Over Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I attended two services at two very different synagogues, each with a completely different orientation towards Judaism.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I went to a “secular” Jewish service in lower Manhattan with a congregation that focuses on the social justice tradition of Judaism rather than the religious aspect. The Torah wasn’t read during the service and the term “God” was used sparingly, and only with quotes around His name. The prayer book was self-published, and included a mixture of traditional prayers, songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and passages by Nelson Mandela and President Obama.
In the middle of the service, the spiritual leader, an attractive woman with fiery red hair, asked the members of the congregation to share their successes from the past year. How did they made the world a better place?
One by one, the congregants stood up, telling stories of their commitment to the outside world. One young man, dressed casually, and sporting a tattoo on his neck, spoke of volunteering at a homeless shelter. A well-heeled couple said they quit their corporate jobs to start a charity to help sick children in Africa. An older woman mentioned her work at the Central Park Conservancy, planting trees. At the end of the service, the congregation left the temple with a concrete message — there are good people out there, role models, who inspire us to do better things with our lives.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I attended a Modern Orthodox temple in the Upper West Side. The members all seemed to be professionals — doctors, lawyers, and students at Columbia University — individuals comfortable in the modern world, but still attracted to the traditions of the Orthodox world. A cloth barrier in the middle of the room separated the men and the women, right and left. Since this was a forward-looking group, there were attempts to modernize the ways of the Orthodox movement. While the rabbi read from the Torah on the men’s side of the barrier, it was a female spiritual leader who made the traditional Rosh Hashanah sermon from the woman’s side.
The main difference between the secular service and the Modern Orthodox service was that here — God was everywhere. His name was repeated over and over, his power lauded and praised. The Jewish New Year was a serious business of repenting and asking for forgiveness for our sins, in preparation for the holiest of the Jewish holidays – Yom Kippur.
One of the central High Holy Day prayers is a recitation of all of the possible sins that happened during the year, from small to large, spoken out loud, simultaneously, as a group. Everyone asks for forgiveness for all the sins, some as serious as murder, even if the individual is not directly responsible, as if the entire community is held accountable for the break in the fabric of society.
Day one, at the secular service: There is no God. Each individual aims to become a role model to inspire the others.
Day two, at the Orthodox service: There is a God. Until the world is perfect, we are all responsible for the sins of man. We look within to see our our failings, and share it with the larger community.
Which of these is a better way of viewing the world? In many ways, it is a question I ask myself every day when I write on my blog. Do I want to appeal to your aspirations, positioning myself as a teacher or authority figure out to inspire you with my thoughts and good actions (I donated to the Red Cross; you should too!), or do I want to share with you my failings, letting you feel comfortable with your own imperfections (I am fearful; are you?)