The great importance that Jews give to attending services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a most interesting phenomenon. After all, the central religious motifs of these holidays are far removed from the issues and symbols that have captured the imagination of world Jewry in our times.
The Yamim Noraim, the days of awe, do not re-enact key moments in the history of the Jewish people as do the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The concepts of historical memory and peoplehood are not essential for defining the days' significance. Given the importance of the Holocaust and rebirth of the state of Israel in shaping contemporary Jewish consciousness, one would expect that a holiday such as Passover would serve as a more meaningful metaphor for national solidarity for most modern Jews.
The theological orientation of the High Holy Days stands in sharp contrast to that of the historical festivals. One cannot open up the prayer book of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without reflecting on the notions of sin, guilt and accountability. The prayers graphically portray a sense of awe and trepidation before the divine judge and a longing for spiritual renewal and tshuvah (repentance).
If Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not to be trivialized into national Jewish identity days, we must seek ways of retrieving some of the central theological metaphors that inform the liturgy of the High Holy Days.
The awe and dread of God's judgment need to be reinterpreted if they are to speak to a modern Jewish sensibility. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur awaken us to think about what it means to live in a universe in which one proclaims that the ultimate ground of all being is a personal God. Biblical descriptions of sin and guilt are far more powerful notions than simply making a mistake or failing to realize one's human potential. The yearning for purity and atonement (tahara and kapparah) suggests that sinful behavior touches the very core of our being and creates a sense of estrangement from God. How modern Jews make sense of the biblical understanding of sin and guilt is crucial for retrieving our covenantal relationship with God and the significance of a life of mitzvot.
The theme of proclaiming God's majesty and judgment on Rosh Hashanah implies that no human being or human institution — be it family, community or nation state — is above judgment. In a world infused with the spirit of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, accountability is the defining feature of the human.
The poetry and text of the liturgy bring human "creaturely" accountability into focus by reminding us of the frailty and vulnerability of human existence: "Who will live and who will die." The themes of finitude and mortality, of contingency and accident, of the inexplicable and the tragic dimensions of life are not meant to instill terror and fear or to remind us of the multiple ways human beings can suffer death, but to heighten awareness of human finitude so as to increase the seriousness with which we relate to everyday life.
The shocking language of the liturgy and the piercing sounds of the shofar are meant to waken us from our existential slumber. They were intended to create a sense of urgency. No one has a contract guaranteeing the future. The sage, Hillel, understood this sense of immediacy and urgency when he said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?…If not now, when?"
We must find a way for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to communicate a serious spirit of worship and humility; we must counteract the vulgarity of turning Kol Nidre and the Yom Kippur fast into yet another preoccupation with diet and self-control. When I was in the rabbinate, I often had the strange feeling that for many of my congregants, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were wonderful days for successful United Jewish Appeal or Israel Bond fund-raisers. In my first pulpit there was excitement in welcoming Kol Nidre because of the opportunity for the synagogue to make a successful appeal to meet its budget.
Our ability to breathe new life into the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur holidays will depend on how the Jewish people will once again rehabilitate their God-consciousness. The fundamental concepts of Judaism — mitzvah and kedusha, commandment and holiness — become hollow unless a person will reflect seriously and intelligently on what God means for his or her spiritual life.
Throughout history the people of Israel saw itself as God's beloved. The "Song of Songs" was interpreted as a dramatic metaphor describing the passionate love affair between Israel and God.
Jews made great sacrifices to continue Jewish life because they believed that there was something of ultimate importance in the continuity of the Jewish people. Human history required Israel to bear witness to the presence of God in the world.
People touched by the vision of the prophets believe that God has a stake in how Jews conduct their lives. It is my fervent hope that nationalism and the enormous focus on survival will not be pursued at the expense of the spiritual worldview that originally gave significance to our survival.
For serious Jewish youth to identify with the Jewish community, they must find a way to understand the Living God of Israel. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provide us with the opportunity to discover the moral and spiritual power in a life of faith. The concern for the well-being of the state of Israel or the Holocaust must not become the new religion of the Jews. We dare not separate loyalty to the Jewish people from loyalty to Torah. To do so would be spiritual and physical suicide and the greatest threat to Jewish continuity.
Without serious reflection on how Jews were meant to bear witness to God in history, all our efforts at promoting Jewish continuity will end up being hollow programmatic techniques without any lasting effect on Jewish history. How wonderful it is that Jews throughout the world intuitively understand that, at least on Yom Kippur, they must be present in the synagogue.