High Holy Days: Sticking to our labels

Is it possible to be religiously not religious? That question came to me the other day when I asked a friend what his synagogue plans were for the coming Holy Days.

“Neilah,” he answered, referring to the last prayer of Yom Kippur.

“That’s it?” I asked. “Anything else? What about Rosh Hashanah?”

“No, just Neilah,” he replied firmly. “That’s what I do every year.”

What struck me about his response was his level of certitude. He might attend only one prayer service a year, but he’d never miss it for the world. He’s passionately loyal to this tradition. 

You might say it’s his religious label: He’s a “Neilah-Every-Year” Jew.

His commitment to this label is no less than that of my observant friends who might attend services 500 times a year at one synagogue, or my less observant friends who might pray three times a year at one temple. The numbers might differ, but they’re all pretty much fixed. 

We all have a tendency to attach ourselves to labels and habits, for which we develop an almost religious devotion, no matter how “religious” we are.

I have friends, for example, who will always build a sukkah to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, and others who will never build one. One day, I might have the chutzpah to ask those who never build a sukkah whether they ever get the itch to do so. My theory is that even if they do, they would dismiss it.

Why? Because it wouldn’t fit their label: “It’s not what we do.”

There are many good reasons to embrace labels and habits. They give us an identity, make us feel secure, provide us with structure.

They also prevent us from feeling like hypocrites.

My friend Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of the Chai Center once told me that “the fear of hypocrisy” is one of the biggest obstacles to the practice of Jewish rituals. 

What he meant was: A woman might feel the urge to light the Shabbat candles one Friday night, but knowing that she probably won’t do it the following week makes her feel like a hypocrite. So, that’s reason enough to pass on the mitzvah.

In other words, if lighting the Shabbat candles is “not what I do,” won’t I feel like a flake or a hypocrite if I just do it whenever I feel like it?

And if building a sukkah is “not what I do,” won’t I feel like a hypocrite if I do it this year but not the next?

With the passage of time, habits and labels have a way of owning us.

Even breaking a habit can become a habit.

For the past few years, I have been alternating my High Holy Days services between Sephardi and Ashkenazi minyans on Pico Boulevard. I do morning services Sephardic-style at Congregation Mogen David, and I do the Musaf prayer Ashkenazic-style a few blocks away at Young Israel of Century City.

This “breaking up” habit started because I have friends in both places, and I enjoy both services. Sephardi davening is what I was raised with — the chanting is more intense, more from the gut. The Ashkenazi service is beautiful as well, more melodic and introspective. They both move me in different ways.

This year, I realized that this alternating approach has become a tradition. I didn’t question it. It’s now “what I do.”

I wonder sometimes whether I’m confusing my kids — whether I should just commit to one synagogue or community and stick with it. But I also want them to experience the vibrancy of the Jewish tradition, and thank God there’s plenty of it in Pico-Robertson.

It’s one of the dilemmas of the modern Jewish experience. After nearly two millennia of living in mostly isolated enclaves, Jews of all colors, customs and traditions are finding themselves next to one another, sometimes in the same neighborhood.

This commingling is challenging our force of habit. Should we stick to our traditions or should we be open to sampling new ones?

If my tradition is to daven a certain way, or observe only certain rituals, how can I justify changing it? Why go against my own tradition?

I know that davening and shul memberships are personal things, which complicates any notion of communal “shul hopping.” 

But I do have an easier answer for the dilemma of “mitzvah hopping.”

If you have labeled yourself as someone who “doesn’t do” certain rituals, don’t worry about feeling like a flake or a hypocrite if you get the urge to do them only occasionally. 

As Rabbi Schwartz elegantly explains, “God counts only the mitzvahs you do, not the ones you don’t.”

Even if it’s only reciting a prayer on Yom Kippur, or building a little hut on Sukkot.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com