This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/17 –
The weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward published an op ed piece this week written by a rabbi named Jay Michaelson. The headline of the article is ‘Why You Shouldn’t – should not – Go to Synagogue on Rosh HaShanah this Year,” and Rabbi Michaelson spends some 1500 words or so explaining why he thinks it is a bad idea for Jews to come to shul to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. And I understand that some folks just like to be provocative, because that will get them a lot of hits on the internet, and I also understand that sometimes you have a deadline looming, and your are running out of time, and you end up writing the first thing that comes into your mind without fully thinking it through. So I am not sure whether the Rabbi is in the former category, the latter category, of whether he really believes everything he wrote. But he does raise three particular points in the article that give him pause, and he says should give us pause, in terms of attending services on the High Holy Days. And I would like to spend a few minutes with you this morning thinking about each of those points.
Interestingly (at least to me!) his first complaint is a theological one. We should probably establish a fundamental sense of what theology is – what is it? Essentially, the way you understand and think about God. And Rabbi Michaelson says that you shouldn’t come to shul on Rosh HaShanah because when you get there and open your Mahzor you are going to find theological concepts that will make you uncomfortable and that you may not believe. And as proof of this he cites, also interesting to me, probably the most beloved prayer in the entire Mahzor, the Unetane Tokef prayer. That is the one where we imagine God with a book that holds a record of our deeds from the year gone by, and where we say, ‘who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water.’
Now I know that the theological implications of that prayer are problematic, and I myself don’t literally believe that God sits with a book and is writing names into it ‘who is going to live and who is going to die.’ But I also know that the prayer has a power and meaning that still speaks to people today. It may be because they’ve been reading it since they were little, and it brings to mind sweet memories of Rosh Hashanas gone by. It may be because the image itself, whether you believe it or not, can get you to think about your own deeds, which is one of the things people do find meaningful at the start of a new year. It may also be that there is a core truth to the prayer that Rabbi Michaelson either forgot or never understood, and that is in the course of any given year members of our community will pass away, and we truly don’t know what a year will hold.
But I think in general by couching his first objection to shul on Rosh HaShanah in theological terms Rabbi Michaelson misses the point entirely. Because theology is an intellectual exercise. It is a rational, philosophical approach to trying to understand God and our relationship with God. And I don’t think that is why Jews come to shul on Rosh HaShanah. I am a rabbi, and I can tell you I don’t wake up Rosh HaShanah morning and say ‘boy I can’t wait to do some theology today!’ For most of us the holidays are not about intellectually unpacking something. They are instead about emotion, about feeling something, that can’t and probably even shouldn’t be quantified by an intellectual process. So Rabbi Michelson’s first wrong turn is to assume the biggest problem with shul on Rosh HaShanah is an intellectual one, while the truth is most Jews engage in the experience emotionally.
The Rabbi’s second objection to Rosh HaShanah is that the holiday itself sends a series of mixed messages. He says it is about ‘celebration and seriousness,’ ‘rejoicing and repentance,’ and he sees those ideas as diametrically opposed, concepts that shouldn’t be combined into a single holiday, or ritual. But Judaism does that with virtually every holiday. On Passover the matzah is the bread of affliction, and the bread of freedom. On Sukkoth we rejoice in life and the bountiful harvest, but we also acknowledge life’s temporal quality with the fragile sukkah and the decaying branches of the lulav. On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah but we also recall that the Torah has been both a guide and at times a heavy burden to bear and a draining responsibility. And there is a reasons that themes come together on the holidays to conflicts and sometimes contrast – and that is because it reflects the ebb and flow of life. There are few perfect days, and even fewer perfect lives. The truth is most of life is a mixed bag, a combination of celebrations and sadnesses, of triumphs and tragedies, of the good and the bad. And the holidays, with their interplay of themes, acknowledge life’s complexity, and create sacred spaces in time that are recognizable to us and reflect our own lives.
And by the way, sometimes it is only from contrast that the power of an idea becomes apparent. Would the sense of freedom, and the gratitude that we feel for it on Pesah feel as powerful it we didn’t see it through the lens of slavery? On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur would the focus on life and the celebration of a new year be as meaningful if we didn’t also find in the Mahzor images of life’s fragility? It is precisely the contrast that makes it all work, that makes it come alive. The only way you appreciate a sunrise is to have seen a sun set and to have lived through a night.
The Rabbi’s final objection to shul on the High Holy Days is that the services have become some kind of show, where the audience sits passively and watches as the rabbis and cantors perform some kind of ancient and arcane ritual, intoning words that have no meaning and that no one understands. And I do believe that he may at least have a point here, because it is a danger of modern Jewish life that sometimes the service can turn into a show.
But I don’t think he has even been to High Holy Days services here at Beth El. I don’t think he has been here in this sanctuary on Rosh HaShanah eve when a thousand Jews stand together, chasing in full voice the words of the Shema Yisrael. He certainly has not been here on the second day of Rosh HaShanah when for the 5th aliyah the entire congregation stands together to chant the Torah blessings. And there is no way he has been here during Ne’ilah, when the ark opens, and hundreds and hundreds of people stream forward to spend a few precious seconds in front of the Torahs on the holiest day of our year, to offer their personal prayers of gratitude and hope.
Now I don’t mean to suggest that shul is for everyone. I know it is not. But in a Jewish community of growing complexity, where people identity Jewishly in ways that they never have before, surely there is still plenty of space for the synagogue, for the particular and powerful community that can grow within walls like these, for the unique and sacred experience of continuing a three thousand year old tradition. The great prophet Isaiah, in the text of this morning’s haftara, reminds us that the Jewish tent may grow large – הרחיבי מקום אהלך – “Enlarge the size of your tent, extend the size of your dwelling, lengthen the ropes, drive the pegs firm!”
The Jewish tent grows larger and larger, but the synagogue is still at its center, an institution that conveys identity and transmits tradition like no other in the Jewish world –
may our shuls be full this Rosh HaShanah – and for many, many new years to come –