“Merry Christmas,” we’ve heard for weeks.
For Jews living in predominantly Christian societies, Christmas evokes responses ranging from joy to alienation. Some Jews encounter Christmas as a civic winter holiday for all, when grace and good cheer help sooth the social soul. Others experience the Christmas season as a time to tolerate excess consumerism, or feel that society’s adoption of this Christian holiday leaves Jews at the curb. Some Jews feel about Christmas much like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Bah humbug.”
So what’s a Jew to do? Some write music: half of the top Christmas carols were composed by Jews. Others honor “Jewish tradition” of Chinese food and a movie. Even more traditional is recourse to humor. Spoof codes of halacha (Jewish law) now explicate the tradition of Chinese and a movie; a whole Hilchot Christmas arose to guide Jewish life amidst mistletoe-laden office parties and Christmas consumerism. Naturally for Talmudic exegesis, these fake legal codes have competing versions and even more competing versions.
Healthy humor aside, occasional Jewish humbug at Christmas is no laughing matter: it’s worthy of serious reflection.
The birth of Jesus is for many Christians the purest form of divine grace: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). While in Christendom Jesus’ birth evokes “grace and truth,” to some Jews the idea is foreign (God becomes incarnate), alienating (recalling history’s proselytism and forced conversion), and threatening (recalling condemnation as “Christ killers”). On the other hand, many modern Christians embrace Christmas only with the loving and angelic hope of “Peace on earth, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).
Grace, truth, peace and good will – what could be bad? What’s more, these Christmas values are no less Jewish. Atop Mount Sinai, Moses heard God speak Thirteen Attributes of divinity, firstly that God is rachum v’chanun (merciful and gracious) (Ex. 34:6). Shalom v’rei’ut (peace and good will) are traditional blessings for newly wedded Jewish couples. The Amidah liturgy of Sim Shalom evokes all of these values: “Grant peace everywhere, goodness and blessing, grace, loving kindness and mercy to us and all Israel, Your people. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance. For by Your light You have given us a Torah of life, loving kindness, righteousness and blessing, mercy and life and peace.”
Grace, truth, peace and good will – Christmas values, and also Jewish values. So if core values of Christmas beckon the Jewish heart, why kvetch over Christmas? If a Jew feels left out of the Christmas party, then what’s a Jew to do?
Modernity’s leading apostle of inter-religious understanding, Raimon Panikkar, teaches that religions are reality maps whose symbolic stories, while particular to individual faith traditions, embed spiritual functions that are transcendent. When we identify a spiritual function common to different religions, we can better navigate another religion’s reality map using the spiritual compass of our own. In Panikkar’s thinking, the function of divine grace on the Jewish reality map is much the same one that inspires Christmas for Christians, even if its dogmatic setting and language are different. Thus, even if some Jews don’t resonate with the Christmas narrative of God made flesh, Jews can intuit the spiritual function of grace – using how Jewish tradition embeds grace – and in that way journey authentically with Christians celebrating Christmas. Jews and Christians can use this same approach to intuit how purification and renewal serve similar spiritual functions on the Christian reality maps of Good Friday and Easter as they do on the Jewish reality maps of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Traditions and holidays are not interchangeable – a Jew is a Jew, and a Christian is a Christian – but spiritual functions of these traditions are mutually intelligible. That’s no accident: transcendence is the aim of all religion and spirituality. In Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s words, “Religion is not reality, but only a pointer to the infinite … Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”
Today’s pointer happens to be Christmas – but the point is grace, truth, peace and good will for all.
So to Christian readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Christmas celebrations. And to Jewish readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Chinese and a movie.
When I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.
But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.
They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.
Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.
I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.
The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.
Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.
Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.
And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?
Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.
Thanksgiving beckons loved ones together to count blessings and honor journeys toward freedom and plenty. Whether our ancestors traveled to these shores from afar or already resided here, our forebears began new lives somewhere else. They placed foundation stones in new worlds, and their dreams for the future fueled them up and down new ladders of social and economic mobility.
Perhaps Plymouth Rock doesn’t mark their exact landing spot, but the Pilgrims who reached the Massachusetts coast in 1620 still personify Thanksgiving’s legacy of dream and journey. Much the same legacy of dream and journey also descends to us from the Bible’s Jacob, whose story of foundation stone and ladder anchor this week’s Torah portion (Vayetzei). The synergies between the two – between the Pilgrims and Jacob, between Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s rock – invite us to reflect on how dreams, journeys, foundations and gratitude shape us on this Thanksgiving day.
No doubt the Pilgrims identified with Jacob’s story. Jacob left his home, journeyed to a new place and stopped there for the night. His story continues (Gen. 28:12-19):
Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. God was beside him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring.…’ Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than Beth El (House of God), the gateway to heaven.’ Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head, set it up as a pillar and poured oil on it.
Like Jacob, the Pilgrims journeyed to a new world and landed when and where nature brought them. They believed that God brought them to that place and gifted them land where others resided. They imagined this land to be holy, a gateway to a new heaven. In this new land, they would climb a new ladder of freedom and opportunity. For their children, the Pilgrims even created a Jacob’s Ladder toy to honor a Biblical reference that undoubtedly resonated with their own narrative.
The marker stone that moderns call Plymouth Rock, like the marker stone Jacob raised in tribute to his ladder dream, is not only symbolic but also theurgic – evoking God, memory and meaning. The stone pillow under Jacob’s head became a stone pillar of prayer and foundation stone for what Jacob called “Beth El” – House of God. The place we call the Mayflower’s landing site in Plymouth became “Plymouth Rock” and the foundation stone for a whole new civilization – what John Winthrop would call in 1630 a “City Upon a Hill” to shine as a beacon of hope and light for all humanity.
Fast forward to modern-day America. Today’s dreams and markers perhaps are less heady than the days of Pilgrim’s Progress and Jacob’s first Beth El. Even so, it it too much to hope that anywhere we lay our heads or lay a stone marker can be Beth El – a House of God? Is it too much to hope that everywhere can be a landing place for dreams and ascents, no less than for Jacob and the Pilgrims? Is it too much to hope that our own cities can become beacons of hope and light as much as Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill”?
Thanksgiving celebrates and ignites these hopes – and also reminds us that hope isn’t enough. As families gather for Thanksgiving, many millions live amidst poverty, hunger, war and disease. As long as freedom and prosperity are blessings only for some, the shared dream of Jacob and the Pilgrims will remain unfulfilled. As long as want and fear continue by our own hands, both our civic foundation and our spiritual foundation – the proverbial rock of Beth El – will remain shaky beneath our feet.
Only when we roll up our sleeves and make universal the blessings we honor on Thanksgiving will the true meaning of Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s Rock become fully real for us. Only then will Beth El – the House of God – truly be uplifted as a “house … for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
Just before Sukkot began, news came out of a prominent Conservative rabbi who came out to his congregation as gay. His dignified letter to his community spread far beyond: to the wider Jewish community, and even to the mainstream press. The responses varied—some musing on the historicity of such announcements, some dwelling on the difficulty and complexity of his situation—and a few very ugly attacks (I decided not to link to any of them—they can be found if you wish to search for them).
This past week, with the advent of Sukkot, we turn away from dwelling solely on what we have done wrong, and hope that our amends have been accepted. Although we won’t know until Hoshana Rabbah (at the end of Sukkot) whether our apologies have been accepted, we still sit in joy in our sukkot. We invite in the ushpizin—the kabbalistic archetypes of Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness), gevurah (power), tiferet (beauty), nezah (endurance), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (majesty), symbolized by various Jewish ancestors who embodied those traits.
The very first of those—Abraham and Sarah—represent chesed, and we are reminded of the midrash of their tent, which stood open on four sides, so that all would feel welcome. We think of the midrash about the four minim—the myrtle, the willow, the palm and the etrog (citron), which we bind and hold together on sukkot because every part of the Jewish community is necessary for any of us to achieve redemption.
We still have not fully achieved that divine trait of chesed in the Jewish community. We have not yet fully been able to welcome all—our tent is not yet open on four sides – but we are getting there, slowly. This past year has seen a seismic shift in American attitudes -and laws- towards marriage equality, and the Jewish community has been a part of that. It’s a small step towards a more comprehensive need to accept one another, not just in marriage, but that there should be no one who fears for their job if they come out—regardless of what profession they are in; no one should fear to be who they are, ever.
The responses that we have seen last week show how far we have to go, and how much work is yet to do, but there is also hope. We are rolling up our sleeves to roll up the sides of our tent. We sit in our fragile huts , looking up at the stars.
I recently had the privilege of serving on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) for an individual who was converting to Judaism. It was, as I have found all prior instances, a powerful and deeply moving experience. Listening to this individual explain his Jewish journey and the reasons he wanted to convert nearly moved me to tears. His story affirmed, for me, all the spiritual and social good Judaism can provide at its best. As his face beamed with pride as he emerged from the mikveh, I knew that he had made a decision that would bring him immense meaning and joy.
But there was one aspect of my conversation with the individual that troubled me. Part of the Beit Din process involves asking the conversion candidate a variety of questions, both about his past and his present. While he answered most questions capably and with passion, there was one question I asked him for which he lacked much of an answer: “who is God to you?” I was curious to learn more about his theology and wanted to know what metaphor of God he most resonated with. Not only was he unable to verbalize anything concrete, but he also seemed to suggest that this hadn’t been a point of emphasis in his conversion course. I am both not surprised and deeply disappointed.
The Jewish community has just emerged from our annual crash course in theology. It is impossible to read the High Holy Days Mahzor and not think about God. The primary metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is of God as sovereign sitting in judgment over our deeds from the past year, while the primary metaphor of Yom Kippur is of us asking God to exercise mercy and restraint in judging us. Perhaps the fundamental challenge I face in leading High Holy Days services is both offering the metaphor of God in judgment, for those with whom it resonates, and critiquing that metaphor, for those with whom it is deeply alienating. (Full disclosure: as a process theologian, I reject both metaphors and prefer a partnership model.) I spend a good deal of my English speaking roles during the service explaining the liturgy and offering alternative ways to understand the liturgy that speak to different views of God.
But regardless of which approach of God one embraces, I think it is fundamental that one embrace (even temporarily) a view. To ignore theology, on the High Holy Days, dilutes (though does not eliminate) the efficacy of our experience. If God is irrelevant, then the only reasons to come to services on the High Holy Days are: 1) cultural/social (“because that’s what Jews do on the High Holy Days”) or 2) purely personal (i.e. a self-improvement contemplative practice). oth of these goals are worthwhile in and of themselves, but the process is incomplete without God. That’s why I am saddened when I read posts that take God out of the High Holy Days, and why I cannot be a Rabbi In Favor Of Atheism. Grappling with God (along with Torah and Israel) is an essential component of what makes us Jews; we cannot abdicate this struggle. To be clear, there is no single approach to understanding God that I am advocating; only that one commit oneself to having a view about who or what God is to them and letting that view inform the way he or she engages with the world around us.
So I challenged the conversion candidate to keep thinking about God. I gave him a few different metaphors for God to consider and urged him to keep thinking about it, to keep struggling with trying to articulate who or what God is for him. I advised him that this journey never really ends, and that he might find himself holding radically different views as his life circumstances change. And I encouraged him that the struggle is worth it and will add richness and depth to his new Jewish identity.
The majesty and transcendence of the High Holidays are behind us. Rosh Hashanah with its coronation of God and Yom Kippur with the liturgical immersion into the Holy of Holies of the Holy Temple has passed. The machzorim, the special prayer books, have been put back into the storage rooms. The shofar has been put back on to the shelf and the grocery stores will stop ordering extra quantities of apples and honey until next year. That seat you spent so many hours in at synagogue (or the seat that you purchased but barely saw during these past two weeks) will also resume its normal life of being unoccupied. The cushion will resettle, the indentations will be erased and dust will begin to collect. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.
What would happen if you didn’t let your seat at synagogue go unused this new year? What would happen if you came back and visited that seat when no ticket was needed to sit in it. The machzorim are put away but in their stead you will find the siddur, the year round prayer book. Do you believe your experience during the next round of High Holidays would be different if you were more than an annual visitor?
People sometimes compare the High Holidays to the Superbowl. No matter if you are a fan all year or even know the rules of the game there is something captivating about tuning into the game on the big day and knowing you are joining hundreds of millions of other people who are doing the same thing. The comparison has a point but it also falls short.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not built like the Superbowl. They are not built with an easy ability to tap into with no prior experience or knowledge. There are no multi-million dollar commercials in the midst of the service or professional athletes facing off against each other. Instead there is the sublime poetry and prose of the prayers. There are the melodies, some very old and some very new, that are meant to enter our heart and soul and move us in a religious experience. There is the introspection and reflection that finds its peak during the High Holidays. This is not the sort of thing that can be readily experienced at its fullest with no prior background. The ticket you purchased gains you entry into the building and a seat to sit on but if that is the only time you sit in that seat all year you very will might find yourself unable to access the moment you have paid for and craving to find some of its relevancy in your life.
So this year let us find time to fill that seat throughout the year. It’s alright to dip your toes in gently and build as time progresses. Build familiarity with the rhythm of Jewish ritual and prayer. Stretch those muscles of introspection and reflection. By doing so you may find that the next Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be an entirely different experience. Your seat will recognize you, the cushion will not be dusty, the prayer book will be an old friend and the melodies will penetrate your heart and lift you in soulful meaning.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is finished for the year but your seat will not be lonely for the next eleven months. Shanah Tovah, a good, sweet year of meaning making and spiritual growth to all.
On Sukkot, it’s customary to read Chapter 14 from the prophet Zechariah.
Have you read it? I mean, really read it?
If you have, you’ll know that Zechariah was an unusual thinker.
Zechariah hoped Sukkot could be an opportunity for shared healing after regional war. “The survivors of every nation,” he wrote, “will ascend to Jerusalem year after year, to worship the God beyond all armies, and to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot” (Zechariah 14:16).
Camping together, making music, cooking food, sharing customs and creating new ones at an annual week-long interfaith festival: that was Zechariah’s visionary plan for regional healing. We don’t begin with political dialogue, theological comparison, or even shared stories of hurt and joy. Instead, we simply practice together in joy, one week a year.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l picked up on Zechariah’s cue. “A dialogue of theology is mostly futile,” he said. “Theology is the afterthought of a believer. It begins with what we should finish with. How do you get to the primary stuff of belief? You show me your way that works for you, I’ll show you mine, and we can share!” (Deep Ecumenism workshop, 1998)
Of course, learning by mutual “showing” is not really that simple. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see right past what we are shown, because we wear many lenses of preconception over our mind’s eye.
We may generously see every religion as a way of approaching God—as we define God, that is.
Using our best compassionate psychology, we may imagine we know the full catalogue of existential questions that faith answers.
We may speak idealistically of “universal” human themes, while unconsciously limiting the universal by gender, age, race, or nationality.
Too often, we employ what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic [interpretive lens] of suspicion.” Because we believe we know what truly drives all religious expression, we are suspicious of superficial differences. We look at differences—and sometimes right through differences—just long enough to confirm our theories.
It is much more difficult to practice what Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic of recollection”—to immerse ourselves in a practice, side by side with believers, and get a feel for what they receive. It’s difficult to let go of preconceptions, and it’s difficult to let go of fears.
The fears are big, and they are not mere fantasies. What if I see God their way, feel called to convert, and lose my entire family? What if I am overpowered by groupthink, and join a cult doing activities I will later condemn? What if joining a new group means I am supposed to despise the one that raised me?
Perhaps the fears would be lessened if we shared our practices within a structured ritual format—like the one Zechariah envisioned for Sukkot. One week a year, we would gather in regional groups for interfaith camp—outdoors at a campsite, if weather permits. Working side by side, we would negotiate the meals; schedule ritual prayers for all open to all; share musical traditions, children’s games, and daily camp tasks. We would agree on rules against evangelizing within or after camp. We would allow each regional gathering to develop its own unique flavor, its own signature traditions for this special week.
Yes, Sukkot Camp does sound a bit like a hippie festival, and maybe Zechariah, with his dreamy visions, was the 6th Century BCE equivalent of a hippie. However, this epithet might be a plus, if you think of the successful 30-year old Burning Man festival, and the smaller spin-off gatherings created by energetic communities around the world.
Hippie or not, Zechariah’s radical visions are celebrated in our tradition. Perhaps we could try to implement just one of his visions, creating a mini-multicultural city of Sukkot with intention and good faith, as we bypass ways of thinking that constrain us, and lay seeds for cooperation and peace.
Thanks to the Intention Gathering, and to Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Image by Oseh Shalom, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
It’s the great communal experience of the Jewish people. We fill halls and sanctuaries and homes in eager anticipation. Some came simply because they are Jews or married to Jews; this is what we do on the High Holidays. Some came for the camaraderie; it feels good to be with our people. Some came to be with family, some came to be with friends and communities, a touchstone of connection whether frequent or occasional. Some came to pour out their hearts in prayer, connect with traditions and values, and with the Holy One of Blessing.
Holy Days preparations were reflected in the Jewish and secular press; a lot of expectations and wishes were shared. There were many columns on what rabbis should or should not say on the holidays. Rabbis spent many weeks developing ideas, learning together and refining their craft of High Holiday sermons and prayer. If a complete outsider looked at the Jewish world they would perceive a fairly high level of anxious anticipation. Were we happy or were we worried?
Yes. We were both. But we were also in it together. Together, we laughed and cried and reflected and prayed—using the words of the machzor (holiday prayer book) or not. And we ate some great holiday food, the holidays nourishing our bodies as well as our souls, which, of course, go together! The great gathering connected us to something larger than ourselves.
Today, some of us will build our sukkot (sukkahs) for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, five days after Yom Kippur, extending the season of joy, community and Jewish experiences. We may be exhausted, but we are riding the wave of spiritual high straight through to Simchat Torah, 12 days from now.
But most of us will settle back into our routines, perhaps relieved that it is over. The holidays were an island in our secular lives, though hopefully uplifting and meaningful. Whatever the takeaway from the High Holy Days, it gets tucked back into the box called “Jewish” or “religion” that we open only when needed.
Yet, the need for spiritual nourishment and the need to belong remain. The questions of the High Holy Days, “Who am I?, Where am I?” live in our souls all the time. How can these needs be met in meaningful, satisfying, accessible, accommodating ways?
This is a conversation worth continuing. There are lots of great answers to these questions, and now is the time to share them together. Jewish tradition is a path for meaningful spiritual living; a treasure that enriches those who hold it. If it’s out of reach, let’s get there together. This is the good stuff—the day after the holiday, when, filled with possibility, the reboot of our souls begins.
Yom Kippur conjures solemnity and foreboding for many Jews. Ritual fasting, abstinence, penitence, and rehearsing for death evolved as core Yom Kippur tradition to rivet and purify the soul. Hidden from most moderns, however, is another level of Yom Kippur that is bright and light rather than dark and heavy—a day of highest joy and even dancing.
Joy and dancing on Yom Kippur may seem like too-easy spirituality, untraditional or even heresy. But consider: liturgy for Kol Nidre evening begins with the Psalmist’s words of light and joy: “Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the light of heart” (Ps. 97:11). In ancient days, “there was in Israel no day of greater joy” than Yom Kippur, when singles donned white and danced (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8). If today this practice seems odd, to Talmud’s rabbis it was obvious! Coinciding with the day Moses received a second Tablets of the Covenant after the Golden Calf episode, Yom Kippur is our day of second chances, forgiveness and re-commitment (Ta’anit 30b)—truly a day of joy.
While the white clothes some wear on Yom Kippur rehearse our death by simulating the traditional Jewish white burial shroud, some moderns re-interpret wearing white to represent the light and joy of angelic purity. After all, light and joy are themes of Yom Kippur’s morning Haftarah. In the prophet Isaiah’s words, purification and holy living will cause our “light to break forth like dawn” (Is. 58:8), our light “will rise in the darkness” (Ps. 58:10), and we “will find our joy in God” (Is. 58:14).
Light and joy—but what of dancing? Talmud describes Israel’s ancient Yom Kippur choreography as m’kholot (circle dances). Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), the Seer of Lublin‘s disciple, observed that circle dances are most fitting on Yom Kippur because m’kholot share a root word with m’khal, to pardon. The pardon to which Yom Kippur aspires is to return full circle—body, heart, mind and soul—to a condition before impurity.
Easier said than done… and maybe it’s why the Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippur rather than Yom M’khal. During the rest of the year, two words describe daily penance and purification—s’lakh (forgive) and m’khal (pardon). Only on Yom Kippur does liturgy expand to include the third and most complete level of purification—khaper (atone). My teacher, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who died earlier this year, used to teach that these three levels of purification are like putting a computer file in the trash (forgiving), emptying the trash (pardoning), and wiping the hard drive (atoning). Yom Kippur is for wiping the hard drive: Yom Kippur is for returning full circle to purity.
Putting together these three words in the liturgy of Yom Kippur—s’lakh (forgive), m’khal (pardon) and khaper (atone)—their acronym spells samekh, the Hebrew letter that itself is a circle, the shape of Yom Kippur’s ancient circle dance. What’s more, in gematria (Jewish numerology), the value of samekh is 60, a number that in Jewish philosophy and law represents completeness. On Yom Kippur, we not only wipe our spiritual hard drives clean but also reconnect ends to beginnings, completing the spiritual circuit and becoming complete anew.
That’s why Yom Kippur—even in solemnity—also is for light, joy and circle dancing. It’s why my synagogue will observe Yom Kippur in traditional ways, and also with dancing. On this Yom Kippur, may we all join the ancient circle dance of light, joy and atonement for a truly good and sweet new year. Shanah tovah.
Dedicated to my teacher and circle dancer extraordinaire, R. Elliot Ginsburg.