Rabbi Joel’s New Year Message
An Old Approach to a New Year
As the High Holy Days are “late” this year, for better or worse I have been procrastinating a bit in my preparations for leading services at the RIJC. With sermons still in my head and but whiffs of the melodies of prayers on my lips, I have instead been thinking and reading more broadly about the themes of the season: the past, the future, the difficulty of change and of repentance, our fates – both individually and collectively.
Yet, our services are only days away, so I finally had to get started; I opened the traditional Selichot pamphlet published in 1964 by the Rabbinical Assembly (the international association of Conservative Rabbis) and began to read. I scanned the generally familiar penitential poems and prayers of the service, but it was the short introductory essay to this volume that made me pause and reflect. First published when I was two years old, the overall message was both quaint and shocking. Commenting on the ancient origins of the service - dating back to Talmudic times, the author notes:
The Selichot [prayers], recited generation after generation, became the familiar heritage of the Jews. The prayers were often recited with little consciousness of the text but always with full and painful awareness of personal needs, and in the very real sense of standing in the Presence of God. Any change in the liturgy would have been justly resented as distracting from worship…
However, radical changes in all life and violent disruptions in the pattern of Jewish life and thought have made these ancient prayers remote from and alien to the majority of people in contemporary congregations. For centuries, neither the theology nor the language of the Selichot were questioned. Today both are usually foreign and often irrelevant to most Jews.
How quaint. The editors of this new (and improved!) 1964 edition of the Selichot service felt the need to explain why they were making subtle updates to the traditional liturgy - with “new poems, .. special readings… new translations” – to better reflect the needs and attitudes of “our people today”. To be fair, the members of the “Prayer Book Committee” were “fully conscious of their failure to achieve the goal set for them.” It was their “sincere hope that this effort will encourage creative writers to provide [new additions] to our liturgy and endow our synagogue services with meaning for a world so far removed from the days of the authors of the traditional liturgy.”
How quaint indeed, that our rabbis from a generation ago thought that creative writing would address the “radical changes” and “violent disruptions”. Religious leaders of today know that the strategies needed to address our spiritual and physical malaise are far, far more complicated.
Yet, the Prayer Book Committee reminds us of the power of our heritage. Here are the two key sentences. Just expand the word Selichot with your choice of addition: Judaism, God, Torah, the people Israel, community… or all of these.
The essence of our ancient [Selichot] is still vital for our generation, no matter how far removed they may be from us in age, in language or in doctrine. If we could learn to understand the poetry, the literary mosaics, and the mood of the [Selichot], we would recognize in them the outpourings of our own souls, the hungers of our own spirits.
Please join us at the RIJC in the coming year for all of our services and programs, as we strive to make our ancient traditions an integral part of our lives. It is my hope and prayer that we will grow and find comfort, meaning and encouragement together in the New Year 5783.
Harriet and I wish you a Shannah Tovah U'metukah, a sweet, happy New Year.
Rabbi Joel Shaiman