The High Holidays Without the One on High

By Michael Felsen


Rosh Hashanah is, of course, a sacred High Holiday in the Jewish calendar. It is the beginning of the 10 Days of Awe, and is the day on which God writes, among other things, who will live and who will die. How then, can it possibly be observed as a secular event?

Somehow, indeed, it can be. At Boston Workmen’s Circle, the secular observance of Rosh Hashanah has evolved over a 20-year period, from an informal gathering of a few dozen people in a member’s backyard, to a carefully crafted and deeply moving community experience attended each year by close to 500 members, family and friends.

How can this work? For one thing, while our community is by definition “non-religious,” we deeply value Jewish culture, respect its venerable history and cherish its rich ethical foundation. We also understand the magnetic power of ritual that draws us together communally for these annual celebrations, satisfying our need for group expression and contemplation, even without invocation of God. And by “we,” I include not only those Jewish by birth or conversion, but also friends, partners and relatives who, although not “officially” Jewish, feel comfortable and inspired to join as full participants.

We begin with candle-lighting and recitation of the Shehechyanu by last year’s shule (Sunday school) graduation Bar/Bat Mitzvah class. From the outset, the style and tone is clear: we recite the Hebrew words of the traditional prayers and also their Yiddish equivalent, and finally offer our contemporary English interpretation. The Shehechyanu, “in the tradition of our people,” expresses “our joy and gratitude for our continuing life together as a secular and politically progressive Jewish community.” We then sing the Yiddish Peace Song, “Sholem Lid”. (“Let us all rejoice, let us all sing. Sing for peace, sing for bread. Build a future without hate or need. Build a future of peace.”) This segment of the service concludes with a colloquy between the current year’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah class teacher, and her students, addressing the historical roots of the holiday.

The moral heart of our secular machzor (prayer book) focuses on the 1,000-year old prayer, “Unetaneh Tokef.” This prayer tells us that what we are shapes what we become, but that we are also able to influence the outcome, through tefillah, tzedakah, and teshuvah. While these words are traditionally translated as “prayer,” charity,” and “repentance,” respectively, we understand them a bit differently. We see tefillah as having been derived from the word for “honest self-judgment,” and tzedakah as derived from the word for “a just person.” Most compellingly, we understand teshuvah’s roots in the word “khet” as originally referring, in archery, to “missing the mark.” The Jewish concept of sin, then, is the missing of one’s goals, and losing sight of what’s important. In our machzor, instead of repentance, teshuvah really means “turning” to hit the mark, to achieve what we truly value in life.

Closely linked thematically to Unetaneh Tokef is the central prayer in the traditional service, the Amidah, which is a series of praises and sanctifications of God. Our interpretation is different; it closely examines who and how we were, as human beings, during the past year:

Let us ask ourselves hard questions
For this is the time for truth.
How much time did we waste
In the year that is now gone?
Did we fill our days with life
Or were they dull and empty?
Was there love inside our home
Or was the affectionate word left unsaid? ….
Did we deceive others?
Did we deceive ourselves? ….
Did we fear what the crowd would say
And keep quiet when we should have spoken out?
Did we mind only our own business
Or did we feel the heartbreak of others?
Did we live right,
And, if not,
Then have we learned
And will we change?

If these readings form the ethical and meditative center to our observance, the Yizkor (memorial service) is surely their emotional counterpoint. We kindle a yahrtzeit (memorial) candle, recite Kaddish (prayer extolling God that is said by mourners), and offer the opportunity for those present, one at a time, to say aloud the names of family members or friends who have passed away. We read a poem or two, and we also sing the song “When I’m Gone,” by Phil Ochs.

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

There aren’t many dry eyes by the time we conclude this segment.

Sprinkled throughout the service are other songs in Yiddish, Hebrew and English, poems, the blowing of the shofar (of course) and an I.L. Peretz short story appropriate to the occasion. We also sing the Sh’ma together, “to express our unity as a community, to maintain our connection with our history and traditions, and to honor the principle that we must all stay true to our own beliefs and speak them with pride and dedication.” And we hear the words of a member of our community, who offers his or her personal, secular version of a d’var torah (teaching story). D’var subjects are selected by the individual, and range widely in content, but always reflect the Jewish themes and values of the holiday. This past September, a young adult, who had graduated from our shule several years ago, was asked to deliver the d’var. He chose to speak about the importance of empathy as we listen to the divergent political voices in the Jewish community. Here’s how he framed the issue:

When I reflect on what it means to be Jewish, I think of two broad themes: tribalism and humanism–the commitment to sustaining a Jewish community and the commitment to global social justice, to tikkun olam… [O]ften, absolute commitment to one of these forces means at least partial abandonment of the other. Many of us feel that, when it comes to Israel, too many Jews have abandoned the commitment to social justice in support of the tribe. And many others feel that, when it comes to Israel, too many of us have abandoned the tribe in order to uphold our humanist ideals.

He raised provocative questions, and suggested ideas for possible responses. It was, indeed, a topic and a heartfelt discussion most worthy of the occasion.

This is Boston Workmen’s Circle’s Rosh Hashanah observance. It resonates with the familiar sounds and invocations of the traditional service, but its focus is on the part each of us plays in this world, and how we can “turn” to improve ourselves and the lot of our fellow human beings. We remember the dead, “whose memory continues to light the world after they have passed from it,” and who remind us to do our best to live meaningful lives. It is a special day in the year: an event focused on individual and community, on calm reflection, on touching our hearts and minds. It is secular, and yet, dare I say, spiritual too. Who would have thought?


About Michael Felsen

Michael Felsen has lived in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, with his wife, Tolle, for 30 years; their three boys attended the Boston public schools and the Workmen's Circle shule. A senior attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor, Michael currently serves as president of Boston Workmen's Circle and treasurer of the national Workmen's Circle organization (and he sings bass with A Besere Velt).