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Notes for an blog post

A few notes about the Rosh Hashanah service, and not enough time or energy to arrange them in an essay, or to make a theme and figure out which ones fit the theme and which get discarded—

When people recently were asking why are Jews liberals, my answer, as it always is, focused on the Seder. One reasonable working definition of Jewishness is that Jews are people who every year in the Spring tell ourselves the story of having been slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand, and an outstretched arm. And while that does not necessarily make us liberals, I think the repetition is a big influence in that direction, at least within the American spectrum of right/left. But when, at the service, we were singing Avinu Malkenu, and I thought, hmmm. The song Avinu Malkenu, which is one of the Big Songs for Rosh Hashanah, and is the conclusion of a part of service unique to Rosh Hashanah, translates roughly like this: Our Father, our King, have mercy on us in your answer, although we are without merit ourselves. Treat us with charity and kindness, to save us. So influencing the idea of merit for Jews is the statement, repeated every year at a moment of heightened ritual meaning, that we have none. On the other hand, I have this tendency to romanticize the importance of the meaning of words within the ritual. After all, one of the advantages of praying in a dead language is that you don’t have to think about what you are saying.

Speaking of the Avinu Malkenu, traditionally we do not say it when Rosh Hashanah falls on a Saturday. But I guess we do say it in the Reform shul. This is a minor matter (mostly because the Reform machzor has a version that is substantially shorter than the Conservative one), but the major thing about Rosh Hashanah falling on Shabbat is that traditionally the shofar is not blown on the Shabbat. So I went through the disappointment of realizing that I wouldn’t hear the shofar, and then discovered that they did blow the Shofar on Shabbat at my (Reform) Shul. And was somehow also disappointed by that. Of course, for Conservatives, it mostly means deciding to go to services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah so you can hear the shofar; we eschew that whole second-day business for the most part.

Another thing I like about the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: zachrenu l’chaim, melech chafetz bachaim, v’chat’venu b’sefer ha-chaim l’ma’an’chu, elohim chaim. Remember us to life, king of life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, Lord of life. I don’t have anything particularly profound to say about it, I just like the line. Life. You know.

Back to this idea of how repeated rituals have an influence on people’s character, and how that might have some effect on the political leanings of those people (many of them, you know, in terms of statistics and trends, not conclusively), I was struck by the way we put a crown on our law book. An actual crown, a great big silver crown, with bells on. There’s something there about our understanding of regality and legality, of the place of people and laws, of the structure of society, of what is worthy of reverence, that is all wound up in that bit where we put a crown on our law book. And then kiss it. OK, we’re a little strange.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Rosh hashanah is here now. Happy rosh hashanah everybody. Enjoy, the two day holiday.

[This appears to be spam, so I've removed the link, but there's no reason Gentle Readers should not have a nice Rosh Hashanah anyway. Thanks, -V.]

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