To find a High Holiday service in a community near you, follow this link.
Humanistic Jews join Jews worldwide in observing the Jewish New Year. As the first day of the Jewish year, Rosh Hashana (meaning “head of the year,”) marks a turning point, a separation between what was and what will be. Rosh Hashana begins the ten-day period ending with Yom Kippur that is often referred to as the High Holidays.
For Humanistic Jews, the High Holidays are a time of renewal, reflection, and new beginnings. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are a time to focus on the affirmation of human power and human dignity. Our humanistic observance of the High Holidays encourages us to consider the possibilities for change, improvement, and growth that we create for ourselves. In acknowledging and affirming human courage and achievement independent of a supernatural being (without God), we achieve human dignity.
Adapting the form of our meditations to the content of our message, Humanistic Jews make the High Holidays a celebration of inner strength and courage, a time of introspection, self-forgiveness and a time to seek forgiveness from others.
Humanistic Jewish communities have adapted many of the ceremonies that are part of the rabbinic celebration of the High Holy Days. The creative liturgies used by Humanistic Jewish communities on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur reflect various themes — self-reflection, self-judgment, commitment, humanistic values and ethics. Our services lead us to focus on evaluating and taking responsibility for our personal behavior, letting go of negative or undesired attitudes or behavior toward self and others, resolving to change and embrace new behavior and forgiveness, and remembering and honoring ancestors. To find an SHJ community near you, follow this link.
A Humanistic Rosh Hashana
Humanistic communities sound the shofar on Rosh Hashana, evoking memories of a time when the blasts of the ram’s horn called the Jewish community together in times of danger. Today, the shofar summons Jews around the world to assemble in celebration of the New Year. Eating apples and honey, sweet honey cake, or a round challah intensifies our connection to the Jewish people.
The ceremony of Tashlikh allows Humanistic Jews to reflect on their behavior, to cast off behaviors we are not proud of, and to vow to be better people in the year to come. Some Humanistic Jewish communities incorporate the writing of New Year’s resolutions into their Tashlikh ceremonies.
A Humanistic Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur (meaning “Day of Atonement”) is the culmination of the self-examination that begins on Rosh Hashana. For Humanistic Jews, Yom Kippur leads us to reflect on the moral quality of our values and behavior. It affords us the opportunity for coming to terms with what we have discovered.
Introspection and goal setting are traditional behaviors on the High Holidays. There are three key elements to the Humanistic and rabbinic liturgies for Yom Kippur: tefilla, teshuva, and tsedaka.
Tefilla is traditionally translated as “prayer,” but comes from a word that means self-reflection. For Humanistic Jews, tefilla directs us toward self-evaluation.
Teshuva is a Hebrew word that is usually translated as “repentence,” but that actually means return. For Humanistic Jews, teshuva is the action of returning to our highest values and ideals, renewing our commitment to these values.
Tsedaka, usually understood to mean “charity,” has a deeper meaning that leads us to think about the kind of human being we wish to be: tsadikim, or people who embody the highest ideals of the Jewish people.
Tefilla, teshuva, and tsedaka — self-reflection, returning to our ideals, and putting our ethics into action are the cornerstone of the Humanistic celebration of Yom Kippur.
Kol Nidre is often sung at a Humanistic Yom Kippur evening celebration. For Humanistic Jews, as for other Jews, Kol Nidre serves as a reminder of our humanness, our fallibility, our menschlikhkeit, and our connection to all humanity. Its haunting melody ties us to the past while affirming values that have meaning for secular Jews.
While the observance of Yom Kippur traditionally ends with the Yizkor service, many Humanistic Jewish communities hold a memorial service on Yom Kippur, called Nizkor (“we will remember”). This offers each of us a time to remember our ancestors and our traditions. It reinforces the belief that it is through our actions and our memories that our loved ones and our heritage will be remembered and preserved.
While Yom Kippur is traditionally a fast day, some Humanistic Jews fast and others do not. In either case, the idea of fasting can be used metaphorically to raise consciousness about the problem of hunger, in our communities and around the world. We can remind ourselves and teach our children about responsibility to the hungry by collecting food for a food bank or visiting and volunteering at a food kitchen. Many local opportunities exist for such social action. While some communities may not wish to do this on Yom Kippur itself, we can use the holiday to teach about tsedaka and social action and plant the seeds for a host of charitable activities throughout the year.
The creative possibilities for Humanistic High Holiday observances are endless. The solemnity, the serious nature of our observances, provide an opportunity for all of us — adults and children — to begin a year of affirming and participating in the behaviors we value. Our Humanistic observance offers us the opportunity to ask forgiveness from ourselves and those we have wronged and to vow to be active, involved, caring people — mentshes — in the coming year. The High Holidays are a time for remembrance, a time to look at what we carry with us from those who are gone and think about how we want to act in the coming year.