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.