Tomorrow night is Rosh Hashana, one of the two High HoIy Days of Judaism, 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 only go to church on Christmas and Easter, there are many Jews who only go to synagogue on Rosh Hashana 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 rabbis’ sermons on these days their most important of the year. Many rabbis begin preparing for them months in advance.
One of the themes of these High Holy Days is an “accounting of the soul.” Jews ask themselves: 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 Hashana and Yom Kippur are known as “The Ten Days of Repentance.” Some variation on this subject is what rabbis have most often talked about for as long as they have given these sermons.
Another theme of the two Holy Days is mortality. As the most famous of the Rosh Hashana 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?” It’s serious, sobering stuff.
And the liturgy is all about God. The other Jewish biblical holidays — Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (the Feast of the Tabernacles, or the “Holiday of Booths”) — all commemorate Jewish national events. But Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are universal holidays. And the liturgy repeats and repeats one overwhelming theme: On this day, God judges humanity — yes, every single human being.
Given these enormous themes, you would think that rabbis have a deep well from which to choose the subject of their sermons. And many do. But Jews from all over America increasingly tell me that 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, transgender issues, 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 neo-Nazis. Even before the Charlottesville events, most American Jews were sure that Trump’s election unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in America. That libel and its accompanying hysteria subsided only when it was revealed by the authorities that nearly all the bomb threats called into Jewish community centers had been called in by a disturbed American Jewish teenager living in Israel, and the others were called in by a black radical who wanted to frame his ex-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 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 Hashana 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 denominations announced that they would not participate in a pre-Rosh Hashana telephone call with the president (while the Orthodox said it would). For Conservative, Reform and other non-Orthodox Jews, talking to 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.
But just as mainstream Protestant churches and many Catholic churches are emptier than ever, especially of young people, 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 for the task?
Meanwhile, Jews who are 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.