I agree with Rabbi Stern that Hebrew is often an impediment to getting the most of the High Holy Days. But I disagree that Luther was right about the vernacular. There is a place for English in the service but seldom as a substitute for Hebrew? Why? Because there is a power behind the Hebrew words that have been recited for hundreds if not, in some cases, thousands of years.
Even for someone who understands Hebrew fluently, High Holiday Hebrew can be incomprehensible, written in a medieval style with allusions and depth that require preparation to understand.
That’s why it is hard to walk into services three times a year and still get something meaningful out of it. Which is a shame, since the holiday liturgy and music is so rich in significance, wisdom, and beauty.
If translating the service into English is not the solution, then what is?
There are ways to make the experience more meaningful.
Studying Hebrew would help, of course, as would reading up before hand on the meaning of the prayers.
But if one doesn’t understand Hebrew, forget the words. Let the music transport you. It is said that the haunting melody of the Yom Kippur eve service of Kol Nidre awakened in Franz Rosensweig the desire to return to Judaism. (He was planning to convert to Christianity.) Someone once said that a prayer book is less important than a box of tissues on the holidays for real prayer, because God weighs the tears of our hearts much more than the words of our lips.
There is also something to be said for sitting through the whole service, whether or not you understand the Hebrew. (Rabbi Stern’s idea of bringing a good book is helpful. I would add Reuven Hammer’s “Entering the High Holidays” or anything by Harold Kushner, such as “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough” or “Who Needs God?” You may also want to bring a pillow if you have a bad back or feet.) Studies show that something happens to our brains when we engage in prayer long enough.
The High Holidays are a marathon, and it’s hard to run a marathon without training. But the good news is like a marathon, one way to win is making it to the end. (If you don’t think you can last, come in the middle for the rabbi’s sermon and then stay till the end. Most Jews in the know know that coming late is preferable to leaving early.) This marathon can also be won with a contrite spirit and a willingness to feel remorse over our failures and to commit to changing ourselves for the better, which, I agree, is what the holidays are about.