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Rating the "High Holidays"

WHAT IS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN during the annual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tefillot (aka “services”)? Based on the liturgy, the Torah and Haftarah readings, the rabbi’s sermons, and the nature of the holidays themselves, one might expect services to be “rated” on their ability to provoke, support and sustain the work of teshuvah (repentance/resolve/restoration). After all, most of the “work” should be done by each praying person, confronting her/his own sins and shortcomings and thinking deeply about how to set life on a more godly course.

What we frequently refer to as “the High Holidays” are more accurately described by their appellation, the 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, the inversion of the Hebrew term is more accurate: These can be “awful days,” by which reputations and even employment may be 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” can have a quite literal meaning.

Increasingly, it is the habit, at the end of the fall holiday season, for rabbis to suffer through something called “the High Holiday Review Committee.” Often, these are meetings open to the whole congregation and attended by a disproportionate number of people who have a complaint rather than a compliment.

The operative assumption of such a meeting is that “like/dislike” is the barometer by which the High Holidays are “rated.” Because “like/dislike” is a very subjective dynamic, however, comments at such meetings are often difficult to reconcile. Consider these real-life scenarios:

1. 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, “then you ought to come more often during the year.”

2. One person objects to the Martyrology service on Yom Kippur being moved to the Mincha (afternoon) service, instead of being attached to the Yizkor service planned for the morning. The rabbi explains that in addition to making the morning service even longer, her judgment is that Yizkor plus the Martyrology yields a full hour that is “too heavy.” The person then says that since she is a Holocaust survivor, she is quitting the congregation, if the Martyrology and Yizkor are not reattached.

3. One person objects to the rabbi’s sermons all being about “Judaism,” because she is not “religious,” and there should have been sermons about “current events” (presumably endorsing her viewpoint on those events.) Someone else says, “The rest of the year we can do that; on the holidays, we should be focused 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 postholiday open meeting (tellingly referred to in many communities as the “post-mortem”) functions as if a staged performance were being critiqued, with particular attention to the quality of the “entertainment.” (A contributing factor, no doubt, is the regrettable seasonal metaphor of “selling tickets” to the synagogue services.)

The “review” of the holidays might not be so distressing if the analogy to a stage presentation were at least consistent. If congregations, especially the participatory type of communities that Reconstructionist celebrate, correctly understood that the rabbi is the “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 a stage presentation, someone has to make final decisions. All players — the actors, musicians, costume designer, scenery manager, and so forth — no doubt have clear visions of their own importance and firm opinions about what, from their perspective, needs to be included, accommodated and elevated. Ultimately, however, someone is responsible for looking at the total production and making decisions about what stays and what goes, what happens when, and how much of what each faction wants can be accommodated. The players may not be happy with the decisions, but it is clear that someone has to make them for the production to move forward.

In many congregations, however, something called the “High Holiday Committee” is created. Where once such committees dealt with necessary logistics and supporting services (childcare, assignment of ritual honors, ushering, etc.), it is now often the case that such committees compete with the rabbi for control and content of the services. They disempower rabbis from their central role as “director” of the Yamim Noraim services.

With the exception of a rabbi who has just arrived at a congregation, rabbis are the best readers of their communities and best able to shape a service that enables those davenning to be supported in their spiritual work. Rabbis usually know how much Hebrew and English are needed for the majority of the community to be comfortable and connected for much (not all!) of the time. Rabbis are the best judges of how long the services should be: not short enough to satisfy the “I have one hour to give you” people, and not long enough to satisfy the “How could we have left out the. . . .” people, but long enough to offer a serious encounter with serious issues without dissipating people’s energy and attention. Rabbis most often have the best knowledge of what is mandatory, what is customary, what is movable and what is dispensable. And rabbis are the best judges of the content of their own sermons: They know what they want to say and teach.

It is important for feedback to be solicited. The problem with the “High Holiday review committee,” however, is that it does not shape a conversation that emerges from a context, but functions instead as a “customer-satisfaction” survey.

Monitoring the appropriateness of modes of tefillah in a given community should be an ongoing responsibility shared by the rabbi and a standing committee, each of whom, working together, looks at the liturgical rhythms of the entire year, not just the events of a few days each autumn. Evaluating the balance between tradition and innovation in response to the constituencies of a community ought to be a constant concern, not an abstract issue raised only in the context of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Making decisions on ritual policy issues should not fall to an ad hoc committee that legislates for the Yamim Noraim, but should occur within the context of the standing committee that wrestles with such issues all year, on behalf of the congregation.

The standing committee (often called “religious practices” or “the ritual committee”) ought to be where a constant conversation is maintained about how well the community is served in response to spiritual issues and opportunities. If the committee wants to make the first meeting after Simchat Torah an open one, then the chair should set the tone of the meeting by asking the right questions. These might 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 p

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

“Given that this year we decided to try the following innovation [fill in the blank], do we think we have enough sense of the response either 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?”

We Reconstructionists say we want our congregations to be communities, not just membership associations. We affirm in our movement’s report, The Rabbi-Congregation Relationship: A Vision for the 21st Century, that we want there to be covenantal relationships among congregants and between rabbis and congregations. We advocate for lay-rabbinic partnership but we also affirm rabbinic leadership. If we truly believe in these positions, then one way to have them influence the culture of our religious communities is to rethink and revise the ways in which we plan and assess the tefillot for the Yamim Noraim.

Rabbis should not have to wrestle with ad hoc High Holiday committees for control of the services, and congregations should not ask their volunteer committee members to referee personal preferences at post-holiday meetings. If we want our communities to fulfill the high expectations we have for them, we need to think in terms of “we” and not “me.”

Type: RT Article

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