Archive for Friday, September 14, 2001

High Holy Days get an update

September 14, 2001


To repent for their misdeeds each year, Jews pray and fast. Now, some will also watch the movie "Groundhog Day."

The Bill Murray film, about a scoundrel forced to repeat the same day until he reforms, is among several modern tools rabbis throughout the United States are using to guide their congregations through the High Holy Days, which start Monday at sundown.

Members of B'nai Or in Watertown, Mass., will tie red threads around their wrists as a reminder of what they pledged to change.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of Philadelphia will ask congregants to anonymously write their wrongdoings from hurting the environment to mistreating their children on cards, which will be read aloud along with traditional prayers.

The "Groundhog Day" program, developed by Rabbi Pamela Wax, focuses on the challenges and rewards of ethical behavior.

"It makes teshuvah (repentance) more accessible as a concept," Wax said.

The 10-day period of self-examination starts with the Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashanah. It ends Sept. 27 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews communally admit their sins and reconcile with God.

The worship is rich with ritual.

Among the central prayers is the Al Cheit, a confession of misdeeds such as gossip, swearing and dishonest business dealings. The shofar, or ram's horn, is blown, its wailing meant to inspire repentance. Many Jews go to a river to symbolically cast away their sins. Services last for hours.

Spiritual power

Yet, for some rabbis, the ancient observances alone aren't enough.

Waskow is a leader in the Jewish renewal movement, which uses contemporary religious and political scholarship to re-examine Judaism. He believes that traditional prayer sometimes needs a boost to fulfill its promise as a powerful, "earthquaking" experience.

He is inspired by a Franz Kafka story about a leopard stalking into a synagogue. Waskow's goal is to "put the leopard" or spiritual power back into worship.

One year, Waskow set up two bowls one with salt water, another with fresh water and asked congregants to write their sins in water-soluble ink on index cards. People dunked their cards in the salt water, watched the writing disappear, then cleaned their hands in the fresh water.

Another year, he asked a congregant to collect newspaper headlines about poverty and shout them out during the service, as Waskow read a passage from Isaiah, urging people to devote themselves to social justice.

Rabbi Marc Belgrad, of the Reform synagogue Beth Am in Buffalo Grove, Ill., also asked people to write down their sins, and then burned the papers.

In a separate program, Belgrad asked congregants to read quotes on High Holy Day themes from Jewish scholars and others, and write personal interpretations on large sheets of paper taped to the wall.

"The idea was that we wanted to engage people in their own discovery of the text," Belgrad said.

Wax provided popcorn when she showed "Groundhog Day" to her North Adams, Mass., congregation right before the S'lichot service, held the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.

"You have this character, Phil, who just can't get his life together. In the process of trying to get the love of a woman he becomes a better person," she said.

At B'nai Or in Watertown, congregants each tell another person what life issue they want to address over the 10-day period. Then, each person ties a red thread around his or her confidant's wrist.

"At the end of Yom Kippur, some people continued to wear it until the bracelet broke," said Hanna Tiferet Siegel, a spiritual leader of the congregation.

Making it relevant

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who leads the Shomrei Emunah Orthodox congregation in Baltimore, said he has heard of no such programs at Orthodox synagogues. But he supports the idea of using modern examples to help Jews understand the liturgy in the weeks before the holidays begin.

"People have to make it relevant," Weinreb said. "An awful lot of people aren't familiar with the meaning of the prayers."

Neil Gillman, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, questions the approach. He thinks movies and writing exercises can be effective teaching tools, but wonders about the value of adding them to the New Year services.

"I have a sense that a lot of this stuff is based on the fact that we have no confidence that the traditional prayer book can work," he said.

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