new year and a fast that is truly emptying.


Nikol said...

That's all fine. What, however, do you think about Obadiah Shoher's criticism pf Rosh Hashanah as aholiday that has nothing to do with New Year? Here, for example

snuggleyoga said...


At this absurd hour, 3:42 a.m. I was awakened by the One who has been my constant commentator, my guide into realms both illumined and shadowed and moved to sit before the keyboard and take dictation. You voiced what I have known for years, that prayer is portable and God is too vast to be sequestered in a structure. For years, since my late teens, I have found deeper meaning with that Essence in nature. With rare exception and some of them were the few years in the early 90's that I spent at Beth Or, I have experienced the High Holy Days communing with the Divine amidts the trees and next to water. I am heartened that you, whose life was wrapped around congregational life for so long, see the equal value for you in making life your shul.