A person blows a shofar

FROM THE VINE: Speaking in the Right Register

By Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel

As a rabbi, one of the most common phrases I hear is, “I’m not really religious.” I rarely respond. Instead, I keep listening— intently—as people struggle to explain why they are sharing this with a rabbi or why they are in a synagogue to begin with.

The High Holy Days are the time when multitudes of self described non-religious Jews find themselves in temple. My guess is that most of the “non-religious” Jews who come to see me are judging themselves against certain Jewish observances, which they understand to be religious practices, such as dietary laws or Shabbat rituals.

As I have tried to express many times (never completely successfully, even to my own mind), the Jewish experience does not fit neatly into modern categories, which makes it difficult for us to express and even fully understand what we are about. Our Jewish inheritance was once simply a way of living in the world. We ate a certain way (no pork, milk separated from meat). We dressed a certain way (not mixing certain fabrics, head coverings and fringed garments for men, modest dress for women). We counted time in a certain way (Shabbat, holidays). We marked the personal life cycle a certain way (male circumcision, b’nai mitzvah, marriage beneath a chuppah).

With the onset of modernity and the liberalism that it brought, these traditions became subsumed into the modern category of religion. But what if we viewed these cultural and ethnic practices simply as that—cultural and ethnic practices? What if we looked at what counts as religion differently?

This is the larger endeavor of Temple Micah. We want to view religion through a different lens, a lens that will help us understand our Judaism. We seek a new language to engage those whose first sentence to rabbis distances them from what they see as religion. With this in mind, I offer two different, yet compelling, definitions of religion:

“A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with … an aura of factuality…” (Anthropologist Clifford Geertz)

“Religion is the attempt to speak in a register that brings dignity to what it means to be a human being.” (Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman)

Geertz’s definition suggests that religion is a system of symbols that creates moods. Geertz’s moods are long-lasting, but let us, for a moment, simply start with the creation of a mood. The dominant symbol of the High Holy Days is, without question, the shofar. Is it mood inducing? Maimonides wrote that the sound of the shofar was to “wake the slumberer from his sleep.” Does the shofar wake our souls, our moral consciences? Does the Holy Day season cause us to take stock of our lives? Does this symbol generate a mood, as Geertz’s definition would suggest? Individually, we might each go further: What is the mood that the shofar instills in me? What memories does it elicit? What does the sound of the horn mean to me? And when the congregation rises and we are surrounded by hundreds of others as the primal sound of the ram’s horn pierces the room: Have I been affected? How?

Perhaps the sound will raise other questions: What am I overlooking in the world around me? Am I sleepwalking through my life? Does the sound of the shofar call me to something larger than myself? Do I feel a commonality with the people who are standing around me? What is my current mood? Do I wish to make this mood “long-lasting?” How do I do that? What are the steps that I can take throughout this year to keep an echo of the shofar’s blast reverberating within my life?

There are countless examples of mood-setting symbols in the Holy Days. If the shofar is the most prominent symbol, certainly Kol Nidre is the preeminent service. The Torah scrolls, dressed in white, are held before an empty ark as we listen three times to the haunting melody, the Kol Nidre (All Vows).

Each of us again asks: What is my mood? How do I make it last so that it speaks to me throughout the year? Am I being called to take my life more seriously? Does the mood of Kol Nidre remind me that the gift of life is sacred? Do I yearn for a sense of uplift within my soul that this annual, unique prayer experience stirs?

Geertz’s definition begs the question: How do we hold on to what we experience in the moment? Our second definition offers a path. When Rabbi Hoffman suggests that religion is an attempt to speak in a register that brings dignity to what it means to be human, he is speaking the language of what we call the Human Project. Hoffman takes Geertz’s moods and provides an opportunity and a challenge for every day. The mood and message inspired by symbol and ritual are to be lived daily.

The High Holy Day symbols described here are the most prominent offered by Jewish life. They are easily seen as religious. But each of the cultural and ethnic practices described above—from pork prohibitions to wedding rituals—also carries a deeper symbolic message. So do other practices, including separating milk and meat, reciting the blessings of the Shabbat table, and putting a mezuzah on the door. In the 21st century, though, their meanings are harder for us to see, and they don’t readily evoke the mood Geertz describes. These practices, like many other parts of our inherited symbol system, require cultural translation and explanation. They no longer create that long-lasting mood and, therefore, are not religious. They exist in the ethnic and cultural realm.

The High Holy Days come annually to remind us that every time we seek dignity for all people, in whatever arena we find ourselves, we are living the religious life. This is what we, at Temple Micah, seek to describe in a new religious language.

What we call religion at Micah is here to remind us, inspire us, guide us, help us ask the right questions about life’s purpose and discourage us from pursuing the petty ones (idolatry). The Temple Micah project seeks to capture our ancient religious message, our inherited liturgy and ritual practice in a cultural language that speaks viscerally to us. This attempt renews annually with the High Holy Days.

This is what I want all the people who tell me they are not religious to know. Religion is not about what we eat or what we wear, or what our grandparents ate and wore. It’s much deeper and, frankly, more meaningful. At Micah, we work hard to spark the true religious sensibility that lies within each one of us.

I look forward to seeing you as we enter this sacred season. My prayer is that we are able to create a mood that inspires you to carry it through the year —as we seek greater dignity for all in the very Jewish and very religious Human Project. Shanah tovah! 

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of the Vine.

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