For most Jews, the two words “Yom Kippur” evoke two other words: fasting and synagogue. I decided to lead a Lunch-and-Learn outside of a synagogue to see what would happen. Everyone who came was fasting (at least at that point), and most had come from synagogue, so it wasn’t the counter-cultural group of rebels I might have expected. Nevertheless, we challenged these two main associations, and in doing so opened up new avenues through which to connect to the day and Judaism more broadly.
First – fasting. On Yom Kippur day, nearly every synagogue reads the section of Isaiah that seemingly mocks the very approach of everyone listening. “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?” he asks. “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Isaiah wasn’t against fasting, so this probably isn’t an endorsement of the Broad City approach to Yom Kippur. But his words push us to rethink our understanding of piety. Is the point of fasting to transcend our physicality, feel holy and connect to God? Or are we supposed to be out in the streets, feeding those who are hungry year-round? There are obviously ways to reconcile this tension, but given the lack of social pressure to volunteer in a soup kitchen on Yom Kippur, it seems we might be overemphasizing the spiritual. Isaiah’s model for Judaism is one rooted in service, not services.
Which brings us to our second idea – synagogue. There is a debate in the Talmud about which is more sacred: a house of prayer or a house of study. While the conclusion, perhaps intentionally, is left unclear, what’s significant is the very question itself.
When I was working on a college campus, I would hear students say “I want to get more involved with Hillel,” or more often, “I feel bad I don’t come to Hillel.” I soon realized that “getting involved with Hillel” or “coming to Hillel” meant, to these students, going to services on Friday night. So ingrained is the idea that Judaism equals synagogue that even Hillel becomes one. This attitude continues after college, where “getting involved in Jewish life” for most Jews in their 20s means exploring the different synagogues in the area.
But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when a synagogue was not the central avenue for religious expression but rather was part of a larger religious ecosystem, balanced by the equally-if-not-more-important house of study. That institution has more or less been lost in American Jewish life today, and with it, the space to wrestle, learn and grow. This is especially sad given the high number of younger Jews who are craving personal meaning through Jewish texts. According to one Chassidic rebbe (the Netivot Shalom), the only purpose of the book of Genesis is character development. But that can’t happen without spaces to engage with the text.
Our sages describe three distinct religious approaches through three types of relationships: person and God, person and self, and person and others. When we say there are different ways to be Jewish, we often distinguish between being religious and cultural. But there are different ways to be religiously Jewish, too. We’ve focused on the first approach (person and God) at the expense of the other two. Let’s honor the diversity of our religious expression by encouraging the exploration of these alternative paths.