Tomorrow night is Rosh Hashanah, one of the two High HoIy Days, or “Days of Awe,” as they are called in Hebrew. The other High Holy Day, nine days later, is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Just as there are many Christians who go to church only on Christmas and Easter, there are many Jews who go to synagogue only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The combination of the unique importance of the High Holy Days and the uniquely large number of Jews in synagogue makes the sermons rabbis deliver on these days their most important sermons of the year. Many rabbis begin preparing for them months in advance.
The themes of these High Holy Days are:
An “accounting of the soul” — what type of person have I been this past year, and how can I be a better person next year? That is why the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as “The Ten Days of Repentance.” Some variation on this subject is what rabbis most often talked about for as long as rabbis have given Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons.
Another theme of the two holy days is mortality. As the most famous of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers puts it: “Who will live and who will die? . . . Who will be tormented and who will be at peace? . . . Who will die by fire and who will die by drowning?” And so on. It’s serious and sobering stuff. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are Jewish versions of the old saying, “Nothing concentrates the mind like the gallows.” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur concentrate the mind on the fact of mortality. Even children need to confront it.
And the liturgy is all about God. The other Jewish biblical holidays — Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Succot (Tabernacles, the “Holiday of Booths”) all commemorate Jewish national events: the Exodus, the receiving of the Ten Commandments, and the 40 years of wandering in the desert. But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are universal holidays. “Today is the birthday of the world,” Jews say immediately upon hearing the most important part of the Rosh Hashanah service — the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. And the liturgy repeats and repeats one overwhelming theme: On this day, God judges humanity — yes, every single human being.
So, then, given these enormous themes, you would think that rabbis have a deep well from which to choose the subjects of their sermons. And many rabbis do. But increasingly, Jews from all over America tell me, their rabbis speak about what most of us would deem politics.
Many non-Orthodox rabbis (and I do not write this as an Orthodox Jew) have chosen the holiest days in the Jewish calendar to speak about global warming, racism, sexism, transgenderism, immigration, “Dreamers,” food insecurity, single-payer health insurance, and the like.
And this year many rabbis will surely also talk about President Trump as a threat to American Jews. They will solemnly sermonize that he is a white supremacist who winks at American Nazis. Even before Charlottesville, most American Jews were sure that Mr. Trump’s election unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in America. That libel and its accompanying hysteria subsided only when it was revealed that nearly all the bomb threats called into Jewish Community Centers had been called in by a mentally disturbed American Jewish teenager living in Israel, and the others were called in by a black radical who wanted to frame his girlfriend. But Charlottesville has revived talk about Trump and anti-Semitism.
Why will many rabbis choose to talk about these subjects?
The primary reason is that leftism has become the value system of most American Jews outside of Orthodoxy (and a minority within Orthodoxy), just as it has for mainstream denominations within Protestant Christianity and at the very top of the Roman Catholic Church.
For people on the left, left-wing issues are not political issues; they are religious issues (anyone who does not perceive leftism as a religion does not understand leftism). Moreover, for Americans Jews, as for all others on the left, global warming is an existential issue. How, then, could saving life on planet Earth be considered merely a political issue? What could be more important to talk about on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than human survival?
As for President Trump, most non-Orthodox Jews deem opposition to him tantamount to a religious commandment. That is why the Conservative and Reform movements announced that they will not participate in a pre–Rosh Hashanah telephone call with the president (while the Orthodox said they would). For Conservative and Reform and other non-Orthodox Jews, talking to Donald Trump is, apparently, a chet (sin), and one should distance oneself from sin, especially at this time of the year. Indeed, they regard his very election as a national sin, which is why some rabbis announced that they had fasted after his election and why many synagogues sat shiva — ritually mourned — as they would upon the death of an immediate relative.
Why bother going to synagogue to hear about global warming when CNN is perfectly adequate to the task?
But just as mainstream Protestant and many Catholic churches are emptier than ever, especially of young people, so, too, most non-Orthodox synagogues are in decline, and increasingly devoid of young people. After all, if you are preoccupied with global warming and believe the White House is occupied by a white supremacist, why bother going to synagogue to hear about these things when the New York Times, CNN, and university classes are perfectly adequate to the task?
Meanwhile, Jews preoccupied with God and traditional Jewish values will almost all go to an Orthodox synagogue. Or they will go to a non-Orthodox synagogue, and feel alone.