Home » Rachel Sacks-Davis, Religion and Jewish Thought

Three times a year…

September 17, 2009 – 10:20 pm17 Comments

Source: RitualWell.org

By Rachel Sacks-Davis

The High Holy Days are approaching, and soon crowds of Australian Jews will pay their annual visits to Orthodox synagogues. The majority of these Jews do not usually observe halakha (religious law), but nevertheless choose to make their tri-annual pilgrimage to a local chabad house, or a large Orthodox synagogue. These large Orthodox synagogues may be less heimish (shtetl-style homely) than the local chabad house but nonetheless usually also have chabad rabbis at the helm, placing them squarely in the ultra (rather than modern)-Orthodox camp.

There is, of course, a deep chasm between daily-life unfettered by religious law, and the ideals which no doubt will be thrust upon them during their synagogue visits. Although I personally have a predilection for consistency and as such try to maintain fairly similar practices all year round, I can think of a number of factors that might motivate a largely secular Jew to patronise an ultra-Orthodox synagogue at this time of year.

(1) Good Old Superstition. Following a long tradition of Jewish talisman-making and avoidance of the evil eye, a sizeable number of Australian Jews who throw off the yoke of tradition approximately 363 days of the year still worry that when the door closes at the end of Yom Kippur, if they have not attended the right type synagogue on the High Holy Days, they may end up being inscribed for punishment rather than reward in the year to come.

(2) Family Pressure. In other words, the obligation to go to synagogue with parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents, who are either more observant or, more likely, are motivated to go to the synagogue in question by Good Old Superstition.

(3) The Spirituality of Ancient Times. Ultra-Orthodoxy is the least modern stream of Judaism, and therefore many Australian Jews consider it closer to the Judaism of ancient times. The rabbis of these synagogues typically wear clothing that is of another era, which adds to the old-worldly feeling.

There is something compelling about the feeling that the synagogue that one attends today is not dissimilar from synagogues hundreds of years ago. It evokes an unbroken chain of tradition that may be able to connect us to a time closer to Creation. Spiritual wisdom originating in times gone by seems more authentic and less likely to be unduly influenced by fads or fashion.

Nonetheless, can a spiritual system truly provide meaning if one does not accept its core tenets in daily life? And family pressure aside, will one really be rewarded simply for visiting the ‘right’ synagogue only three days a year?

One way to interpret the Rosh Hashana challenge is to seek meaning that is consistent with the same values that are cherished all year round.

Wishing everyone a shana tova u’metukah.

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  • Chaim says:

    One difference Australian or even South African Jews have to American is that most Jews in America will go to a reform, conservative, re-constructionist etc synagogue. Australians seems to still want that connection to authentic, historical Judaism and really don’t have a problem driving and parking their car in the Shul parking lot. In America except for Chabad – Orthodox Shuls are filled with Orthodox practicing Jews.

    We always suffer from inconsistency when we think or know we can get away from it. How many people speed, don’t put a seat belt on, fudge a bit on our taxes yet they would outright disapprove of this.

    The ultra orthodox (Chabad in this case but not exclusivley – Aish, Ohr Sameach)also offers spirituality, “kabbalah” which many people find attractive. They try and make the message more personal and practical as opposed a “pilpul”. And they seem NON-judgmental to the congregants. Any small effort is appreciated and validated. And then there is the attraction of the small, friendly, warm “shteibel”. In Perth there is the Dianella Shul – which started in a room of someones house and continues to grow exponentially. It is made from an eclectic mix of people – Chabad, Modern Orthodox, non observant, young and old.

    You are right, that once or twice a year visit will die out during their lifetime or their children’s. It is not sustainable. The funny thing is that many people I know will say they “believe” in orthodox Judaism and think it is the right way to live for them as a Jew but “not now”. Maybe it is not so inconsistent to their true beliefs. They are just not ready to make the leap and change.

    And then there is the soul… maybe it just peeks through and has a bit of a say at those times- whether you believe in it or not.

  • eli says:

    To all who write for and visit GA May i wish you a L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu V Gemar Chatimah Tovah. (May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year and May your final sealing (in the Book of Life) be good.)

    Talismans not withstanding!

  • I agree that ultra-Orthodoxy seems less modern, but I disagree that it actually is less modern. By definition (and it is the word thrust upon them, rather than a word of their devising) it denotes a community of Jews who reject modernity, as a social philosophy. Nonetheless, their lifestyles are very much a product of the modern era and, while yeshivish Jews see themselves as continuing an ancient tradition, they are more innovative than they realise. Part of the reason for their ignorance of this lies in the fact that they employ the same terminology as had been employed in earlier times (the word “yeshiva” being a case in point), with little regard for the actual nature of their respective institutions – historically speaking.

    Nonetheless, they have a broad appeal. Their presentation reflects their belief (and a belief to which many others subscribe as well) in their own antiquity. My synagogue of choice is also an “ultra-Orthodox” synagogue, though for a reason that you didn’t mention above: it’s familiar to me, and people there really know how to daven!

    Wishing you, and everyone else here, a good year! See you in 5770…

  • Chaim says:

    I agree Simon – Chabad is very modern. the Rabbis have iphones and use the internet as a tool….

    The term “Modern” may be used more when people separate and segment their daily lives into distinctive secular and religious portions.
    e.g. watch TV, go to footy matches or pubs and then go to a shiur and doven Maariv while keeping Shabbos and kosher…

  • Red says:

    I am definitely a two/three times a year person, for none of the above reasons. In most of my life I am very logical, but when it comes to shule, if I acted according to my logic, I would not go at all. It is probably more because, I do not want to do the things that I do every other day, so what else is there to do but go to shule.

    Chaim, In answer to your statement:
    “You are right, that once or twice a year visit will die out during their lifetime or their children’s. It is not sustainable”

    For me it may die out, but my children do not seem affected by my behaviour in the way that you predict.

    Shana Tova to everyone
    whether at Shule or elsewhere

  • Chaim says:

    Red: I am example of someone who definitely did not follow my father’s ways but was still deeply affected by him.

  • I’ve often wondered at the paradox of people driving to an Orthodox shul, rather than just going to one that might seem more consistent with their level of practice.

    Perhaps for some 3x/yr shul people, it’s a case of quality vs quantity. Given a choice in shul attendance, you could either go regularly to a “watered-down” service that has little meaning for you and after time, becomes a meaningless rote, or go just 3 times a year to something that represents the authentic traditional thing.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Simon,

    I specifically didn’t say that ultra-Orthodoxy was the most authentic, or closest to Judaism of ancient times, but only that it seemed so.

    On the other hand, even though I would argue that ultra-Orthodoxy has been influenced / changed through modernity, it rejects modernity (to greater or lesser degrees depending on the particular community) whereas other streams embrace modernity.

    In any case, this is a topic for another article. Here I was just giving reasons for the prevalent (but strange) custom of largely secular Jews going to an ultra-Orthodox shule three times a year.

  • Chaim says:

    rachsd: I do not think you can say Chabad for example rejects any notion of modernity unless we have different definitions. Changing or foregoing customs or laws is not “being modern”. Embracing technology to me would be modern.

    e.g the Amish would reject modernity in general.

  • TheSadducee says:


    It is an interesting paradox. The case of Canberra is interesting as it only has one shul (combined Orthodox/Reform – in separate areas) and most of the members do not live within walking distance of the shul so they are obliged to drive if they wish to attend any time of the year.

    I suspect though, like you have suggested, that an aspect of quality falls into the equation of those spoiled for choice.
    (When you look at preference for Reform and Orthodoxy it is, to me, sort of like that old saying – the sequel is never as good as the original!) :)

  • Chaim says:

    I do not know if this is exactly on topic… it is nice though with a great story…


  • Rach,

    My comment related to your assertion that “Ultra-Orthodoxy is the least modern stream of Judaism”, but I didn’t mean to draw attention from your main point. Just to respond, however, to Chaim: Chabad is a bad example of ultra-Orthodoxy in this regard because Lubavitchers are very fond of their connection to the modern world. They, alone of the “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, have embraced television (granted, in order to play DVDs only) and are specifically attempting to utilise technology as a means of building a kingdom on earth (a dirah betachtonim).

    But what about the Ohr Somayach crowd, or those who learn in Mirrer or Brisk? What about Adas in Melbourne and Sydney?? Many of these people actively reject modernity and see themselves as disconnected from the modern world, without regard for the fact that they reflect a very specifically post-Holocaust attempt at self-isolation, with an aim to rebuild what they believe that they lost. The whole kollel movement, for example, is of very recent historical development.

    Sorry, Rach :-)

  • Chaim says:

    Ohr Somayach has a WWW presence… and is a “Baal Teshuvah” movement… not so dis-similar to Chabad.

    There are definitely smaller “ultra-orthodox” groups who seem to me to disconnect from secular society and outsiders rather than modernity. How many haredim have a (kosher) mobile phone?

  • The problem is that ultra- is relative. I liken Jewish Orthodoxy to the ATP tennis rankings, which are logarithmic. The further you go up the rankings, the wider the gap between each position. The same applies to Orthodox Jews.

    From my perspective, I’d call Chabad Orthodox, not ultra-.

  • As a telco industry professional, the “kosher” phone is a brilliant piece of marketing to a closed user group. The Exclusive Brethren did something similar here in Australia and did very well!

  • Chaim says:

    You may be right – in the end we are back to disputes about definitions as usual……

    Sorry Rachel: no more off topic ;-)

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Chaim and others,

    I would define modernity a bit more broadly than simply the advancement of technology. For example, I would include feminism, the democratisation of knowledge and social structure, amongst other things.

    Clothing, though not the most important aspect of life, is somewhat symbolic of the differences between groups in this way. Whereas modern Orthodox wear any clothing they like as long as it satisfies the halakhic requirements or tzniut (modesty), blending modern values of individual expression with traditional law, ultra-Orthodox have much more rigid dress requirements that are not required by halakha.

    Chabad is a special case, though certainly not modern-Orthodox. Perhaps David is using Orthodox as a seperate classification to ultra-Orthodox and modern-Orthodox?

    If so, then perhaps my question is not just about secular Jews going to ultra-Orthodox synagogues, but also Orthodox (not modern-Orthodox).

    Although Orthodox (not modern-Orthodox) shules might seem more ‘authentic’, I would think that someone who, for example, values individual expression in their ‘normal’ life might end up getting more out of a religious service where the rabbi/leader shares that value.

    I am excluding the significant minority of once-secular Jews who clearly do end up finding meaning in Chabad, and make significant lifestyle changes.

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