“Rosh Hashanah is an epic fail.”
That was the gist of a provocative column by Jay Michaelson published earlier this month in the Forward.
Michaelson, who writes on religion and progressive politics and is the author of a half dozen books, including “Everything is God,” wasn’t talking about whether Rosh Hashanah should or should not be observed but rather how it is practiced, particularly in the large non-Orthodox synagogues of America where the Forward’s main readership is.
The solemn responsive readings and monotone formality, contrasted with the fashion show frivolity in the pews, make Rosh Hashanah just about the worst interface for Jews who only visit a synagogue one or two days a year, Michaelson says.
While Michaelson was writing specifically about Jewish life in the U.S., his message applies to Israel too, where the synagogues are similarly packed on Rosh Hashanah with less than regular, shofar-seeking worshipers.
Michaelson’s column, not unexpectedly, elicited major pushback with commenters resorting to some ferocious name-calling.
But the thing is: he’s not wrong – if you’re willing to think outside of the four walls of the shul box.
Rosh Hashanah has some great messages, to be sure. Celebrating symbolic renewal on this “birthday of the world” – on both the national and personal levels – gives us a proscribed framework for expressing gratitude for what we have and a safe space to acknowledge the beauty and blessing that exists if we are willing to push past the cynical.
Seeking forgiveness from our family, friends and neighbors and – more importantly – from ourselves for not living up to the unreachable expectations we so often set, is an important step towards living a more mindful life. There is great communal value in looking back at the year and tallying up our accomplishments (and shortcomings) as if our lives depended on it.
It’s just that we’re doing it in the wrong location.
The synagogue is no place for Rosh Hashanah. The brick-heavy machzor (the holiday prayer book) has become, over the years, more akin to a never-ending Wikipedia entry, containing every prayer and piyut that was ever written, than a guidebook for spiritual connection.
Trying to find the meaningful messages in the morass is possible, but one is just as likely to nod off or go numb as the day stretches on for 4 or 5 hours. And then you wake up and do it all over again the next day.
Michaelson’s prescription for the High Holy Day dilemma? Skip Rosh Hashanah entirely and commit to a different day on the Jewish calendar. Michaelson recommends Sukkot – a holiday of “harvest, joy, environmentalism [and] companionship” that is everything Rosh Hashanah isn’t: interactive, kinesthetic and engaging.
I’m a big fan of Sukkot, too. But I’m not ready to dump Rosh Hashanah just yet. There are other ways to rehabilitate the day.
Why not get together with family and friends, whether for a meal or a hike or a game of cards, and use the themes of Rosh Hashanah as triggers for deep discussions on repentance or how to build a better, safer and more just society.
The Unetanneh Tokef prayer is a good place to start. It sensitizes us to the fragility of life in a world filled with terror.
“Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague.”
There’s even a bonus prompt to spur discussion on privilege and class.
“Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched?”
Or combine a debate about Rosh Hashanah’s ancient emphasis on “kingship” with a comparison to Game of Thrones. Has the world gotten any better since that admittedly mythical time? Or do misogyny, sexism and battle-hardened testosterone still loom large in our supposedly enlightened age? (At least we don’t have dragons.)
Do all this even if you do go to synagogue.
Every year before the High Holy Days, the Jewish non-profit organization Reboot offers a tool called “10Q.”
10Q is a website that presents you with ten questions that you answer online. You then click “Send to Vault” and the site locks your answers away until the following year, when you receive an email inviting you to review what you wrote and to reflect on the year just passed.
The questions are meant for private introspection but they work well in a Rosh Hashanah group too.
“Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?”
“Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year?”
“What is a fear that you have and how has it limited you? How do you plan on letting it go or overcoming it in the coming year?”
“Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?”
The final 10Q section allows you to write down predictions for the coming year. Do that communally – and open the list from last year to see how you did. (I predicted another summer war with Hamas, about which I’m very pleased to have been wrong.)
Spend at least some of Rosh Hashanah contemplating these questions and you’ll be much closer to the true spirit of the holiday.
As Michaelson writes at the conclusion of his piece, you can “go to synagogue some other time.”
I first wrote about how to make Rosh Hashanah better at The Jerusalem Post