What is it that brings Jews out in droves to High Holiday services? As indicated in the Pew Research Center’s 2020 Jewish Population Study, three times as many Jews show up in shul for the High Holidays as for regular Shabbat services. What motivates Jews of every stripe to make their way to “The House of Prayer” at this time of year?
It certainly isn’t a fine, like the one charged to members of the first synagogue in the United States, New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation, in the early 19th century. According to the 1805 edition of the synagogue’s by-laws, New York Jews who failed to attend synagogue services “shall be assessed and charged by the Board of Trustees ten dollars per annum, and in case of refusal to pay the same, shall not be entitled to any of the rights, benefits and immunities, granted to the electors and members thereof [Jewish burial, kosher food, etc…], until he or they shall have paid up his or their arrearages, and the consent of the Board of Trustees had thereto.”
Charging a fee for absence from shul likely strikes many of us as unusual. A desire to avoid financial loss (about $260, when adjusted for inflation) feels like the wrong reason to pray. We should be drawn to religious expression by something more authentic than external pressures: the desire for meaning and connection to G-d. Punishment and coercion are not the tools by which people connect deeply to religious life.
The Maharam of Rothenburg set a crucial precedent in instituting a public declaration at the very onset of Yom Kippur, permitting us to “pray with the sinners” (Sefer Kolbo #68, cited in Beit Yosef, OC 619:1). In its original context, this permission had a formal halachic function, allowing those who had been excommunicated from the community, who would otherwise be prohibited from even entering the synagogue premises, to join together in prayer on the most sacred day of the year. For all that excommunication was meant to accomplish as a deterrent from sinful behavior, the Maharam recognized that the spiritual value of communal prayer on Yom Kippur was of greater worth. After all, on some level aren’t we all sinners?
One might even go so far as to say that the eventual phasing out of excommunication from the norms of contemporary Jewish life reflects an expansion of the insight of the Maharam – that the power of coercion will always be less effective than the power of authentic religious engagement.
As we approach the High Holiday season, the notion of reward and punishment is certainly on our minds. “Who shall live, and who shall die? Who by fire, and who by water?” From much of our liturgy, it seems that the motivating factor underlying this whole time of year is coercion and the fear of divine punishment.
Yet when we study the Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva, we are introduced to a very different presentation of what the penitential season is about. While the Rambam is firmly committed to the notion of divine reward and punishment – even considering belief in divine justice one of the thirteen principles of faith – the final and seminal chapter of Hilchot Teshuva points towards a different way of approaching repentance.
For the Rambam, even if the threat of punishment is effective, it is not the most authentic form of motivation to follow in the ways of G-d. A deep sense of love and attachment to G-d, a desire for closeness with the Divine that can bring solace to the spirit and meaning to one’s existence – this is the ultimate motivation for religious commitment (Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 10).
As the sunshine of summer gives way to the cool breeze of autumn, as we watch the greenest of leaves morph into bold hues of yellow and crimson before they slowly brown and gently fall to the earth, the penitential season approaches yet again.
This crucial moment of connection for Jews around the world is a golden opportunity to instill within ourselves and within our communities that Judaism is a gift. It is not merely a set of rules to abide by to avoid the wrath of one’s G-d or one’s parents or one’s community; rather, it is a pathway towards a deep sense of meaning, and ultimately to G-d.
Coercion is not the tool that works, nor the tool we would want to use. It is through authenticity, devotion, and spiritual grandeur that we can make this holiday season the springboard for yearlong religious commitment for our communities, and for all of Klal Yisrael.