Young Americans increasingly identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. Traditional institutions and structures do not appeal to them. What do the High Holidays have to say to those who find themselves alienated from religious practice but who still seek a spiritual connection?
For the millennial spiritualists, as we might call them, the High Holiday theme of being judged is alienating. So too is the constant imploring for mercy and what many understand to be self-abasement. While I believe this is partly a misunderstanding and that the themes of the High Holidays carry a tremendous potency, it makes sense to emphasize that which might be more immediately accessible to those who are estranged but seeking. These messages are not without precedent: All of them have long currency among generations of Jewish spiritualists and seekers.
1. The Quest for Self-Understanding. The High Holidays combine the practice of meditation with the necessity of examining one’s actions. In other words, there are many stretches when the congregation simply sits and reflects. The prayer book is a sort of aid to prompt the dive into self-exploration. “Who are we? What is our life?” Such questions are intended to prompt us to ask more deeply and answer more honestly than is possible in the rush of everyday living. The sounds of the Shema have even been used as a mantra in certain medieval kabbalistic practices.
What marks the Jewish emphasis is that we do not only reflect on our motivations and soul-stirrings, but on the consequences of our actions. Judaism teaches us that to know who you are is to examine what you do. Think of the litany of sins not as a literal recounting of what each of us has done during the year but as a catalyst: What did you do? What effects did you have on the world? This leads to the second point, about the moral balance of society.
2. Redress of the Moral Balance. In the same way that a professional musician will be more critical of her own performance than a casual listener, someone who takes her own soul seriously will be more attuned to areas of improvement. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once ran across a man who insisted he did not need religion since he was a pretty good person. Heschel’s answer was, “Oh, I envy you. I am always saying something that hurts someone, or not saying something kind that might help, or misstep in one way or another. I wish I could be as good as you, but I need God, and I need synagogue to help me be better.”
Heschel understood that self-understanding means knowing the impact you have upon others. Part of the High Holidays is that sort of inventory — what did I do, and how did it touch the lives of those I care about? Spirituality involves an appreciation of your impact in the world.
Therefore, a spirituality that is solitary is not full, which leads to the third point.
3. Alone and Together. Some of our deepest spiritual moments occur when we are alone. To know whether those moments truly changed us, however, we need to return to community. Does the inspiration we felt as the sun was setting carry over to the living room, to the parking lot? After all, none of us lives on mountaintops. We live with others. The deepest High Holiday experience might well be a combination of the two, solitude and society. Perhaps you can go to the ocean and do tashlich (a symbolic casting off of sins) and watch the sun set, or climb a mountain and contemplate the world. Then you get to “test” the durability of the vision by seeing if it can be sustained among others. Reflect on whom you have hurt, and to whom must you make amends. Test your inspiration, for this is part of the elevation of one's own soul. Which leads to the final point.
4. Connection to something higher. Let’s leave all definitions and conceptions of God to one side. The holidays are about connections, both horizontal — to other people — and vertical, or better, multidimensional. Whatever spirit animates the universe, this is the best time in the Jewish tradition to find your place in relation to that spirit.
What all spiritual seekers have in common is we resist the reductionism of “only.” People are not only bodies, the world is not only material, love is not only hormones, altruism is not only self-interest. We intuit a mystery at the heart of things. The High Holidays are a time when we open our souls to that mystery and link arms with others to search along with us.
Many synagogues will feel too formal, or too chaotic. Some will be crowded and others disconcertingly empty. There is always a problem and always a reason to find oneself on the outside of the tradition. But many of the deepest themes of the High Holiday season are those of classical spiritual search: to understand and deepen one’s soul; to be in unity with others; to right the wrongs we have done; to draw closer to the Source of all. Prayers and readings are the scaffolding built around the structure of spirit to enable people to climb. But look beneath — Judaism is still the world’s oldest continuous tradition that teaches people how to grow their souls. Come and grow with us. Shana Tovah Umetukah — wishing all a sweet, safe, and joyous new year.
Rabbi David Wolpe, who writes the Musings column for the paper, is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).