The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend who sheepishly admitted that she used to be one of those “three-day-a-year” Jews, who only went to synagogue on the High Holy Days. I think she expected me to be critical, as though somehow, because I am a rabbi, I should have an opinion about her lack of observance. In fact, I was curious about why she went at all, and probed a little deeper.
It was clear from the conversation that she welcomed the opportunity to sit in synagogue and be encouraged to think about her life and its direction. She wanted to feel supported by a community of people, all of whom were doing the same thing. She wanted to connect to the words and the music, even though she didn’t understand a word of Hebrew. Her dilemma is that she felt like a fraud, since she didn’t believe in God and only went to services a few times a year out of deference to her parents. This year, she probably wasn’t going to attend synagogue at all.
I was reminded of a letter once written to the Bintel Brief, a kind of “Dear Abby” column published by the Yiddish Forward in the early part of the 20th century. The letter writer, a self-defined secular Jew, explained that he didn’t know what to do with himself on Yom Kippur. Because he wasn’t religious, he of course would not go to synagogue. But where should he go? It didn’t feel right to go to work. Could the Bintel Brief please help him, he wrote. The answer was clear: Of course you should not go to synagogue. That would be insulting to the faithful who believe in the prayers they are saying. The columnist suggested that he go perhaps go to a library or stay at home and read a book.
There are, of course, many reasons people stay away from synagogues, even on the High Holy Days. They can’t afford the tickets, or feel it isn’t enough of a priority to spend the money. They feel disconnected from religion, from Jewish community and from Judaism itself. They don’t understand the service or the Hebrew. They don’t believe in the God who created the world, judges each person, and decides who shall live and who shall die. On these days of judgment, they don’t want to feel judged for what they don’t know and what they don’t believe.
Full disclosure is in order here. I go to synagogue regularly. My husband is a congregational rabbi. Once I was as well. But I sympathize with my friend and others who feel disconnected from the poetry and pageantry of the days of awe. And I think we do them — and the many Jews who stay home on these special days — a great disservice when we assume that they want to be outside, and when we judge them and find them lacking in faith, in commitment, and in a desire to improve their lives.
I have never met a person who didn’t want his or her life to matter, who didn’t hope to be a better person, and who wasn’t looking, at least on some level, for support toward reaching those goals. In fact, Judaism is in essence a technology to help us in that work. Toward that end, I find enormous comfort in the synagogue.
True, I understand what’s going on. I grew up in a synagogue culture, and a good one at that. But I doubt very much that’s why it works for me. I think it works because I want it to, I need it to and I believe it can work. Once a week for two-plus hours and a few times years for even longer (OK, it could be a little shorter), I need to stop thinking about work, about plans, about, well, everything. I need to listen to what my good friend Sylvia Boorstein instructs: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
I need to wake up my spiritual bones (the tradition calls that the preliminary service or birkot hashachar), and I need to break open my heart (the tradition call that part of the service verses of praise or p’sukay d’zimra). I need to connect to my people and that which is larger than my little self with all its anxieties (what the tradition calls the morning service or Shachrit). I need to study and I need to celebrate new life, new love, and acknowledge illness and loss in the community (what the tradition calls the Torah service). And finally, I need my whole being — my body, my brain and my heart to wake up fully (what the tradition calls the Shofar service).
I am not saying that my mind never wanders or that I am spiritually alert the whole time. I am as capable as the person sitting next to me of worrying about whether my Rosh HaShanah brisket is going to come out delicious this year or not, or whether a project I am working on will actually succeed. But even when I am taking a break from myself, I look around the room, noticing who is there (and who, sadly, is not) and how they, like I, have grown and changed. And then, like in any good meditation practice, I bring my mind back to my breath and continue to look for my soul and try to heal it.
I don’t think my friend and I are very different in this regard. We want and need the same things, and she doesn’t need a good Jewish background to do this work. She just needs the confidence to know that she can. So I told her not to worry about what she didn’t understand. In fact she doesn’t even have to open the machzor (prayer book) if she doesn’t want to. She can simply sit there and let the congregation hold her. That’s why we pray in a minyan, a group of at least 10. Sometimes the others who are present can carry it for us. I told her that no one cares how many times she comes to synagogue, that on these days of judgment, she should let the God she doesn’t believe in do the judging; she should just get to work on herself, which, after all, is what Judaism and indeed all of life is about anyway.
Rabbi Joy Levitt is the executive director of The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and attends The SAJ: Society for the Advancement of Judaism, where her husband, Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, serves as rabbi.
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