Rabbis explain the purity of observances
Webster's defines pure as unmixed with any other matter. Christian holidays, especially Christmas, have become so intertwined with commercialism that a counter-movement has begun to simplify the holidays to increase their spirituality. But Jewish holidays have not been mixed, and three local rabbis recently described the purity of the Jewish holidays in a Q & amp;A session with D.A. Wilkinson, The Vindicator's religion editor.
They are Rabbi Simeon Kolko, pastor of Ohev Tzedek-Shaarei Torah Congregation in Boardman, Rabbi Frank Muller of Rodef Sholom Temple in Youngstown, and Rabbi Joseph P. Schonberger of Temple El Emeth in Liberty.
Rabbi Muller: With the high holidays they're our time, our one time of the year, when we try to put our lives in order with God, our families, ourselves, our community, and it's one opportunity for repentance and serious introspection. So there's no gift-giving of any kind on these holidays, except to maybe prepare food treats to give to others. We give gifts, if anything, to other people to show our desire for reconciliation and just to show kindness. Because the holidays are so deeply person and introspective, there's just never ever in the history of Judaism been a sense of commercialism that goes with these holidays.
Even though Rosh Hashanah is a New Year's festival, it's not with sparklers or champagne. It's a joyous holiday, but it's serious at the same time because we're working on improving ourselves. It's not a commercialized theme at all.
Rabbi Schonberger: To expand on what he said about kindness, part of the process in self improvement and improvement in making new beginnings involves philanthropy and acts of helping. They can be personal, they can be familial, they can be institutional, but the emphasis is really on improvement through kindness and helping others.
Rabbi Kolko: There's one area in which the high holy days superficially seem to be like the secular New Year's. But if you look at it, it points to a profound difference. It has to do with the making of resolutions. At the secular New Year's, many people make resolutions about things they want to do differently for the coming year. It's the content of those resolutions which sheds an interesting insight. During the secular New Year's, you make a resolution, like "I'm going to give up smoking," or "I'm going to lose 30 pounds." Not that those things aren't valid.
The kinds of resolutions you make for yourself on the Jewish New Year have more to do with ethical and spiritual improvement.
Q. In the spiritual searching, is that where the depth comes in? Versus Christmas where I give you a power tool, and we somehow think that's spiritual?
Rabbi Muller: We go through personal introspection for the purpose of reaching out to others and making the world a better place, that's the whole focus of the high holidays. Even though its personal, it's not self-centered. It's community centered, it's world-centered.
Rabbi Kolko: A piece of this is accepting personal responsibility for one's shortcomings and narrowing the gap between who we are and who we are supposed to be.
But there is an element of communal reflection and introspection as well.
If you look at the liturgy of the high holidays, especially for Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the part of the liturgy where we confess our sins has been done in the plural: We have trespassed.
The way to approach that isn't to ask "Did I individually commit each of these indiscretions." The real question is, "Was I part of a community where these things were allowed to exist?" And if the answer to that is "yes," we bear part of the responsibility for it.
Q. What part does purity play?
Rabbi Muller: On Yom Kippur, a traditional Jew will wear white to represent the idea of moral purity and being free from sin. We regain our purity, we get a fresh start from scratch, with a clean slate.
Rabbi Schonberger: The word I would emphasize is teshuvah, which is the ability for us to change for the better.
Rabbi Muller: Do you want to translate it as repentance?
Rabbi Kolko: Return.
Rabbi Schonberger: Literally return, because we can turn ourselves around. Because none of us as imperfect creations of God is 100 percent pure.
Rabbi Muller: Right. The typical translation is repentance. In Hebrew, it means to turn, or to return, to your higher sense of self, to your highest vision of who you can be.
Rabbi Kolko: Correct. And along those lines, to return to what God meant us to be. When God created us, obviously God had a vision of what he thought human beings were capable of. Part of the conflict over turning is not that we're ever going to completely get there, but to more closely approximate for ourselves the vision God had for us.
Rabbi Muller: There's another word, too. The Hebrew word for sin is Het. I don't like to say "you sinned." Literally, in Hebrew, it's literally missing the mark. That's a much better metaphor to tell people, "We've shot a lot arrows and haven't hit. Sometimes we did and sometimes we didn't, and we need to improve our marksmanship in terms of getting it right."
There's that big word sin. I prefer the word transgression. I like to modernize the language. None of us are murderers or thieves, and most of us don't really commit grievious sins. We commit little transgressions, and it's the little things that add up that we try to clean up.
Rabbi Kolko: The other big thing where this season for Jews is sort of politically incorrect and going against the grain of popular culture is in the following sense: One of the things you hear on all the shows is all kinds of reasons why people aren't responsible for what they do, and all kinds of mitigating factors which you can invoke as a way of escaping responsibility for the contours of your life. And I'm not saying we should be without compassion for the factors people are dealing with. But part and parcel of the theology of this time of year is that in some ways ultimately we are responsible and accountable. And not that God expects of us perfection. But to get into the proper framework for this time of year, you have to buy into the notion of being responsible for yourself and your actions. And that's central to what the high holidays are about.
Rabbi Schonberger: So there's a challenge to actually do these things with sincerity and genuine commitment rather than give them lip service.
Rabbi Kolko: One of the messages for me at this season of the year is that the ability of forgiveness is available to us. We have a tremendous spiritual obligation to assess where we are and to make amends. But it's not automatic. It's an opportunity and a process. It's a process that requires some effort and some serious introspection.
Q. What would you tell someone who is having trouble with forgiveness?
Rabbi Schonberger: I would encourage them to pray, and participate with the community in prayer, because then they have the community of support.
Rabbi Muller: I would add a message of hope. The key message of the high holidays is hope: no matter what's happened to you, no matter how far you have gone, you can always start again. And there's always hope for the future. That's the message of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It's a New Year. So many people say, "I'm so glad this year is over." Jews relate to it, not Jan. 1, but now.
Rabbi Kolko: There's an entire month of preparation, the month of Elul. The ram's horn is sounded as a way of awaking people that the high holidays are coming, and you'd better start preparing and inhabit the mindset that is necessary.
Q. How does Sukkot contrast with the high holidays?
Rabbi Kolko: Sukkot is very physical. It's also the season of rejoicing. In the transition, you get a sense of the balance Judaism is calling us to make. From a season of introspection and spirituality, to something that embraces the physical. You can't do one without the other.
Rabbi Muller: It's a package deal.