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Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I have been part of synagogue life since I was a little child. I remember attending High Holiday services with my father when I was barely 6 years old; as a teen-ager I led such services as the hazzan kavua of my Orthodox synagogue, and officiated as a Reform Rabbi for more than 40 years. Even though I am still inspired by many sections of the liturgy, I find others dull, repetitive and, at times, even irrelevant. Perhaps, for the next year and beyond, especially now that the Reform Rabbinate is planning to create a new High Holiday prayerbook, we need to rethink the entire liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Here are my reflections on this important issue:

1. In many of our prayers, God should be portrayed as a companion, a “co-creator” (Plaskow), or an energy that continues to sustain us. Not everyone in the congregation subscribes to a personal God (theism). We need to make room for the diversity of theological positions in our midst.

2. The reading of the Binding of Isaac (Gen.22) as the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is highly problematic. No matter how one interprets it, for me, the belief that God demands the sacrifice of one’s son as a test for faith and loyalty is theologically repulsive. Instead, I would read the two stories of Creation (Gen. 1 on the first day and Gen. 2 on the following day) not only to indicate the different views on this subject, but also to enable the preacher to talk about the continuous creativity in our time.

3. Even though Yom Kippur is a day of heshbon hanefesh (self-examination), I find the multiple repetition of Al Het (“For the sin we have committed”) and the series of confessions a bit too much. Once is enough.

4. After acknowledging our limitation as humans, and that we are “of little merit,” we then need to stress our ability to overcome our daily challenges. To portray human beings as gnats is not helpful. How many times do we have to repeat that we are sinners? Shouldn’t we encourage people to use their inner strength to do good? Yom Kippur service tends to be a downer. I want people to leave uplifted, re-energized, hopeful. We should have more prayers, like the one entitled “We Rejoice” (p.320/1), that enable us to express our gratitude for what we have, reinforcing our ability to improve ourselves and our society.

5. The Afternoon and Neilah services on Yom Kippur are repetitious and boring. The Avodah service, which recalls the rituals of the ancient priests during the Day of Atonement at the Temple of Jerusalem, is totally irrelevant today. Instead, we should organize study sessions, and struggle with biblical, rabbinic or contemporary Jewish texts that contain insights into how we could change for the better.

6. Some of our prayers cannot or should not be uttered in these days, such as, “You are just, whatever befalls us” (p. 270). After the Holocaust, I cannot say that any more.

7. Sephardic Jews don’t recite the Unetane Tokef (“let us proclaim the sacred power of the day”), which is theologically questionable in our time, with all the primitive imagery it contains as it compares humans to sheep while going under the shepherd’s staff. Instead, we should read more great poetry, either by the famous Jewish-Spanish bards of the medieval times-at least they wrote sublime verses-, or those written in the modern period.

I realize that this proposal is quite drastic, but if we want to pray with integrity and conviction, we need to have the tools available to us on one of the holiest seasons of the Jewish calendar. Just think about it!

Rifat Sonsino


  1. Your comments speak to me. I found little inspiration in our liturgy this year. How can we go about making some of the changes you suggested?

  2. Within the Beth Shalom circle of worship, one can find some of the questions R' Sonsino so thoughtfully raises addressed within the context of our Masonic Hall services. All of the above are good food for thought as we begin thinking about the Yamim Noraim for 6772 (it's never too early!).

  3. Sorry for posting this comment so late. I do agree we need to change parts of the Yamim Noraim liturgy, with one exception: I have always found the binding of Isaac one of the most interesting passages of all the Torah, and one that can be interpreted in many ways (see, for example, Levinas' insightful interpretation of it).

    Best regards,