There's nothing quite like a rabbi who tells Jews to give services a miss at Rosh Hashana time. (Unless it's a rabbi who plans a trip to Israel for his congregants which includes a pilgrimage to Arafat's tomb, but I digress.) This time the rabbi leading sheep astray is Jay Michaelson, who, in his piece for The Forward, Why You Shouldn’t Go To Synagogue On Rosh Hashanah This Year, told Jews, Jews to stay away, come again another day.
Such as Sukkot, when we have those cool outdoor huts for instance. Because Rosh Hashana? According to Michaelson, it's an "epic fail."
Michaelson refers to Rosh Hashana services as big business, speaks of "kitschy mass performances that even your rabbi probably finds uninspiring," and urges you to stay home from shul come Hell or high water:
"There are at least three reasons for you to avoid your local temple or synagogue this Rosh Hashanah. First, the holiday’s themes and liturgy focus on the least believable, most misunderstandable aspects of Jewish theology. Sure, introspection is great, and asking for forgiveness from friends and relatives can be extremely powerful. But the Man in the Sky with the big Book of Life? The Birthday of the World? Who are we kidding here? Does anyone believe this stuff?
And yet, here we are again, listening to authority figures drone on about them, standing up, sitting down, praying to a deity we don’t believe in. No wonder half of American Jews are leaving the fold — this fold sucks."
It's kind of funny, a rabbi asking if anyone believes in this stuff. If he doesn't believe in "this stuff" and thinks our fold "sucks," then in what sense is he a rabbi? Or is there something I'm not seeing here??
To give the devil his due, it's important to point out that Michaelson specifies that the shul you should not go to is non-Orthodox. Which implies that he thinks the Orthodox have something going for them that the non-Orthodox do not. Which leads one to wonder: why is he not Orthodox?
But then, not everyone can be as wise as Michaelson, who used to write a column for The Forward called The Polymath. And then there was the column that made him (in)famous: How I'm Losing My Love For Israel. Oh woe to be Michaelson with his wrestling and his torment!
"I admit, it has become simply exhausting to maintain the ambivalence, the hugging and the wrestling, the endless fence sitting. My love of Israel has turned into a series of equivocations: 'I do not support the expansion of settlements, but the Palestinians bear primary responsibility for the collapse of the peace process in 1999.' 'The Israelis acted overzealously in Gaza, but they must be entitled to defend themselves against rocket attacks.' 'Yes, the separation wall is odious, but it is also effective and necessary.' Yes, but; no, but; defend, but. At some point, the complexity and ambiguity wears one out, particularly when the visuals on the anti-Israel side are so compelling, and so stark: walls, tanks, checkpoints."
Why must Michaelson sit on the fence? Why must he equivocate? Why would a rabbi not support the building of home in Judea and Samaria, the indigenous heartland of the Jewish people?
In what alternative world can Israel be called "overzealous" in its response to having over 10,000 projectiles shot into civilian Israel??? Why would Michaelson parrot the lies of the enemy of the Jews and call the Security Wall a "separation wall?" In what sense is it "odious" for the sovereign State of Israel to protect the lives of Israeli citizens, Michaelson's fellow Jews, with any and all means possible?
The "complexity" Rabbi Polymath sees is imagined. It's really quite simple. It's our land. They are lying and also killing us in an attempt to steal it away.
Really, really cut and dried. The good guys and the bad guys. A rabbi, of all people, should know the truth about his land and his people. And the truth about their enemies, the terrorists who murder them.
There is no need to feel or see any ambiguity here. The Torah says: "For all the land you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever." [Genesis 13:15]. The Talmud says, "If one comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first."
These are basic Jewish precepts. Presumably Michaelson learned these precepts in rabbi school. On what basis can a rabbi—can Michaelson—possibly see "ambiguity?" For all that there are "streams of thought" in Judaism, there is the Torah. And the Torah is perfectly straightforward on these issues, clear as cool, blue water flowing from a rock struck by a staff in the desert.
Rather it is Michaelson himself, who is ambiguous and complex. From the Wikipedia entry bearing his name we learn that Michael is "a teacher of jhana meditation in the Theravadan Buddhist lineage of Ayya Khema" and that he is "openly gay and often works in the intersecting fields of LGBT people and Jewish traditions."
Now there's ambiguity for you! A practitioner of a faith that sees homosexual activity as a grave sin who claims an intersection between the LGBT world and Jewish traditions. A loch in kop.
We get it: the Conservative and Reform have boring services. But why tell the people to stay home, when even you, Michaelson, acknowledge that the Orthodox have them beat. And we do.
Rabbi Michaelson, my heart breaks to think you came so close to telling them the truth. You sat on that fence and said not to go to a non-Orthodox service. What you didn't say was, "Come to an Orthodox service, if you want to see the real deal, feel the real deal."
You could have said, "If you want to feel Rosh Hashana as it is meant to be, get up while it is velvety dark, still, and quiet, to pray with the faithful at a Vatikin sunrise service. Pray alongside the serious daveners; those who care more about the quality of their prayers than their clothes. Sing jubilantly to your God with those who can sing and those who cannot and crown Him King as one. Prostrate yourself full length on the ground on a scarf you've brought with you for that purpose, so you shouldn't kneel on the ground (Jews don't do that). Cry to the sound of the shofar.
"And be home by 10:30 a.m. MAX."
Rabbi Michaelson, come to the Vatikin minyan in Efrat. God willing, I'll be there at sunrise with my black Isotoner ballet slippers (I shouldn't have my prayers distracted by aching feet). Why not join me there (but on the men's side, of course)? I promise it will all make sense. And it won't cost you a thing.
The sunrise minyan is free.
h/t Reena Ribalow for doing some of the digging on this story.