RABBI JAMES KENNARD
On an Autumn evening in 1663, Samuel Pepys visited the London synagogue. It was not a positive experience. “Lord! To see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service,” he wrote in his dairy. Judaism itself did not escape his scathing pen. “More like brutes than people knowing the true God, (I never) could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this”.
But the great diarist had made a mistake. The date of his visit, 14 October, was not a random day, suitable for sampling typical Jewish worship. It was Simchat Torah. What we know as a once-a-year lively celebration of the conclusion of the Torah (perhaps enhanced by the recent granting of permission to legally reside in England), he took to be usual practice. No wonder he left thinking that Jews have little in their synagogues except “disorder, laughing and confusion”.
Yet so many Jews today make the same mistake, but in reverse. The last two weeks have been the season for creative synagogue architecture; when cunningly designed partitions fold away, doubling the size of sanctuaries, and overflow services are held in halls or neighbouring buildings – such is the demand for seats for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the time to go to shul, even if only for three days or perhaps, with increasing frequency, just one. But is it the best time?
Although not quite the saddest point of the calendar (that distinction belongs to the Ninth of Av), the “High Holydays” must count as the most difficult. On Rosh Hashanna the service is long and to those unfamiliar with its structure, inevitably unengaging and unexciting. And Yom Kippur is the same but worse.
Of course, synagogues try to make the services of this season more accessible. A fine Chazan and choir are attractive to many. Services or entertainment for the children, a regular supply of coffee and inspiring oratory alleviate at least some of the discomfort. But these efforts only serve to underline the problem; that High Holyday services are a burden that needs easing.
Pepys chose an exceptional day for his visit and came away thinking that Jewish worship was “brutish”. This was unfortunate, but inconsequential (his resolve to “foreswear” every re-visiting a synagogue was unnecessary since such tours by non-Jews were banned the following year). But when the same mistake is made in our time by Jews in their millions, who choose an equally untypical day and conclude that shul is unintelligible and boring, the result is much more serious.
Since synagogue is perceived as the most common gateway to Jewish connection (a situation that cries out for change, but that’s for another discussion), giving young people the message that synagogue is a place of dreary tedium impacts directly on Jewish involvement and hence continuity.
However, such a conclusion on the evidence of these three days alone is as fallacious as Pepys’s deduction after his single shul visit. Because the other 362 days of the year could not be more different.
A Shabbat morning service takes less than half the time of its Rosh Hashanah equivalent; its weekly repetition leads to familiarity with its structure and shul-provided prayer books provide the text (whereas most synagogues do not offer the festival machzorim that decode prayers unique to these days). And a kiddush usually leaves a good impression and an even better taste.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not the only festivals – they are just the least festive. That is one benefit of the crowding of the Jewish calendar during this season; with Yom Kippur only just behind us we can enjoy Succot (this year starting the evening of October 12). Shul on Succot is positively a breeze compared to the previous week; the duration of the service and cakes in the succa together make it truly short and sweet.
(Of course if one seeks a really short and easy service, evening prayers each weekday are over in about ten minutes)
Or one can even emulate Pepys and deliberately choose Simchat Torah for an annual synagogue venture (this year on the evening of October 20 and the morning of October 21). No child visiting on that occasion would consider shul to be “boring”.
It would be odd to lead a “don’t go to shul on Rosh Hashanah” campaign or a “no to Yom Kippur” movement. But let’s promote the theme of “if you choose just one day to go to shul – make it the best one”. Our future may depend on it.
Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.