November 20, 2019

The High Holy Days: Something meaningful, or just going through the motions?

Most of us who go to synagogue for the High Holy Days have no clue what’s going on.

We don’t speak or read Hebrew well enough to understand the prayers or the Torah portion. We don’t know why we say the prayers in the order we say them. We don’t like the stilted English translations. Many of us don’t even believe in God, or religion. It’s true: Jews are the least religious of all adherents. According to Gallup, only 38 percent of us consider ourselves religious, while 54 percent of us self-describe as nonreligious and 2 percent as atheist. Meanwhile, almost 80 percent attend synagogue on the High Holy Days.

To summarize: Most of us spend a dozen hours in synagogue and hundreds of dollars on tickets to pray in a language we don’t understand to a God we don’t believe in.  


The answer is: For a lot of different reasons. Some Jews, of course, do understand and do believe, so that’s a lock. Many of us are groping our way toward understanding and belief. Others like the tradition, the feeling of community, the chance to hear a sermon, the feeling they get participating in a ritual. Many go out of guilt or habit or superstition. 

I suspect that it’s often a mix of these motivations that compel us, in varying amounts, depending on the year. Anyway, who said you have to understand what’s going on in order to be moved? Ritual is a human desire, like music. You don’t need to understand it, or play it, or “believe” in it to be changed by it.

My friend Jon Drucker  belongs to what I suspect is a large subset of Jews who know and understand a lot, but who are still deeply skeptical. I asked him why he bothers to go, then. He quoted back to me a joke that Woody Allen tells in Annie Hall to explain relationships: A guy tells his psychiatrist, “My brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken.” The doc says, “Why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would but I need the eggs.”

Jon said he goes to synagogue for the eggs.

There is something crazy, irrational and absurd about the Days of Awe in the City of Angels. Tens of thousands of people step outside the daily rhythms of their lives, leave behind their modern homes, their cars, their jobs and gather to hear the sound of a hollowed-out ram’s horn and the chanting of words written on a sheepskin scroll.  

Last year, I watched a man park his Tesla near the Venice Pier, walk to the seashore, throw old bread into the waves, then get back into his 21st-century technological miracle and drive away. There is no way the scene would have made sense to anyone who hadn’t heard of tashlich

But these scenes repeat themselves, all over the city. Dressed in our modern clothes, we re-create the most ancient of rituals. We have everything we need, but we still need this.

What is this?

Sigmund Freud was one of those Jews who didn’t speak Hebrew, who didn’t believe in the sacred texts, and who had no, as he called them, “nationalist impulses.” Why then, he wondered, did Judaism have such a claim on him? What remained? 

“A very great deal,” he wrote, “and probably its very essence.”

What Freud called the essence, what my friend Jon calls the eggs, I think it all circles around the same need, the same idea: teshuvah.

Teshuvah means returning. The High Holy Days are an elaborate extended ritual of return — to get us to turn back toward our true selves, toward what we know is right, toward what believers would call God and what the rest would call our essence.

“Our human longing to return to the Source is fully part of the natural order,” Rabbi Arthur Green writes. “We are born to be God seekers.”

This is not a Jewish thing; it’s a human thing. Judaism offers a way. That’s the reason so many of us find ourselves stepping into synagogues at this time of year — it’s our outward response to our inward call. Two thousand years later, not Leonardo, not Edison, not even Elon Musk, has improved on the design of the shofar. 

We go because we have a feeling that while it may not in and of itself work or even make much sense, it’s a step in the right direction. It helps. We live in a society whose every moment and every message tells us, “Get moving, go forward!” This time of year, something calls out to us from within and says, “Here’s a better idea: Stop, and go deep.”

Shanah tovah.