In Torah, there are (3) “pilgrimage” festivals — Pesach, Shavuoth and Sukkoth. Jews from Jewish communities all over the ancient world would converge on Jerusalem for special sacrificial services at the Temple. Gradually, these came to include special prayer services as well. Some sense of this can be seen today in the pilgrimage that a Muslim must make to Mecca at least once in his life: It’s a trip, but with a special religious significance.
While these are still celebrated as “yom tovim,” (Shavuoth less, perhaps, than the other two), the special sense of traveling somewhere specifically for worship no longer characterizes them (“Yizkor” notwithstanding) for the majority of American Jews.
The sense of a “pilgrimage” has, I think, been retained in Judaism as “pilgrimages-in-spirit” on Rosh Ha-Shanah/Yom Kippur. Even if one doesn’t actually travel elsewhere, there’s a special feeling to it; a “pilgrimage in time,” as Heschel might have said. Who hasn’t seen synagogues that attract 30 or 40 people on an ordinary Shabbat, packed with hundreds, even thousands of people on Rosh Ha-Shanah? Many — perhaps most — of those people travel from far away to be with family. Yet, attending services is often part of that “family” ritual, especially when the older members are, or were, consistent in attendance. Leading High Holiday (“HH”) services in Kerhonkson, NY (Catskills) for a couple of years, I even met a man who had no relatives there, but traveled from Long Island to attend services at that particular synagogue!
There’s a special “aura” to Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services; a special sense of formality — as there should be. For many people, it’s the only time during the whole year that they attend services at all. My own father, for example, never attended services, except to say “Yizkor” for his parents, and then, only on Yom Kippur.
The underlying theme of RH and YK has to do with standing before G-d for judgement. Do all who are in attendance believe that? Probably not. The length of the traditional services, combined with a general lack of familiarity with the structure, can also discourage many from giving it their full attention. Still, something draws people to those services more than others available during the year. Leading services in Monticello a few years ago, one man came for the break-fast after Yom Kippur, who was a regular attendee but had gone to Chabad services. “I feel G-d’s Presence there more,” he told me. I didn’t take it personally; he’d never attended a service of mine. But it again suggested that there are people who want “an experience,” even if they don’t understand the details of the service.
During “The Golden Age of Cantors,” between World Wars I and II, cantorial services, especially on the High Holidays, were great attractions. Many would choose which service to attend specifically by which cantor was “performing.” Yet, in the next generation (my own), such services were outdated. The proof of this is that the style didn’t maintain anywhere near as wide an audience in the ’60’s as it had in the ’40’s; at least, not among the emerging generation. It no longer inspired in the same way (as also seen by the corresponding decline in the audience for classical music at that time). For myself, I could “feel” the hazzan “praying,” but didn’t think of it as something I could do myself, because “praying” seemed to involve such a display of emotion. It was a slow, gradual discovery for me that personal “praying” doesn’t require bel canto vocal training, or a great dramatic flourish, even if being a hazzan does! So, it could be said that in some ways, the High Holidays, as inspiring as they can be on one level, have also turned many Jews away from taking services as seriously as they should be taken.
On the other hand, as both a cantor and rabbi, I’ve found that some people take the message of the HH’s very seriously. Once, after giving a sermon on “Forgiving” as part of my YK service, several people came up to me afterwards to talk about their difficulties with doing that, and to thank me for raising the issue as part of the service.
Also, as cantor and/or rabbi, leading High Holiday services allowed me to experiment with ways to introduce rabbinic teachings as part of the service, without interrupting the flow of the service itself. I found that I could do this by inserting some readings into the service, preceding some of the prayers. The readings were quotations from the Talmud or later rabbis (e.g. Rambam, Rov Soloveitchik). There was a consistent theme to the readings; one person even noticed it and commented approvingly after the service! I purposely cited each rabbi’s name, to give the congregation the feeling of “receiving” tradition, rather than hearing “one man’s opinion (mine).” The service itself was the traditional Conservative one, using the Silverman machzor.
One who has come to a High Holiday service should leave with a feeling of having been “changed” by it in some way. Many people these days first come after experience with meditation, Yoga, Buddhism, etc. They’re looking for a spiritual experience within a Jewish context that’s comparable with what they’ve found in/from other traditions. High Holiday services, then, can be a point-of-entry for many who have either left Judaism or, having been born Jewish but have been otherwise non-observant, are seeking a new relationship and involvement in Judaism as adults. In several years, after the Musaf Amidah, I kept the doors of the “aron” open, and allowed congregants who desired to do so to approach it and speak their private thoughts and prayers. Enough people did so for me to feel that this had been a moment of private conversation with G-d for all present. I wouldn’t have known to use the term at the time, but I was in fact using the High Holiday service to allow those present to do “hitbodedut.” In retrospect, I might even have allowed them to walk around freely while talking to G-d, instructing them only to refrain from “social” conversation with others.
A uniquely contemporary demand of High Holiday services is that there be “family friendly” options. Bringing a young child to a service, who is then bored by it, is no longer the sole choice, nor even the most desirable. For the parents of young children, the High Holiday service can be of great support in giving their children a sense of Jewish identity which the parents themselves are often unable to provide, given their own limited level of Jewish education and understanding. Here, then, the High Holiday service serves a more “cultural” than strictly “spiritual” purpose (as if the two are separable at all). In the same context, it can be modified to be a “family experience,” in much the way that a “Tot Shabbat” has become. The real challenge to a rabbi, however, is to convey some essential Jewish teaching along with a “family experience” that is also interesting to both children and adults (not, perhaps, in the same ways), even in a service that is substantially modified/shortened in form. One year, leading High Holiday services as rabbi, I read the parshiyot from a chumash, with the correct trop, and invited the children to gather around the hazzan, see a “real Torah” and follow with their eyes as he moved the “yad” over the sefer Torah, across the words I was reading on the other side of the room. They saw he used a “yad;” they saw him move the yad from right-to-left; they saw the unique way the text of Torah looks in an actual sefer Torah; they were close to an object to which they might otherwise be near only a handful of times in their entire lives. For the parents and grandparents, it was a moment in which they could observe their children/grandchildren receiving Jewish tradition in a palpable way.
Here, again, is a way that the High Holiday services can be used for an educational purpose that is interesting, informative and meaningful, and in which the whole family is involved. I like to think that in years to come, those children remember the experience of being “close to Torah” with fondness and awe.
Mostly, I hope they remember feeling that Torah is theirs, too.