Rabbi Carla Freedman
Ask the Rabbi
September 2020 QUESTION:
I know…having attended High Holy Days service throughout my life…that our prayers speak about God as Judge, deciding our fate for the coming year. I don’t believe that, and I am guessing that lots of others don’t either. So what should I do to make peace between our prayers and my
September 2020 ANSWER:
I am very sure you are not alone in this.
First, I think we have to address the whole question of how we understand and relate to God. Our liturgy speaks of God as King, as Father, as Judge. We can soften that language by thinking of God as a benevolent ruler, a nurturing parent. But it is hard to “soften” the idea of Judge. Consider, though, that our liturgy is many centuries old, some of it more than a millennium old. The language that worked for our predecessors may not work for us. We have shed all the language that presents God as male, and we have added language that includes humans in all our variety (that is a process still underway, of course).
But we do not attribute disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.) to God, because we now have other means (science) to explain how these things happen. We do not attribute COVID-19 to God’s will, to explain why so many people have suffered and/or died of it.
So we have already let go of some of our ancestors’ beliefs about God. Perhaps we can let go of the language they had for God, and find a way to make these prayers meaningful to us today.
I prefer to think that we…as individual human beings…determine our fate for the coming year by the way we wrestle with our conscience, doing the kheshbon hanefesh, reckoning of our being, which is the business of the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. If we make a sincere effort to examine our behavior, our interactions with others, our way of being in the world, then we consider what has worked for us, and what has not. And we can resolve to work on improving these things.
The traditional language says that God writes our fate in the Book of Life, and then seals it, as Yom Kippur draws to its end. I think it is more con opportunity and the capacity to write something new and different each year.
That is not what the liturgy says. But it may be quite consistent with the goal of the liturgy: to press us to
improve our ways. That’s how I make peace between the liturgy and my thinking.
I hope this helps you to do that, too.