I received an emailed list of questions regarding the High Holy Days this morning. I share my answers with you here as an invitation to you to offer your own.
Why do so many Jews attend High Holy Day services when so few attend weekly Shabbat services?
Guilt. Most Jews do little that is overtly Jewish (keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, building a sukkah, etc.), and slogging through the High Holy Day services is a way of saying, “I’m still Jewish.”
Why do so many Jews—even those who attend High Holy Day services—find them boring and tedious?
Because they are are boring and tedious.
Would people find the services more compelling if they understood Hebrew?
No. Knowing what we are saying makes it even harder to say it. Most Jews—even many rabbis—don’t believe a word of what they’re saying.
Why are Jewish services so long?
Because we never found a good editor. Not only is our liturgy one prayer heaped upon another, we then repeat so many of them as if no one were paying attention in the first place. This has nothing to do with attention, of course, and everything to do with ancient Temple sacrificial practices, but the result is that confessing the same sins or singing the same praises over and over reduces both confession and praise to mere babble.
Would people find the High Holy Day more interesting if they understood its kabbalistic or mystical meanings?
Kabbalah depends on a mastery of Torah and Talmud that most Jews cannot even imagine. To skip Torah and Talmud and jump to Kabbalistic texts would require a dumbing down of Kabbalah to the point of inanity. Mysticism isn’t an alternative to the liturgy but an experience of the nonduality of God that is supposed to emerge from praying the liturgy. To pretend to the former when we have no facility with the latter is just silly.
What do you think is the real problem behind Jewish lack of interest in services?
Jews. We are among the most educated people on the planet. We helped create modernity—Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Buber, Einstein, Friedan, etc.—and yet when we walk into a synagogue we are asked to pretend that we are living in the 12th century rather than the 21st century. The real problem with synagogue services is that they speak to a world we have long since abandoned. As the service drones on we become robots programmed to rise and sit and read responsively and make a fetish out of Torah. We become a community of the living dead shrouded in tallit (prayer shawls), imitating dead ancestors, and wondering why we feel so dead ourselves.
If you could change three things about High Holy Day services what would they be?
1. The theology. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is dead, and adding Sarah, Rivkah, Leah and Rachel to his epitaph does nothing to bring him back to life. We need the God of Spinoza, Einstein, and Kaplan instead: God as reality, God as process, God as source and substance of all being and becoming, God as that power that makes for human happiness, justice, compassion, wisdom, and love, and not the Father King of our medieval ancestors.
2. The liturgy. We have to invent a liturgy that reflects what we do believe, rather than recite a liturgy in which we can’t believe. Someone should go through the High Holy Day liturgy and a) identify the key passages and phrases (Al Cheyt, Unetanah Tokef, Kol Nidrei, Shofarot, etc.) that are unique to Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, b) recast them in a modern poetic form (both in Hebrew and, in my case, English) that reflects a modern, egalitarian, non–xenophobic, and scientifically accurate understanding of life, and c) shape a contemplative liturgy around them that relies heavily on silence and great music (not responsive readings and camp songs).
3. The length. Even with a good 45 minutes devoted to Torah discussion (instead of sermonizing), the service shouldn’t last more than two hours.
Any last thoughts?
One: we have to ask ourselves what the purpose of the High Holy Days is, and then determine if that purpose is relevant to us, and, if it is, reinvent a High Holy Day experience that actually matters. Personally, I would offer a ten day Days of Awe intensive rooted in serious self-reflection, meditation, musar, forgiveness work, chanting, etc. that would actually promote teshuvah (returning to God), tikkun (engaging life with godliness), and tzedakah (opening our hearts and hands to the needy). I experimented with this when I was a congregational rabbi and I think it worked fairly well. Today I am retired, but that doesn’t stop me from offering advice to my colleagues: be bold!