Books CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

How Can We Build a Life of Meaning? Reflections on S’lichot

The S’lichot prayers are traditionally recited on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah to help prepare us for the soul-searching and transformation that we hope to do during the High Holy Days. S’lichot is thus the opening scene of our efforts each Jewish year to build a life of meaning, a life of consequence. 

We want to break through the routines to which we have become accustomed. As we entered adulthood, we developed certain habits that served us well at the time. Some of these are still valuable practices that serve important functions for one reason or another, but many others are useless, pointless, or even counterproductive. Sometimes we develop workarounds that achieve what needs to be done in the moment but not necessarily in the best way. There is a story about a person who takes their car to a mechanic because the brakes aren’t working. When they come back the next day, the mechanic tells them “I couldn’t fix your brakes, but I made your horn louder.” Isn’t that what we have often done when facing challenges in our lives? We did the best we could, patching things over in order to carry on.

Real change is hard. In fact, it’s well-nigh impossible unless there is some sort of burning internal or external motivation. If the doctor were to say to us, “You have one year to live,” then we might go home and, after pouring ourselves a stiff drink, actually decide to change everything, living in a completely different way than we had been up to that point. There are other dramatic moments in life that can compel us to spontaneously reject everything that we have always done and move in a completely different direction.

Yet I don’t think that S’lichot is trying to push us to impetuously change our lives 180 degrees in one evening. So don’t trade in your Ford Explorer for a Porsche. Don’t buy a plane ticket to India in order to spend the rest of your life in an ashram. Don’t book your seat next to Elon Musk to fly off to Mars. Rather, I would argue that what Judaism is asking us to do on S’lichot evening is to evaluate and reevaluate our lives in order to try to realize our full potential for lasting fulfillment.

Several years ago, I was the editor of a CCAR Press volume titled A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path. Our goal was to get people thinking about what Reform Judaism could mean in terms of how we find meaning in our lives. Though published before the pandemic started, the chapters remain timely and relevant. As we enter a reflective mode during this S’lichot season, I hope this book can inspire us to create positive change, both in our communities and in ourselves.

We are reminded by the words in the prayer book that we are granted the gift of life, a gift of uncertain duration but of certain laborious effort. However much we protest or negotiate, this short time is all we get. For many, fate overwhelms, truncates, or destroys their journey. To the best of our knowledge, this is the one life that we have, and we have a sacred obligation to make the most of it. And so, let us pray that this new year 5782 may be a year of wisdom acquired and shared, a year of virtue and the strengthening of our characters, a year of mitzvot and the meaningful practice of ritual, and a year of community and the sharing of our commitment to making the world a better place. May God’s presence in our lives this new year strengthen our souls and renew our spirits.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, PhD, serves Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley in Sun City, Arizona. He is the editor of A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, published by CCAR Press.

Books Reform Judaism

Embracing Reform Judaism: Behind the Scenes of A Life of Meaning

My dream of editing a book on Reform Judaism for the CCAR Press began germinating in college. Late one evening, I wandered into the Judaica section of the library and came across a volume called Reform Judaism: A Historical Perspective, edited by Joseph L. Blau. (I still remember that books dealing with Reform Judaism were numbered 296 by the Dewey Decimal System.) This volume presented a collection of essays originally published in the yearbook of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and archived eighty years’ worth of material most indicative of Reform concerns over that time span.

Compiling material for A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path was a very different task than the one that Blau undertook. We knew that we wanted something broader than a collection that focused on specific issues within our Movement, and we knew that we wanted the volume to address the more existential questions concerning our community at large. Ultimately, we wanted A Life of Meaning to present original works on a spectrum of important topics—something that would both reflect who we are and what we believe today. Perhaps even more importantly, however, we needed to make sure that A Life of Meaning would provide Reform Jews a door into the discussion of what our religion means in today’s world.

I knew that this could not be a single-authored volume; what we envisioned required multiple perspectives on what Judaism means and how this meaning is expressed. Such a volume calls for viewpoints diverse enough to speak to the varying beliefs, practices, and experiences of as many individuals and organizations of the Reform Movement as possible. The challenge was to create a manuscript that simultaneously embodied this diversity while carving a clear path into the heart of what it means to be a Reform Jew, not just for those looking in from the outside, but for every Reform Jew who, at heart, feels any uncertainty about what it means to identify as Reform. We wanted a text that would help them enter into Reform Jewish thought not as an academic discipline, but as a set of core concepts that contribute to making a life of meaning, both for the individual and, perhaps even more importantly, for the members of the Reform community.

Little by little, we began collecting tentative essay topics and titles, then longer descriptions of what each essay might look like and, finally, the essays themselves. The number of authors with whom I was in touch started to expand exponentially, and the diversity within the Reform Movement became even more strikingly clear. I was amazed at the distinct attitudes, approaches, and beliefs of each author in this collection, and was even more amazed by their dramatically varied lifestyles. Despite their differences, however, the congregations and communities to which they belonged or which they led always had much in common.

Putting together a volume of this sort is, as the saying goes, a little bit inspiration and a lot of perspiration—the completed volume is very much a testimony to the many thoughtful and talented people constituting the American Reform Movement today. Contemporary American life just does not fit into the theoretical categories that religious-studies scholars and others have theorized about and expected to find. But our goal is not to prove theoreticians right or wrong; it is to create texts that can serve both as source material for greater knowledge and as sources of spiritual inspiration. We wanted to create a volume to be read, not just by individuals, but by study groups and entire communities. We wanted to create a text that would stand as a living source of discussion and dialogue, promoting Reform Judaism among, first and foremost, those most likely to embrace it.

While it is enormously gratifying to put the project to rest and to see the finished product, it is hard to accept that the many correspondences and discussions involved in creating this book have come to an end. Our hope, of course, is that the published book—whether in print or eBook—will take on a life of its own as a wellspring of discourse that will not only continue to inform, but to transform, our understanding of what it means to embrace Reform Judaism in the worlds of today and tomorrow.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan currently serves Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, Alabama.  He is also the Editor of CCAR Press’s A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path.