Franz Rosenzweig, one of the most important Jewish theologian and philosopher of the 20th century, considered converting to Christianity in early adulthood. He announced his decision to his mother but decided to attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur before taking the final step. We don’t know precisely what happened during those High Holy Day services, but we do know that he left those services a changed man. He never spoke about what changed his mind, or presented an account of it in his writings, but his mother immediately recognized the connection between her son’s attendance at High Holy Day services and his decision to remain a Jew. She confided her conclusion that Rosenzweig’s immersion in a praying Jewish community on the Day of Atonement helped him find his way back to Judaism to her son’s friend, Nahum Glazer, who later became a professor at Brandeis and Rosenzweig’s biographer.
Rosenzweig’s story testifies to the power found in a community of faith, and, as we contemplate a return to in-person services for the upcoming High Holy Days, it reminds us of the special significance that praying together on the most important days of the Jewish calendar will have for all of us in New Year that begins in early September. Like Rosenzweig, we have all been away from the sanctuary for a while and the same questions of faith and mortality, and the connection between divinity and humanity, that occupy our minds were on Rosenzweig’s mind as well in the months before he returned to the synagogue. His letters reveal his intellectual struggle with questions of belonging and belief, but he couldn’t move beyond them by holding himself aloof from his people. He resolved, accordingly, to immerse himself in the prayers of the synagogue on the longest liturgical days of the Jewish year before he decided to leave or stay. There, in the presence of fellow worshippers, praying out of a common prayer book and steeped in the special music of the High Holy Days, he found the clarity he sought, announcing to his Christian friend Eugen Rosenstock that conversion to Christianity was no longer possible for him after attending those services.
Would Rosenzweig have reached the same decision if he had attended those same services on Zoom? It’s impossible to say but I doubt it. Don’t get me wrong. Our Zoom services were wonderful and essential, and they helped keep us together even as we kept ourselves safe by staying apart. It is comforting to know that we could resort to them again if, God forbid, we needed to stay apart again. Yet, Zoom largely relegated us to the sound of a single praying voice, or if we were lucky, two voices if they happened to live under the same roof. One voice, two voices, even voices three, however, lack the power of a congregation singing and praying together as one.
In the synagogue, Rosenzweig was surrounded by the faces and voices of others praying in a unison he could choose to join without worrying he would be muted for singing out of synchronization with the prayer leader on Zoom. On that day, we can only assume that something about the motion and the music, the unity and the harmony possible only when we are truly in each other’s presence helped Rosenzweig see something about his faith that he could not apprehend purely through intellectual contemplation from afar. By being together with his people, rather than apart, he found his way back, convinced that Judaism cannot be truly known by just its external expressions and history, but only by being part of it himself. He later wrote his friend Eugen about his decision not to convert. He said he could not explain it rationally to an outsider, that he could only do so from within the heart of the synagogue.
For that same reason, it is hard to put into words what in-person services will mean this upcoming High Holy Days. The power of being together, of course, does not outweigh safety considerations, but, as long as we can gather safely together under appropriate health protocols, being part of services together, seeing each other’s faces and hearing each other’s voices allows us to be inside the heart of services in a way that we never can be on Zoom. Assuming all goes well, accordingly, we will see and hear each other again as we recite the High Holy Day liturgy once again, this year starting in early September. There, in the midst of prayers hallowed by centuries, and music cherished by generations, we will find ourselves on the inside once again after being outside for so long. May this year’s services be meaningful and uplifting for all of us!