Yom Kippur 5778

D'var Torah | Holidays

In her research on ancient Greek rituals and festivals, Jane Harrison (“On Dionysus and His Festivals,” Themis, 1962) explains the dithyramb, the Greek rites of spring. In essence, these rites were a fertility festival called a dromenon, meaning “a thing done.” Originally, this ritual was, as Harrison describes it, “a re-presentation or a pre-presentation; a re-doing or a pre-doing” of the anticipated results. With all the members of the polis, the ancient Greek city-state, participating in the dromenon, a good yield of crops would be assured.


As time passed, the ritual changed. Dromenon became “drama,” another Greek word for “a thing done.” But there was now a significant difference. In drama not all the members of the polis participated equally. Instead, there were actors who performed the ritual and spectators who observed them. The few acted for the many.


It is this kind of drama that is described in the Torah with regard to the Yom Kippur ritual (Leviticus 16). It is the High Priest who officiates in the name of the community. And, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temples, it is the “shaliah tzibbur,” literally, the emissary of the congregation, who leads the prayer service in the name of the worshippers. But for Judaism, this is not the ideal.


Unlike the ancient Greeks whose sacred rites evolved from universal participation to representative participation, Jewish ritual moved in the opposite direction. Each individual Jew became duty bound to perform the traditional rituals rather than relegating the performance of ritual to the few. Only in the case of those who were unfamiliar with the rituals would the action of the agent be appropriate. Thus the Talmud (Kiddushin 41a) asserts that a mitzvah is best performed by the individual than by his or her agent.


With regard to the synagogue, however, it is the Greek model that endures. Worshippers attend as spectators rather than participants, as observers rather than performers. Sitting passively in their seats, too many Jews see the prayer service as drama and the synagogue as theatre. The challenge that faces Judaism today is to engage Jews actively in the performance of rituals, and consequently enable all Jews to be effective participants in the acting out of our tradition.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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