We who are part of a minority within a minority, ‘religious’ Jews of various hues and degrees, are in the midst of a fascinating, exhausting, but, for me at any rate, uplifting and exciting month.
Since mid August we started thinking and preparing for the Ten Days of Penitence; getting up earlier than usual, saying Psalm 27, blowing the Shofar and for some, saying Selichot (special poems of atonement). Then came the two ‘heavy’ days of Rosh Hashana. After they passed, the spiritual tempo rose even higher, until it all culminated on Yom Kippur.
The moment the climax passes, we switch, quite dramatically, into the sensual and natural delights and joyful mood of Succot. Its very different celebrations continue through the week and conclude with Simchat Torah, the happiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Almost every part of this is an existential process. It is religion at its least theological, least cerebral, and most experiential. Of course, ideas and thoughts are crucial. But, in fact, they give way to sounds and feelings which strikes chords, teases at memories, and somehow connect even the most secular with their heritage.
The predominant communal activity of this period is prayer. This is surprising if you consider that in Biblical Judaism there was no formal prayer at all. Public religion was sanctuary based. On the Day of Atonement men and women would have gathered at dawn in the Temple simply to observe the theatrical performances of the priests. The only prayers were those which the High Priest offered on behalf of the community and a private one when he came out of the Holy of Holies in one piece. Otherwise, apart from Levites singing, the ordinary Jew (and some non-Jews too) was no more than a spectator. According to the Mishna, after the ceremonies on Yom Kippur, they would pour out of the Temple to celebrate at home, in families, and then the unmarried youngsters would go out to dance in the vineyards--the girls to display themselves and the young men to choose their wives. For the average Jew, only these visits to Jerusalem afforded a sense of national belonging. History and destruction of the Temples changed all that, and a great deal more.
When Jews were exiled from their homeland and the Temples were destroyed, there was no communal activity that drew practising Jews together. To compensate, they produced the study houses and then the synagogues. There formal prayer was introduced. Since then, prayer has been the essential communal activity of Judaism, while of course the home and private practise have, in theory at least, remained paramount.
According to Maimonides, the Torah requires us all to pray, to express ourselves to God in our own manner and times. The Bible is full of people praying and there are ten different words that mean ‘prayer'. The most common and general Hebrew term we use now, Tefilla, is best translated as ‘express oneself’, rather than the English meaning of prayer, ‘to ask for'. But the formalized prayer we have nowadays is a far cry from this original intent.
Anyone seriously interested in a relationship with the Divine will try to find some way of reaching out, in language or spirit, trying to communicate. At the very least, I would compare it to psychotherapy. One treats God as a sort of counsellor in space, to whom we can reveal our inner conflicts, and release our pent-up frustrations. But this is not what we tend to do in synagogue. There we are slaves to a preordained structure of words and an agenda, however universal and specific at different times, that the ancients have created for us. The accretions of custom and time have extended the services (contrary, can you believe it, to the Talmud which sought to reduce the length of services on festivals to allow more time at home) and, in fact, now tend to inhibit real personal expression.
Maimonides said that formal prayers were only introduced initially when the Babylonian exiles, brought up in an alien culture, lost the language and skill of self-expression. You might want to argue the Shema is a Biblical prayer, but it is not called ‘prayer'. It is described as a ‘reading’ in our halachic literature. The first unambiguous reference to praying three times a day comes in the exilic book of Daniel. Then words were provided for them, to help. It was in the second century in Yavneh that Shimon Hapikuli, under Rabban Gamliel, established the wording of the core of our present liturgy.
But it was never intended that these words should entirely replace private prayer. They were only intended to became the tools of communal prayer, which replaced sacrifices. That is why it is possible to come to a Minyan and gabble through the words at breakneck speed--precisely because it is attendance and participation that is essential. Private expression on the other hand, need not be in a synagogue. It can be done anywhere. It’s just that we moderns rarely do it. And that is why, over time, the rabbis, poets, and mystics created new prayers and allowed for people to add their petitions within the formal structure.
I believe we need to relearn the art of spiritual self-expression. So after we have said all our communal prayers, and done our public duty in all its various forms, we ought to be attending to our own words and thoughts. Now and for the rest of the year we should be creating our own private spiritual routines. We should not think of religion as something focused on synagogue, or even exclusively on practise either. Time to meditate, to be alone with our reflections, is essential for a healthy mind and a creative spirit. And this is best done outside of the synagogue.
But enough with the heavy stuff. May I wish you a Chag Sameach, a joyful festival. To those of you sleeping in the Succah, I hope the bed bugs ( or mosquitoes) don’t bite. And when waving your lulavs, do try to avoid poking your neighbours eyes out!
Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com