There's No Substitute for Physical Ritual on the Jewish High Holy Days

By understanding the function that our bodies play in ritual, we reach a deeper understanding of some of the most complex ideas in our religious tradition.

Each year, despite my near obsessive use of hand sanitizer over the High Holy Days, I find that I inevitably end up getting sick a couple days of later.  After shaking hundreds of hands over an intense couple of weeks, you might assume that this would be inevitable.  

However, I think the reality is that for Jews that's what it means to practice Judaism.  Judaism is all about the use of our bodies.  Our holy days are physically taxing on our bodies, but most of us wouldn't have it any other way.  On Rosh Hashanah we stuff our bodies full, while on Yom Kippur we do the exact opposite.  Not all of us (rabbis certainly excluded here) live lives full of constant physical interaction, but the holy days are all about hugs, kisses, and schmoozing with our family and friends.  In synagogue, we get into the flow of an almost aerobic like mantra of constantly sitting and standing, while having to chant Hebrew on either a bloated stomach or in the middle of a fast.

Unfortunately, I think that we are living in the middle of a paradigm shift which is moving away from a corporeal approach to Judaism in favor of a more distant one.  For young Jews it is often less about needing to go somewhere or do something with our bodies and more about moments of zen.  People are increasingly deceiving themselves into believing that Facebook, Twitter, and even text messaging are becoming personal ways to communicate without having to use your body in any meaningful way. 

That's not to say that technology does not continue to be an important way to bring Jews closer to Jewish living; it's just that technology is a poor substitute for Jewish ritual.  Leading up to Yom Kippur I can't tell you how many Facebook postings I received from people “apologizing if they had offended me in any way.”  While I would like to imagine that many of those people may have called or reached out to people they were closer with (clearly I did not make the cut), I can't help but be concerned.

After all, how can pushing "enter" be more meaningful than the Jewish requirement to actually go over to your neighbor and apologize?  

Because for the spiritual and the zen to be truly meaningful it needs to be accompanied by ritual, action, and use of the body.  For Jews, it is by understanding the function that our bodies play in ritual that we reach a deeper understanding of some of the most complex ideas in our religious tradition.   By using our bodies, we ourselves embody chapter thirty-five of the Book of Psalms, which encourages us to worship God using “all of our bones.”  

Only recently, I came across a commentary by the Medizbozer Rebbe who understood the Tishrei holiday extravaganza as a call to Jews to engage in Judaism with our whole selves.  Rosh Hashanah, he believed, with its focus on memory, remains an opportunity for us each year to use our brains to reflect, while Yom Kippur he taught, was an opportunity for us to open up our hearts to God and others.  He believed that Sukkot, with its building projects and the grasping of the Lulav and Etrog, speaks to the way that our hands help us to connect to God and the world around us.  And he also felt that on Simhat Torah it was our feet, through dancing and parading around synagogue with the Torah, that allowed us to worship God with our entire being.  

In other words, to engage in Judaism fully, the Medizbozer Rebbe believed that we must know what it is like for our bodies to feel exhausted after the holidays.

Because sending an ecard or a video of a dancing apple and honey will never be the same as the taste of honey on your tongue.  Apple's Facetime program may connect people over distances, but it will never be a substitute for the real face time that you get while interacting with a Jewish community in synagogue.  It might be fun to email a prayer to and have a yeshiva student put it in the Western Wall on your behalf, but there is no substitute in meaning for visiting Israel and putting your prayer in the wall yourself.

Each year I feel exhausted after the holy days.  I may even get sick.  But to feel truly connected, I am willing to take that chance.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.