Fear and Trembling About High Holy Days Services

Elul, which initiates the holiday countdown, is more than just a calendric alarm clock.

This past weekend, fear and trembling made a triumphant return to the Jewish calendar. The new month of Elul, which began this weekend, initiates the holiday countdown that will lead to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in just a few short weeks. But it is more than just a calendric alarm clock. As my colleague Rabbi David Markus recently wrote, Elul itself carries spiritual significance as a time to begin soul-searching and stock-taking of our individual behaviors over the past year.

Elul carries with it a particular sense of urgency, if not dread, for those officiating at High Holy Days services. Summer vacation is now officially over. The lists of details for the myriad services that will take place — who is leading each reading, getting each aliyah, opening or closing the ark — can be truly staggering. Searches begin in earnest for those pithy anecdotes or fascinating studies of human nature that were clipped from newspapers or dog-eared in books we have been reading over the past year. Rabbis in smaller shuls now must coordinate with guest cantors, synagogue choirs, or brush up on their own chanting abilities. And, of course, there is the coup de gras —the High Holy Days sermons. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, for those looking for a new house of worship, “Americans look first and foremost for a place where they like the preaching and the tone set by the congregation’s leaders.” At 83%, the quality of the sermon was the single highest factor in determining Americans’ choice of congregation.  So the pressure many rabbis feel, myself included, to craft and deliver quality sermons is tremendous.

But if I am honest with myself, the sermon actually is the easy part of transmitting meaning and content on the High Holy Days. It is conveyed in the vernacular and crafted to connect, deeply and personally, with those in attendance. What is truly hard, and what really fills me with fear, is how to make the rest of the services resonate.

There are (at least) three fundamental challenges posed by the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) services. (I will speak specifically about Conservative Jewish services because those are the ones I am most familiar with.)  First is the sheer volume of Hebrew used during services. From Ma’ariv on Rosh Hashanah Eve through Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, worshippers confront a relentless onslaught of Hebrew poetry and prose.  While there are opportunities to inject English readings or inspirational messages (“kavanot”), these are usually the exception, not the rule. Why do we inundate ourselves with so much Hebrew? Because the Mahzor, the prayerbook we use for the High Holy Days, simply has a ton of content and we know that must synagogue-goers only have a limited time-span during which they will sit in the pews.  This leaves two options: cut out some Hebrew and replace it with more English translations, or chant our way through the Hebrew as fast as we can so we can finish the service on time.

Since rabbis and ritual committees tend to decide on the content of the services, and simultaneously tend to be the most conservative when it comes to modifying prayer content, we wind up with a very Hebrew-centric service. To make matters worse, the Hebrew is often from medieval sources and differs in content from the Hebrew some may be used to from Shabbat or daily worship.  This makes it even harder to follow.  Finally, when we do slow down for more melodic chanting, it often is done by a cantor or other prayer-leader in a tune that is so stylized that it is difficult to join.

The second major challenge of our High Holy Days services stems from the content of the liturgy.  The key themes (see below) are repeated over and over again to the point that it can be challenging to feel personal resonance the 5th time I decry my sins or proclaim God’s sovereignty.  The liturgy is intentionally redundant, to hammer home key themes (created at a time when liturgy was recited orally, not written down), but this redundancy raises the moral hazard of emotional boredom.  Another major component of the High Holy Days liturgy is the use of liturgical poetry (“piyyutim”) that were comprised by skilled poets 1000 or more years ago.  Their poetry is subtle and relies upon an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical references and connections that are incredibly challenging for modern audiences to unpack.  With these raw ingredients, it is easy to see how the final prayer product often comes out dry and flavorless.

Perhaps the largest impediment to meaningful services, though, lies in the gulf between life experience and contemporary sensibilities, on the one hand, and traditional rabbinic theology on the other. I am sure there are some who embrace the liturgical themes of the High Holy Days, especially the metaphor of God as King, sitting in judgment on a heavenly throne.  But for the many others who reject this outlook, how can they derive meaning from the High Holy Days while reciting a liturgy predicated on this very outlook? If we adhere to different metaphors of God and different theologies about our relationship with God, are we left with a choice between cognitive dissonance or a wholesale rejection of the liturgy we have used for hundreds of years?  Conversely, if we preserve the traditional liturgy, are we doing anything more than enabling a superficial and shallow spiritual experience?  Or, as I wrote in a prior piece, do we intentionally seek out boredom, to serve as a protective barrier during the High Holidays, so that we don’t have to get introspective?

I’m not sure how to resolve these questions, but I intend to spend much of Elul trying to do so.  I hope you’ll join me!

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