For far too many Jews, the High Holidays are marred by confusion and boredom. They come to synagogue and are lost. Everything is foreign except maybe their parents sitting next to them, who once again purchased tickets for the whole family.
Probably the biggest impediment for most Jews is the Hebrew in their prayer books. Simply put, Hebrew is hurting the High Holiday experience for hundreds of thousands of Jews every year.
There are but few instances when a rabbi should say anything good about Martin Luther (on why, see Medieval Sourcebook: Martin Luther (1483-1546): The Jews and Their Lies 1543). But Luther’s decision to translate the Bible into German and make it accessible to the world might have been one of the greatest moments in human history.
Perhaps the biggest difference (I hear about from converts ) between church and synagogue services is the ability to follow what is going on. The synagogue experience, especially in more Orthodox synagogues, can be a disaster for someone whose Hebrew is weak. Luther wasn’t the first to realize that a tradition must be understandable to be meaningful: In the Jewish tradition, already in the second century Onkelos translated the Bible into Aramaic.
Look, I am all for the importance of Hebrew. There is no doubt that in it the treasures of Jewish life and culture reside. If you don’t know Hebrew, there is a limit to how much Judaism will be able to offer your life. But by making Hebrew a prerequisite for what for many Jews is a once-a-year synagogue experience, we are ensuring that Judaism will not have any part in the lives of most of American Jewry.
So this year, if you don’t know Hebrew or you aren’t moved by the stiff English translation of some thousand-year-old hymn, do your soul a favor: Put down your prayer book and pick up a book that speaks to you, maybe Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s “The Jewish Way,” maybe S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe,” maybe Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s “On Repentance,” or maybe some poetry that speaks to your conscience.
Whatever you decide, make sure that when you come to synagogue it is not wasted on staring into space. The purpose of the High Holidays is not to torture yourself but to examine yourself and reconnect with what is truly most important in your life.