CAN WE STILL PRAY?
A Dilemma of Modernity and a Response
by Rabbi Isaac Jeret
September 15, 2008
The High Holy Days pose for many of us in our era a great challenge of faith. In times past, when beliefs were absolute and ritual was taken most literally by many more of us, the drama of the worship experience of the High Holy Days held a sense of urgency, as our ancestors understood their very existence for the coming year to have depended upon these Services and how they engaged them. Most worshippers felt, or thought they should have felt, an awesome and humbling sense of personal and communal judgment in God's Presence. Hence, the term, "The Days of Awe," used traditionally to refer to the ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.
For many Jews today, as for many faith-associating individuals throughout Western Civilization, religious identity and experience has been greatly influenced by the contemporary disciplines of the Sciences. Scientific truths and religious truths do not align, for the most part. A scientific finding is best articulated in terms of that which we do not know, as opposed to the historically religious virtue of "being certain of spiritual truths, with a perfect faith." We now know that many emotional, genetic, sociological, and psychological factors drive people to act as they do. People are not only driven by the knowledge and awareness of right and wrong or a simplistic view of good and evil that ancient religion might appear to have had us understand to be the root of all human motivation. We live today in a civilization that is blessed with the possibility of tolerance, born of a humility and uncertainty that arises from an awareness of all that we do not know, countering at once both age-old and born-again fundamentalist ideologies that prevail, even today, in certain corners of the world (and gaining power and proximity to us every day).
To be sure then, we are challenged as Jews at this time of year to make meaning of our own religious heritage, a tradition which presents in its High Holy Day liturgy a vast array of absolute ideas that seem more common to the religious criteria for truth (a perfect faith) that many of us have abandoned for the Scientific truth-criteria of our age. Consider this most familiar Judaic theme for this period of our calendar and its dissonance with so much that our scientifically influenced perceptions would encourage us to imagine: "On Rosh Hashanah we are inscribed and on Yom Kippur we are sealed (our fate for the coming year is inscribed and sealed during this period of the Jewish calendar)." If we are honest about it, how many of us believe that God listens to our prayers (with God's ears?), judges the measure of penitence in our hearts (with a gavel?), and determines our fate for the coming year (does God not have anything better to do than determine whether we catch a common cold?)? If the notion is to be proposed literally, few of us would be able to answer honestly that we so believe. If the challenge of these High Holy Days is, to some extent, to emerge with a more perfect faith, how can we do so in light of the uncertainty that under-girds the contemporary culture with which we so identify? Can we reconcile a Jewish statement of absolute faith with a world of scientific uncertainty? If not, how can our High Holy Day experience exceed a nostalgic journey to a (Jewish) world of simplistic and antiquated truths and familiar melodies, garnished with brisket, matzah balls, and tzimmis?
I would suggest, instead, that in our era, a break from the subjective and relative realities that frame our lives -- a break from the scientific lenses through which we have been trained to understand our own experience -- is exactly what might most effectively inspire our own reflection and the self-corrections that we must undertake at this time of year, both to improve our own lives and to make our world a better place. The High Holy Days do not require and do not intend for us to achieve any enduring faith in the words of their liturgy. We do not score any points with God for donning a literal belief or adhering to the metaphors for God's Being and Deeds and to the Divinely ordained destiny of our own fate as they are portrayed in our liturgy.
Rather, my dear friends, our liturgy asks of us the following: If all of the suppositions of these prayers would be factual, if God would indeed inscribe our fate, if the gates of Teshuvah (penitence) would really close at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, if Teshuvah and repair could indeed be facilitated in greater measure at this time of year than at any other, if the world of our liturgy was the world we lived in every day -- how, then, would we adjust our existence? How then would we conduct our affairs? How then would we live our lives?
Our liturgy invites us into a passionate and urgent virtual-reality in which our lives and our fate do truly hang in the balance. The more wholly we enter this drama, suspending our disbelief and experiencing its greatest power, the more whole we might emerge from it. Underneath all of the theological, psychological, and scientific progress that we've made as human beings, each of us can benefit still from a brief return to a simple world of rights and wrongs, of ultimate rather than relative accountability and responsibility, and of an urgency to repair that awaits our correction. We need this return, not because it is a return to a world of truth from a world of falsehood, but rather because a momentary return to a more simple but personally responsible world of the past might be one of the sole opportunities left to humanity to heal a world that might best remain otherwise in the uncertain and far more complicated contemporary present. Both worlds are true. Both worlds are necessary -- each in their moment.
Our High Holy Days can be for us solely and merely a return to the comfort of nostalgia. If so, however, they can serve only as a lesser opportunity for spiritual and personal growth and improvement for us, in our era, than they did so for our ancestors of eras past. Alternatively, we can utilize this sacred time to improve ourselves and the world about us, precisely by entering the drama of our liturgy -- suspending our disbelief and allowing for different truths to emerge than we know daily -- and thereby gaining perspective and motivation to awaken to one another more genuinely and compassionately at the end of this sacred journey of ten days from the start of Rosh Hashanah to the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Should we accept this challenge, then, because of the tolerance, pluralism, and humility that we can nurture in our contemporary world, we, in our era, might exceed even the greatest measure of healing and repair that our ancestors ever achieved at this time of year in eras gone by.
God asks not from us a perfect faith at the conclusion of these awesome days. Rather, God asks of us to measure for ourselves whom we must become by the conclusion of this period. To emerge from these Days of Awe as we ought, we might enter into the experience of the timeless, solemn, simple, exuberant, majestic, and very urgent prayers of our People – then and now, and always. Through the timeless genius of our Divinely gifted spiritual heritage, God blesses us with this extraordinary opportunity for renewal. May our journeys through the transformational drama of our worship lead all of us toward a destination of wholeness and deepening wisdom.