Monday, September 02, 2013

Rosh HaShanah Queries


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!


7 comments:

Barry said...

You literally hypnotized me during yizkor in 1983 at a hotel on Key Biscayne, and walked me through my own funeral. Wait... was that thirty years ago? Anyway, I guess I was susceptible because I was there, like Tom Sawyer at his funeral. That was powerful, and my real funeral, whenever that is, will be very different from what I saw, partly because I saw it.

I tried, as a cantor, beautiful melodies, but I fear people today want camp songs. Our services in Morgantown don't run long, and, except for Yom Kippur, there will be food.

People come to see their friends and hang out. A short service with lots of hanging-out time is better.

Changeless Chariot said...

Loved and agreed with all of this! Well, except for one point -- maybe. What makes us so sure that the God experienced by Abraham, Isaac and/or Jacob was not the Sacred Flow of All Being? Or does your "of" refer to what the institution of Judaism did with their God?

The author of this blog is said...

Love it...so so true....in an attempt to inject some Life, here is a little Rosh HaShanah poem of my own....


Rosh HaShanah Poem

May we be renewed

from moment to moment

instantly forgetting the
false knowledge

we acquired yesterday

and the vain hopes

we have for tomorrow

may a divine Alzheimer's

leave us as fresh and fertile

as the ploughed field after rain

and let us say

amayn

Shana tova to you and all your readers

The author of this blog is said...

Love it...so so true....in an attempt to inject some Life, here is a little Rosh HaShanah poem of my own....


Rosh HaShanah Poem

May we be renewed

from moment to moment

instantly forgetting the
false knowledge

we acquired yesterday

and the vain hopes

we have for tomorrow

may a divine Alzheimer's

leave us as fresh and fertile

as the ploughed field after rain

and let us say

amayn

Shana tova to you and all your readers

Mordechai Ben Nathan said...

Kaplan was a self-absorbed fool and theological miscreant as well as a megalomaniac.

Mordechai Ben Nathan said...

Kaplan was a self-absorbed fool and theological miscreant as well as a megalomaniac.

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