The High Holidays For Liberal Jews, Literally


Ninety percent of American Jews are not Orthodox. More than half of those Jews will find their way into a synagogue at some point during the High Holidays and hear rabbis speak on a host of contemporary Jewish issues. How about the central question of God? Does God really care if you are in shul on the Hi Ho’s? During the other 362 days of year, does God care if you eat veal parmesan?

The questions go to the core of what many Jews think to themselves as they sit through what may seem like unending hours of repetitive prayers on these holidays. “God thinking” frequently goes something like this: “I believe in God. But does God really care if I am here today, or if I eat shellfish, or if I use my cell phone on Shabbat?” Which leads to an even larger question: “Why be Jewish? Why do all this stuff? Who says so?”

The Orthodox rabbi’s answer may be simple and direct. God said/commands the whole thing. God not only cares but will likely reward if you do and will punish if you don’t follow the commands.

But the non-Orthodox rabbi will answer, “Yes and No. Yes, it is because of God that you should be here today and you should not eat that cheeseburger. No, God does not say exactly ‘be here, and by the way, don't eat that veal parmesan either.”

I know that such an answer seems contradictory and frustrating. I can make it clearer with an analogy to an experience that you will have after shul on Rosh HaShanah. Many will return home to have holiday dinner with family and friends. And around the table people will ask, “what did the rabbi speak about today?” What is reported will not be exactly what the rabbi said, but various — and differing — impressions of what the rabbi said.

That analogy is how it worked long ago at Mount Sinai in the encounter between God and the Jewish people. The non-Orthodox rabbi believes that God was somehow majestically present at Mount Sinai, and that God’s presence was so overwhelming that our ancestors responded to that Divine summit by writing down their reaction and impression. We call those impressions the Torah. Our people continued to write down their impression and reaction as the generations unfolded in millennia afterwards and in the diverse geographic locations where Jews resided. So the Torah we have is a sacred response of the Jewish people to God’s mysterious presence at Mount Sinai, even if it is not, verbatim, the words of God to Moses.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the famed philosopher and theologian, wrote: “The surest way of misunderstanding revelation is to take it literally, to imagine that God spoke to the prophet on a long distance telephone. Yet most of us succumb to such fancy, forgetting that the cardinal sin in thinking about ultimate issues is literal-mindedness.” 

So Judaism is grounded in the divine-human encounter. For shorthand, we call that “revelation.” God was there at the summit. The recorded response to Sinai in the Torah IS ours. The Torah tells us to hear the shofar in shul on these days, what not to eat and how not to violate Shabbat.

What makes the Torah sacred is not that it is the literal word of God but that it is the collective response of the Jewish people to Gods presence. That’s the foundational belief that compels us to be here in the synagogue on the High Holy Days, and, indeed, to be Jews. n

Gerald Zelizer is rabbi emeritus, Congregation Neve Shalom, Metuchen, N.J.

Pull quote:

‘The Torah we have is a sacred response of the Jewish people to God’s mysterious presence at Mount Sinai, even if it is not, verbatim, the words of God to Moses.’