One of my favorite things about Judaism is struggle. We are the People who are destined to struggle with God (Am Yisrael). This is our inheritance—a good thing! That said, when it comes to the High Holy Days, I often wish there were just a little less struggle involved.
The concept of God and the practice of maintaining a meaningful relationship with God are challenging on any day of the year. But the language of the High Holy Days, especially as it defines and describes God, has always added to that challenge for me. As a high school student I was so alienated by God’s roles as presented in U’n’taneh Tokef especially, but really throughout the machzor, that I would simply choose not to attend High Holy Day services. As a late-teenager and early twenty-something, these images of God significantly contributed to my decision to identify as an atheist. I simply could not relate to this anthropomorphic, male, judge. In rabbinical school, no longer an atheist, I spent individual class sessions, seminars, and even an entire semester wrestling with the God imagery of the machzor, not only for myself, but so that I could attempt to support others in their journeys through the Yamim Nora’im.
Language is at the heart of this God struggle. The words used to capture and define an experience as vast as God will of course be inadequate. And, while the original Hebrew of the traditional machzor is an obstacle for me, the English of Gates of Repentance turns a fence into a solid wall. Each year I am more frustrated with our outdated text, and ever more eager for our movement’s new machzor.
This year, our congregation piloted the draft Yom Kippur afternoon service from the new machzor. It turns out that my enthusiasm is not unfounded. I felt immediately more at home in this service than I do in Gates of Repentance. As I do, our new prayer book understand the service experience as a journey—almost a choose-your-own adventure. There are multiple options for different prayers, opportunities for individual reflection, and even guiding questions for small group discussion. I see each of these approaches as a way of helping service participants to overcome the obstacles of accessibility that are, I think, inherent especially in High Holy Day prayer.
And then there’s the language. In an earlier post to this blog (“Faithful Translations”), Rabbi Leon Morris draws our attention to the incredible care that has gone into the translation of Hebrew text. I find these translations infinitely richer and more accessible than their equivalents in Gates of Repentance. But for me, it’s the recognition of struggle that is present in so many of the English alternative readings that really supported me in my own prayer on Yom Kippur afternoon. These readings both honor and elevate the challenges of the big concepts of the Yamim Noraim—forgiveness, starting over, living up to our own potential—as well as of course the challenges of the imagery used to describe God.
A most excellent example of these readings is Avinu Malkeinu: A Prayer of Protest, written by Rabbis Janet and Shelly Marder (reprinted in Rabbi Leon Morris’ post to this blog, “How ‘current’ should a prayer book be?”). Avinu Malkeinu is not a prayer that I find too difficult as a result of its presentation of God—thanks, in large part, to the study I did with Rabbi Richard Levy as a rabbinical student!—but by the time we reach Yom Kippur afternoon, we have recited this prayer at every service of the High Holidays, we are exhausted and hungry, and it’s just plain difficult to find the same kavanah [intention] for this final repetition that we may have had for the earlier recitations. This Prayer of Protest was, both for me and for several of my congregants who commented on it afterwards, a shot in the arm as we moved into our concluding services. It reminded us to look around the room and see the people with whom we were sharing this moment. It reminded us of our purpose for being present in the synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon. And, of course, it reminded us that this process of struggle, this protest, is a tremendous gift. Ultimately, it reminded us of who we are. We are Am Yisrael, the People Who Will Struggle With God.
Rabbi Rebekah Stern is the Assistant Rabbi at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame California.
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