High Holy Days 5779
Rabbi Oren Steinitz's Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon

Shannah Tovah!

Every once in a while someone comes up to me and says: “Rabbi, you’ve been here a while now. You're established. A few more years and they may even stop calling you 'the new rabbi'. When are you going to start making everyone wear a kippah?” Others ask me when I am going to insist on a fully kosher building or other ritual requirements. While, as you know, I have a great deal of respect for traditional practice, and find a lot of value in these observances, my answer has always been, and always will be, 'never.’ I would like to talk a little bit about why that is.

Our relationship to ritual objects, and to religious symbols in general, is complex. Such objects evoke very strong feelings in us; feelings that are very rarely connected to the object's intended meaning. Think about your grandmother's candle sticks or your child’s Bat or Bar Mitzvah tallit. Chances are that when you look at these candle sticks you are not thinking about how we light two candles to remind ourselves of the two versions of Ten Commandments, where one of them commands us to “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” while the other says “Observe the Sabbath day.” You are also probably not thinking about the ancient dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, when the Sadducees understood the prohibition on kindling a flame during Shabbat as meaning that no flame should be left on after sundown, and the Rabbis instituted an obligation to light a candle before Shabbat starts, just to show the Sadducees how wrong they were. Chances are, you are thinking about your grandma, the smell of her house, or how she looked when she stood in front of the candle sticks. Another example would be the most well-known symbol of a Jewish wedding…. Here’s the thing about breaking the glass at the end of the ceremony – while we cannot imagine a Jewish wedding (even completely nonreligious ones) not ending with a glass shattering, we have absolutely no clue where this (rather bizarre, let’s be honest) custom originated! Yes, rabbis will tell you that this is done as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple, but this is an after-the-fact explanation. And at any rate, I find it very hard to believe that so many couples insist on retaining this particular custom because they feel so strongly about restoring the Temple’s sacrificial worship. In other words, when it comes to religious practice, emotions are often more important to us than actual Jewish Law or historical explanations.

But different people have different emotions, and not all emotions are positive.

While for some of us, a kippah is seen as a sign of respect for the synagogue, for the community, for tradition, or for God, others may see it as a sign of religious coercion, or a symbol of how diligently following minor customs has replaced actual religiosity. For others, it is simply not how they grew up. While we tend to think of Jewish men donning a kipah as a basic Jewish requirement, you may be surprised to find out that the custom has no real solid sources in Jewish religious law. While some medieval authorities ruled that a man has to cover his head while praying or studying Torah, and some went as far as forbidding walking four steps with an uncovered head, other – equally important – rabbis found these rulings curious and claimed they were baseless. In Israel, wearing different types of kippahs can indicate particular religious or political affiliations. This causes many younger religiously-observant Jews to refrain from wearing one at all (a phenomenon known as “transparent kippahs”) or replacing it with a flat cap. For many non-observant Israelis, a kippah is a symbol of religious coercion or even hypocrisy – it has become “standard practice” for Israeli criminals to don a black kippah when appearing in court, in an attempt to show that they changed their ways.

So no. I have no interest in making anyone feel resentful when entering our communal space. I do not want anyone to feel coerced, and I certainly do not want anyone to feel like their feelings are somehow less important than anyone else’s. This is true for kippah, tallitot, t’fillin (on the rare occasion we hold weekday services) or any other ritual object. Same goes for making the entire building kosher. For some of us keeping kosher is a very effective way of maintaining a Jewish identity, for others it makes no sense. Let’s respect that (this is not to say that we cannot be more diligent about the rules we decided on with regards to our kosher kitchen. We can, and we should).

However… I would like to offer you a small challenge. I want to ask each and every one of you to find a ritual that you see other people do, but you do not. Maybe you tried it once or twice in the past and it felt weird, maybe you never tried it. I want you to think of that one ritual – it can be wearing a kippah or tallit, it can be praying an entire Amidah, it can be closing your eyes for the sh’ma, it can even be sprinkling your piece of challah with salt before you eat it – pick one, and just do it for no real reason other than to try something new. Do it a few times – maybe for the duration of the High Holidays, maybe a little more, and see how it feels. Now, after you tried it a few times – stop. Do you miss it? Do you want to do it again? Talk to me, I’ll be glad to know how it feels.

Shannah Tovah!

This exercise was conceived by rabbinical student Trisha Arlin:
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