The High Holy Days for liberal Jews, literally

The High Holy Days for liberal Jews, literally

Ninety percent of American Jews are not Orthodox. More than half of those Jews will find their way into a synagogue at some point during the High Holy Days and hear rabbis speak on a host of contemporary Jewish issues. How about the central question of God? Does God really care if you are in shul on the Hi Ho’s? Does God care if you eat veal parmigiana during the other days of the year?

The questions go to the core of what many Jews think to themselves as they sit through what may seem like unending hours of repetitive prayers on these holidays. “God thinking” frequently goes something like this: “I believe in God. But does God really care if I am here today, or if I eat shellfish, or if I use my cellphone on Shabbat?” Which leads to an even larger question: “Why be Jewish? Why do all this stuff? Who says so?”

The Orthodox rabbi’s answer may be simple and direct: God said/commands the whole thing. Not only does God care but He will likely reward you for obeying or punish you if you don’t.

But the non-Orthodox rabbi will answer: yes and no. Yes, it is because of God that you should be here today — and refrain from eating that cheeseburger the rest of the year. And no, because God does not explicitly say, “Be here, and by the way, don’t eat that veal parmigiana either.”

I know that such an answer seems contradictory and frustrating. I can make it clearer with an analogy of an experience many of you will have: While sitting at the dinner table with family and friends after returning from the synagogue on Rosh Hashana, the discussion often turns to the subject matter of the rabbi’s speech. Even though everyone sat in the same sanctuary and heard the same words, the impressions and interpretations of the speech will be varied and differing.

That analogy is how it worked long ago at Mount Sinai in the encounter between God and the Jewish people. The non-Orthodox rabbi believes that God was majestically present at Mount Sinai and that His presence was so overwhelming that our ancestors recorded this divine summit and their responses to it. We call those impressions the Torah.

Our people continued to write down their experiences as the generations unfolded in the generations that followed in the diverse geographic locations where Jews resided. So the Torah we have is a sacred response of the Jewish people to God’s mysterious presence at Mount Sinai, even if it is not, verbatim, the words of God to Moses.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the famed philosopher and theologian, wrote: “The surest way of misunderstanding revelation is to take it literally, to imagine that God spoke to the prophet on a long-distance telephone. Yet most of us succumb to such fancy, forgetting that the cardinal sin in thinking about ultimate issues is literal-mindedness.”

So Judaism is grounded in the divine-human encounter. For shorthand, we call that “revelation.” God was there at the summit. The recorded responses to Sinai in the Torah are ours. The Torah tells us to be in the synagogue to hear the shofar in shul on these days, what to eat, and how to keep Shabbat.

What makes the Torah sacred is not that it is the literal word of God, but that it is the collective response of the Jewish people to God’s presence. That’s the foundational belief that compels us to be here in the synagogue on the High Holy Days, and, indeed, to be Jews.

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