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.