High Holidays For The Non-Believer


For observant Jews, the current month of Elul features such acts as increased giving of charity and spiritual preparation for a time of repentance. The Jewish Week spoke with Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media studies at The New School and author of the 2004 book, “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism.” Rushkoff’s book advanced the concept of “open source Judaism,” drawing on another Jewish tradition — iconoclasm and no-holds-barred inquiry.

Q: In “Nothing Sacred,” you argue for the meaninglessness of following many Jewish rituals simply because they are tradition. Nothing, arguably, is more traditional than the High Holy Days. What importance do upcoming Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur have for people, like you, who don’t automatically take on Jewish practices?
A: There are as many approaches to High Holidays as there are Jews who think about the High Holidays independently for themselves. I think the most holy of Jewish days is the Sabbath. The cycle of the year is meaningful and significant, for sure, but the cycle of the week and the celebration of creation and rest, sacred and secular, is of much higher significance to me. Just because it happens every week doesn’t make it commonplace.

I have always suspected that the elevation of the High Holidays to their current stature has more to do with synagogue membership and financial solvency than it does with God or Judaism. So many folks do little more than show up twice a year on these days, and those people are necessary for synagogues to function. So High Holidays are more like patrons’ holidays, where people who pay the annual fee get to come in and experience the synagogue they are paying for, get something akin to an annual pardon for sins, and can then move on with their regular lives.

Over the years, I have found myself steering clear of the synagogue on High Holidays, as it doesn’t look or feel quite like it does normally. Rabbis never act quite like themselves, either, since they are now on stage in front of largely strangers. When I do go, I use the bizarre experience to look at my own frailty — the ways that I engage in the same sorts of behavior, the ways that I just don’t look at what is happening.

If not with standard prayers and penitence, how do you “observe” the High Holy Days?
I’m not sure I know what standard penitence is. And observation depends on which High Holy Day you’re talking about. Rosh HaShanah is pretty easy. I see the job as to take in as much of the fruit and grace in our lives as possible, so that we have a good store of thanks with which to approach Yom Kippur. Otherwise it is just a matter of focus. Staying aware, in a way that I don’t the rest of the year.

How do you recommend modern Jews prepare for Rosh HaShanah?
Again, I’d try just observing the Sabbath for a few weeks in a row before Elul. With an eye towards what is coming. Other than that, the easiest way to say it is to think twice before being mean. Look for the kinder alternative in all your interactions. Try to mute your own sense of how things should be and instead start appreciating how things are.

If there are no atheists in foxholes, what about in a recession? In times of unemployment and economic uncertainty, do even believers turn to belief?
I don’t think belief has much to do with it. It’s these times when people should hear the Unetanetokef [prayer] for what it is: repentance, prayer and charity remove the harshness of the decree. In a recession you have to remember you are not alone. We have more than enough of everything if we share.