Three times a year…
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.