I’d Give It a 7... It Had a Good Beat, and You Can Daven to It

Opinion

By Richard Hirsh

Published September 05, 2007, issue of September 07, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

What we frequently refer to as the High Holy Days are more accurately described by their Hebrew appellation: Yamim Noraim, the “Days of Awe.” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to be significant because of the weighty confrontation with ultimate issues that they embody, especially issues of morality and mortality.

For many rabbis, however, another translation of Yamim Noraim is more accurate: these can be “awful days,” a mere three out of 365 by which reputations and even employment are often measured. For rabbis whose contracts are up for renewal, the prayer refrain “On Rosh Hashanah it is decreed, and on Yom Kippur it is decided… who will live and who will die” has a quite literal meaning.

At the end of the fall holidays, many rabbis suffer through something called “the High Holiday Review Committee.” Often these are meetings open to the whole congregation, and as is the nature of such meetings, they are often attended by a disproportionate number of people who have a complaint rather than a compliment.

The operative assumption of such a meeting is that liking or disliking is the barometer by which the High Holy Days are evaluated. But because liking or disliking is by nature subjective, comments at such meetings often cancel each other out.

Consider the following scenario, drawn from an actual post-High Holy Day review meeting: One person objects to the holiday nusach used for chanting the Shema, and wants the familiar and friendly Shabbat melody. The next person replies that he comes expecting to hear the holiday nusach because it is different. The first person retorts that she does not come much during the year, and likes hearing what she knows, to which the second person replies that she ought to come more often during the year.

Or this: One person objects to the Martyrology service on Yom Kippur being moved to the afternoon Mincha service, instead of being attached to the morning Yizkor service. The rabbi explains that in addition to making the morning service even longer, her judgment is that the Yizkor service plus the Martyrology yields a period of up to a full hour that is too heavy. The person then says that since she is a Holocaust survivor, if the Martyrology and Yizkor are not reattached, she is quitting the congregation. Or this: One person objects to the rabbi’s sermons all being about Judaism, saying she is not religious; instead, she says, there should have been sermons about current events. Someone else replies that such matters can be dealt with the rest of the year; on the holidays, the focus should be on more spiritual things.

Where did the idea arise that the Yamim Noraim services need to be reviewed? This is not, after all, a Broadway show, yet too often the post-holiday open meeting — tellingly referred to in many communities as the “postmortem” — functions as if a staged performance is being critiqued, with particular attention to the quality of the entertainment.

The review of the holidays might not be so distressing if the analogy to a stage presentation were at least consistent. If congregations correctly understood that the rabbi is, and needs to be, in the role of director, then the accountability assigned to the rabbi after the services would at least correlate with the responsibility assigned to the rabbi before the services.

In the theater, someone is ultimately responsible for looking at the bigger picture, at the total production, and making decisions about what stays and what goes, where things happen, how much of what each faction wants can be accommodated and what is going to be cut. The customers, musicians and actors may not all be happy with the decisions, but someone has to make them.

Synagogue High Holy Day committees used to deal with necessary logistics such as childcare, assignment of ritual honors and ushering. Now such committees often compete with the rabbi for control and content of the services.

Put differently, such committees disempower rabbis from their central role as the director of the Yamim Noraim services — the one who, with a vision of the whole, must make necessary decisions between competing factions and among competing wants and needs in order to shape a service that enables those davening to be supported in their spiritual work.

It is important for feedback to be solicited; the problem with High Holy Day review committees is that they do not shape a conversation that emerges from a context, but function instead as something like a customer-satisfaction focus group, with volunteer committee members refereeing among personal preferences.

The chair of such a committee should instead set the tone of the meeting by asking the right questions. By way of example, these could, include:

“Given the diverse nature of our community, did our services manage to provide comfortable access for most people?”

“Given the need to balance personal reflection and prayer with communal participation and congregational singing, did our services allow enough time for both?”

“Given that many of our members are familiar with the liturgy while many others are not, did our services hit a reasonable balance between fidelity to the core structure and innovation?”

“Given that this year we decided to try a new innovation, do we have enough sense of the response to try it again, drop it, or modify it?”

“Given that we assign the final responsibility for shaping the Yamim Noraim services to the rabbi, are there suggestions you might want to offer to her for consideration for next year?”

“Given that there are many opportunities for spiritual enrichment, what was one moment during the services that you felt was particularly powerful for our community?”

For our communities to fulfill the high expectations we have for them, we need to think in terms of “we” and not “me.” Congregants should come to the Yamim Noraim with the expectation of working on teshuvah, and then rate the services in terms of how well the services supported that work. That will be an authentic indicator of how well a community and its rabbi work together to accomplish the holy work of the season of repentance.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The gang's all here!
  • "Neither the 'blood feud' nor the 'honor killing' theory of Abu Khdeir's murder ever made sense — and their manufacture constituted a blood libel against all Palestinians." What do you think?
  • Why hasn't the Zionist Organization of American condemned the revenge killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir?
  • Why recognize an independent Kurdistan now?
  • So. Many. Nazi. Jokes.
  • Once a symbol of peaceful cohabitation, the Jerusalem light rail is now a prime target for violence.
  • "My wife and I are observant Jews who are heartbroken about the fact that both of our children married non-Jews. My daughter married out first, and is now raising non-Jewish children and grandchildren and even celebrates Christmas. As for my son, he is more observant than my daughter, but still a few years ago I found out he was living with a non-Jewish woman for nine years. She is not a stable woman, emotionally or physically, and now she is pregnant and will not convert. I do not visit my children in their homes, but am pleasant when they visit us. My wife says I need to move on and welcome their partners in our home. So where to from here?"
  • These women have encountered unusual mikveh experiences and survived to tell the tale: "Among them are the adventurous vacationer who battles sharks and surfers to dunk in the freezing waters of the Indian Ocean, the mikveh attendant who is an aspiring opera star, and the late night mikveh goer who gets locked inside."
  • The revenge killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir has shaken even those with strong notions about the Mideast. Cartoonist Eli Valley takes a look at one American Jew's crisis of confidence: http://jd.fo/d48ez
  • We caught up with Zach Braff about his new (and Jew-y) movie Wish I Was Here, his own Jewish upbringing and his bar mitzvah theme (Spoiler: Broadway musical theater.) Click on for an exclusive clip from the movie!
  • One set belonged to Noah Jacobson, singer for The Maccabeats, and another to David Malka, personal chef to the Lubavitcher rebbe!
  • You know you want to try these.
  • "What did you expect?"
  • "Fort Kent seemed at once a fairy tale and a tragedy: We were kings, but it didn’t work out." http://jd.fo/a42iC Josh Nathan-Kazis traveled to a tiny Maine town in search for his roots. He found the tale of Jake Etscovitz, the "Potato King," who built a Jewish life in the wilderness — and spent his life dressed for Fifth Ave.
  • Presented for your humble viewing: A video of Tom Hanks, dressed as a rabbi, singing “This Is How We Do It” — courtesy of Justin Bieber.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.