Starting the evening of Sept. 15, 2023, and again the evening of
Sept. 24, Jews around the world will be filing into synagogues to mark
their “Days of Awe” – the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
For many who observe these holidays in the United States, the Days of
Awe will be the only time that they visit a synagogue this year. Only 1 in 5 American Jews attend services once a month or more.
What is more, Yom Kippur is among the most somber and punishing
holidays of the Jewish calendar. Why, then, do so many individuals who
rarely pray in a synagogue choose to do it during the dour Days of Awe,
rather than on many of the joyful, celebratory feasts that the Jewish
calendar has to offer?
The answer lies partly in the nature of Jewish civilization itself.
While today observers perceive Judaism as a religion, Jewish culture is
not focused on individual belief and worship so much as on an entire community and its collective relationship with God and its history.
As a scholar of Judaic studies, I believe these are core, galvanizing elements of Jewish civilization
that the Days of Awe bring into relief, making the High Holy Days a
focus of congregants’ cultural lives as Jews. While the High Holidays
may seem like days of individual soul-searching and repentance alone,
their focus is actually communal, taking stock of an entire people’s
identity and traditions.
Rosh Hashana: The Jewish New Year
According to rabbinic interpretations, Rosh Hashana commemorates God’s creation of humanity.
Tradition has it that Rosh Hashana is a time when God judges humans,
and especially “his people,” Israel. Meanwhile, they affirm their
acceptance of God’s sovereignty over everything and everybody.
That is largely why Jews exchange New Year’s greetings along the
lines of, “May you be inscribed [in the Book of Life]” – folkloric
shorthand for wishing someone a good fate for the year ahead.
Whether they occur in traditionalist or modernist settings, Jewish New Year ceremonies are mostly held in synagogues. The services begin with attendees’ recitation of an ancient liturgy
that underscores God’s kingship over the universe. Yet the centerpiece
is the loud blowing of a shofar, a ram’s horn, whose powerful blasts the biblical book of Joshua
describes as bringing down the walls of the city of Jericho. During the
High Holidays, the sound “opens the gates of heaven” so that
congregants’ acknowledgment of divine sovereignty can enter God’s abode
and inform his judgment.
Notably, Jewish law has it that individuals should not mark the High Holidays alone. Ideally, the services require a “minyan,” or quorum of 10 adults – as do many Jewish rituals.
Before 70 C.E., when Roman legions destroyed the Jerusalem Temple,
sacrifices at its altar were an important component of Jewish social,
political and ritual life. Afterward, rabbinic law radically
democratized the Israelites’ rituals, mostly as liturgical services. These took the place
of activities that the priests of the temple had performed. Thus the
people, along with their history as a political community, remained the
protagonists of a comprehensive cultural system – not the relatively
narrow, private sense of “faith” that the word “religion” can suggest.
Confession – as a community – on Yom Kippur
After Rosh Hashana, the mood darkens as Yom Kippur approaches: the Day of Atonement.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, before its onset at sundown, Jews return to
their synagogues. As a prelude to the first Yom Kippur service, a
cantor or another skilled congregant sings the famed Kol Nidre:
the Renunciation of All Vows. This poem asks God to preemptively annul
any oaths Jews will make to God unknowingly or involuntarily, or ones
they cannot fulfill. Notably, Kol Nidre plaintively asks, “May all the
people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in
their midst, for all the people are at fault.”
One of the Yom Kippur liturgy’s distinctive elements is a section called the Viddui – the “confession.”
That word may summon images of a one-on-one encounter with a priest in
the privacy of a small, partitioned booth. “Confession” may also suggest
a creed: “I believe in X, Y, Z – and that my belief will save my soul.”
Yet Jewish “confession” is neither an affirmation of faith nor a
purely individual mea culpa. Instead, the Viddui affirms a long list of
wrongdoings for which all congregants repent: Among other things, “We
and our fathers have sinned. We have trespassed. We have betrayed; We
have stolen. We have slandered.”
The focus of the services, in other words, is not exclusively on
personal sin and salvation. The language of the liturgy uses “we,” not
just “I.” It does not matter whether individuals reciting the liturgy
have erred in the specific ways the confession mentions. What matters is
that they take responsibility for the entire Jewish people – past,
present and future – in relation to their fellow humans, and in relation
to the God of Israel: One for all, and all for one.
As the Talmud puts it, “All Israel [is] mutually responsible.” The biblical Book of Deuteronomy,
too, is packed with laws for the entire people of Israel as they are
about to enter their promised land, so that they “may prolong your days
upon the land.” Commandments about theft, mercy and caring for the
stranger and the orphan, for example, are explicit blueprints for a functioning, socially just state – not just guides to individual or universal morality.
The books of the Hebrew Bible enshrine a story of the Jewish people, a
collective story at the root of these awe-filled days. Indeed, the High
Holidays affirm a sense of belonging that keeps even some of the least
traditional Jews returning to ceremonies every year, affirming the ideal
of a kinship-based society rooted in collective justice.
David L. Graizbord www.tucsonsentinel.com news,faith,family,history,opinion
2023-09-15 16:14:00 , All Headlines | TucsonSentinel.com