Wrestling with faith

Every year, rabbis struggle with finding the right words to connect with their followers during this time of the year and to keep it fresh.

High Holiday programs aim to help American Jews struggling with their Judaism (photo credit: CEDAR RAMMU / SACRED WITNESS MEDIA)
High Holiday programs aim to help American Jews struggling with their Judaism
SEVERAL AMERICAN Jewish groups have launched unique initiatives to support community members who encounter hardships during the High Holidays – a time when Jews often feel the strongest connection to their religion and roots, no matter the level of their observance or tradition. How often we’ve heard stories of men and women who barely knew of their own Jewish connection – maybe a long-lost great-grandmother would light Friday night candles – finding themselves outside the doors of synagogues on Yom Kippur to catch the final words of Ne’ilah, or keeping a small stock of apples and honey for their own private celebration those first two days of the new year.
Those moments are the cool whisper of an inner belief that is unexplainable even to them, and can be the salvation that carries them through the year. Such is the power of Judaism.
But what happens when Judaism fails to catch those who are in a free fall before the High Holidays? For those, despite their whole life of believing and observing, may instead find themselves unable to feel the comfort of observance and ritual, and particularly in light of extraordinary personal tragedy or loss.
Every year, rabbis struggle with finding the right words to connect with their followers during this time of the year and to keep it fresh. The High Holidays are a time of intense reflection, and the escalated vulnerability of each soul in the congregation is a heavy weight for community leaders.
The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe, or Yamim Noraim. During this time, individuals examine their behavior over the past year, considering atonement and closeness with God as a change from their behavior during the rest of the year. In practice, this is done through prayers that emphasize repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shuvah, or the Shabbat of Return. The name for this day is derived from the first words of the week’s haftarah portion, which opens with “Return, O Israel” (Hosea 14:2).
Starting from the Shabbat following Tisha Be’Av, those attending synagogue services read the first of the seven of what are known as the haftarot of consolation. These passages taken from the book of Isaiah, which announce Israel’s redemption by taking the Jewish people from the low point of their religious history, the destruction of the Holy Temple and thrust into exile, into the high points of redemption and hope that come with the beginning of a new year.
Thus, much attention is paid to returning and consolation, but beyond the words on pages and scrolls, this is a time of the year when spiritual leaders want to do more than just provide text.
For the Vermont Chabad, capitalizing on this vulnerable and difficult time is especially critical. The Chabad in Burlington has designed a program, in conjunction with the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, for people struggling with these very questions of faith and the place God has in their lives. The idea of having another program dedicated to this goes beyond the normal tradition of sitting in a synagogue and trying to connect with pre-written passages.
A big part of understanding that relationship is trusting God with daily life. The program, “Wrestling with Faith,” involves six sessions, each tackling one of those big questions. The program is meant to help reaffirm and understand faith in a world that appears to counter those beliefs, and bases its answers on Jewish knowledge, as well as a trove of literary, psychological and theological insights, according to their website.
As the program insists, finding one’s own rhythm for a path in belief is the ticket. That message, as other community leaders and rabbis say, tends to be crucial for answering our own doubts in religion as we recover from personal tragedies.
When someone is dealing with an intense level of pain and loss, theology doesn’t even need to be the first answer, says Rabbi Mordechai Soskil, an educator at Beth Tfiloh Community Day School in Baltimore, Maryland. A teacher for 21 years, Soskil is working on a book that explains Torah to teenagers in a language that makes sense to them, and has often dealt with the plight and faith-doubting questions of adolescents.
“You just say, ‘I love you, I’m sorry you’re going through this,’ and you don’t give any of the big philosophical answers,” Soskil says.
The next part, for someone dealing with loss and struggling with questions of faith, is a very Jewish thing, Soskil says. A person should not think because they’re in pain or angry that this translates into a negative experience with Judaism.
“Being angry with God is still a very powerful experience,” Soskil says. “And you’re in very good company.” He said plenty of examples are handed down in Judaism of significant leaders like King David, and Moses, who turned to God at the end of Exodus (Exodus 5:22-23) and questions God why he was sent to serve the people of Israel. Moses complains that he followed God’s instruction and the situation for the people and for Moses did not improve.
“And God says, ‘I’ve got a plan, just chill,’” says Soskil. Other examples throughout the Tanakh, not the least of which is the Book of Job, show the struggle of humans and wise men and kings and prophets with God.
These examples serve to tell us how it is natural to have moments when faith is confusing, and while the mind wants to continue in asserting that faith is real and true, the emotions of anger and pain and sadness are very strong, Soskil says.
The Jewish tradition of challenging, as it were, God’s decrees even goes back to Abraham’s plea for the people of Sodom.
Significantly, both Abraham and Moses combine tremendous nerve with humility. They confront God directly and speak of what is in their hearts, despite their famous humility (Genesis 18:27; Deuteronomy 12:3). In both instances, it is clear that neither are given the directive to be mere yes-men. Their questions of God’s demands are affirmations of a faith of a power that allows them to speak their minds.
What happens in the vast majority of times of those dealing with anger and pain, sometimes years later, Soskil says, is that the process of this struggle helps the struggler to come out with a renewed sense of faith.
There is no way to go back to a former place and mentality, but faith often becomes the impetus as the way to move forward, he adds.
“You can’t undo a tragedy, you can’t make it not happen. But what am I going to do about it now?” he asks. “You can’t undo, you can only become something new. That’s the perfect Rosh Hashanah message this year.”
Soskil admits, though, there are people for whom a tragedy is so powerful and disruptive that their sense of faith is crushed. Those people are still part of the community and are loved, even if they are “crushed.”
Rabbi Adina Allen, co-founder and director of the Jewish Studio Project in Berkeley, California, says that it is natural for the process with God to be ongoing and changing throughout life. She says that during Rosh Hashanah and High Holiday services, she strives to acknowledge all kinds of people who may be in the room listening.
The second thing she stresses in her services this year is the names of God, and that, just as forefathers from the Bible did not have static names – Avram became Avraham, Jacob was named Israel – neither does God.
“They’re names of a process, God is in a process, in a relationship with us, and it is inherent in the tradition and part of what it means to be in a relationship,” Allen says, “In talking about how on Yom Kippur the high priest went into the Holy of Holies, each of us has to receive what would be the new name of God for us, and that’s significant for us personally, and not just in our world.”
Allen stresses that our perspective of God is just as important to complete the whole picture and relationship with God. This message tends to be all-inclusive, she says, as broadly for Judaism and for human consciousness.
The idea of needing our own perspective has “much bigger implications for the humanity of all people,” Allen says.
“It is sort of inviting, and empowering people to feel like their voice matters and their struggle is welcome with new names and visions of God in this time,” she said.
The Jewish Studio Project she heads brings around 500 people to High Holiday services every year, which is remarkable for a space not often used as a synagogue. Allen runs the part-studio, part-community space to integrate Jewish learning and cultural arts to connect with those in Berkeley searching for meaning.
Nonetheless, community leaders and rabbis stress the openness and understanding that each individual has their own troubles, questions and path ahead of them. For Allen, she says that people at the end of going through a milestone or struggle in life feel something significant when that struggle is acknowledged, at last. She says that in her Torah services, she does her best to make personal blessings for each person’s aliyah.
“It’s really rare in our society to be seen and witnessed for some struggle or accomplishment, and then to be blessed for it,” Allen says