I do not know how common it is for an individual, who has failed to view a single football game from September until January, to suddenly sit in rapt attention while watching the Super Bowl. And for that same person to sit through the pre-game shenanigans and post-game interviews, and, during the game itself, to stand up and cheer at all the right moments. A bit irrational, you might say, for a person who did not spend autumn’s Sundays on his couch to suddenly find a Sunday in February worth his undivided attention.
There may not be many “Super Bowl Fans.” But every year, perhaps millions of Jews who otherwise demonstrate little interest in their faith and heritage suddenly find themselves in synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, humming with the cantor’s familiar melodies, standing at the correct moments, and staying until the end, maybe schmoozing with their fellow Jews. More than a few rabbis have joked that High Holiday Jews should choose a different, more festive holiday for their once-a-year pilgrimages. Perhaps, Simchat Torah or Purim, both of which are marked by drunken dancing, revelry, and increased charitable giving.
But the rabbis’ jokes miss the point. High Holiday Jews aren’t hedonists, and even if they were, their opportunities are not limited to their synagogue attendance. They go for nobler reasons. When asked why they attend synagogue at all, High Holiday Jews will talk about their more religious parents or grandparents. They wish to perpetuate some semblance of their ancestors’ religion, even if they consider the religion antiquated and reject it through their lifestyles.
There is one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David attends synagogue on the high holidays, only to be booted him from the service after having purchased his tickets from a scalper. It’s a hilarious episode, but it raises the question: What is Larry David doing at synagogue in the first place?
Larry David’s character is perhaps the perfect example of a High Holiday Jew. Married to a non-Jewish wife, he mangles social conventions and scoffs at all forms of religiosity; indeed, his penchant for self-loathing humor is the only connection to his ancestry he retains. How can it be that Larry David pays Judaism little attention 362 days a year, but dutifully attends synagogue the other three days to rekindle his heritage? What is it about these three days that cause High Holiday Jews to cast aside whatever inhibitions they have towards religion?
High Holiday Jews, even the admitted atheists and agnostics, attend synagogue when they do because they hope to experience something which transcends their daily rituals that are steeped in reason, not religion. Reason ought to play an important role in the lives of religious Jews (and non-Jews, of course), but the essence of all religious faiths is “I believe because I believe.” Many religious principles can be produced through thoughtful analysis, but as one continues to dig, all that remains is belief. People may speculate on the health benefits of keeping kosher, but Orthodox Jews refrain from consuming pork because God, not their doctors, said so. And they believe God said so, because they believe that the Torah is the word of God. And they believe it’s the word of God . . . because they believe.
High Holiday Jews seem to understand, even if it’s an implicit understanding, that there’s more to life than cold and calculated reason. They understand that there’s ample room for faith in their lives, and that such faith would likely bring them immense happiness. The happiness they would feel after an especially festive Purim would be just as fleeting as the happiness derived from a rowdy party. The high holidays, however, offer a yearly opportunity to communicate with God and to find true happiness.
Noah Glyn is a graduate student at Rutgers University and an editorial intern at National Review.
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