S’lichot ‘Round Midnight

One Minute to 12 oclock

I had the pleasure of meeting Temple Sholom Chicago‘s newly installed Rabbi Edwin Goldberg at my shul, Emanuel Congregation, at Sukkot morning services last week. On that day he invited me to disagree with him anytime. (During the Q&A following his sermon, we shared differing opinions on the experiential takeaways implied by Yom Kippur and Sukkot–follow the links to see what I think about the two holidays.) Today on the Reform Judaism movement’s RJ Blog and in the movement’s Ten Minutes of Torah email, Rabbi Goldberg used an evocative but secular concept in his suggestion on improving the impact of a key Reform Jewish worsip service. While I agree with the ends at which he arrives, I will take Rabbi Goldberg up on his friendly invitation and suggest a different way of getting there.

In his blog, post Selichot and Reform Judaism: “I’m Gonna Wait to the Midnight Hour, Rabbi Goldberg examines S’lichot, the penitential prayers and worship service that occur during Elul, the month before the Jewish High Holy Day month of Tishrei. In traditional practice, the S’lichot prayers are said in the early morning for a period that (depending on the community) can last from a week up to a month. This period of morning prayer, whatever its length, begins with a late-evening Saturday service in the hours following the close of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath). The Reform movement greatly abbreviates this practice into a single S’lichot service held after the Shabbat that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year celebration).

In decades past, during the Classical period of the Reform movement, the S’lichot service was scheduled to coincide in some way with midnight. In his post, Rabbi Goldberg reminisces about those late S’lichot services and the deeper religious experience they brought with them because of their late hour. Responding to the movement’s contemporary practice of holding S’lichot services earlier in the evening, he suggested that those services be returned closer to the “midnight hour”–with clear reference to the secular midnight of 12:00 a.m.

I love the idea that a later S’lichot service by dint of its advanced hour can be imbued with greater meaning, mysticism, and solemnity. But given that the Hebrew calendar marks the transition from day to day at sundown, and that halacha (Jewish law) offers a definition of midnight completely different from the secular one, what exactly is the appropriate way to conceive of midnight for Reform Jewish religious purposes?

Rabbi Goldberg’s suggestion is more complex and nuanced than simply saying, “Let’s have services at 12:00 a.m.,” of course. He notes how pregnant later hours of the evening can feel, and shares lines from a Jewish poet who remarked on the special feeling of late-evening S’lichot services. But he returns times to the use of “midnight” as secular midnight, which makes things a bit muddy from a religious standpoint.

In retaining the late-evening S’lichot service, our Classical Reform forebears were simply bringing forward the practice still common in traditional synagogues of holding the service as close to halachic midnight as possible. The Hebrew Bible does not specifically define any of its references to midnight. (For example, midnight being the time of the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn.) Obviously the concept of “12:00 a.m.”–a time indicating the beginning of the following day and based on a purely solar calendar–would have been religiously alien to our avot v’imahot. In Talmudic times, our Sages offered opinions on the definition of chatzot halaila, or halachic midnight, that essentially define it as the point halfway between sundown and sunrise (depending on the length of another concept, the halachic hour), with, of course, no reference to the concept of one day becoming another at that hour.

While it is true that our movement–and really, all American Jewish movements–eventually settled on scheduling S’lichot services at or near secular midnight, I don’t believe secular midnight, itself, no matter how evocative, was the motivation. I think the real motivation was getting American Jews to synagogue at a clearly understandable time as close to chatzot halaila as possible with actually having to deal with the calculation of halachic midnight.

Halacha directs that S’lichot prayers be said between chatzot halaila and dawn. That’s why traditional communities say their s’lichot prayers for a week or a month in the early morning–and more importantly, that’s why the evening S’lichot service across all denominations of Judaism (including our own) ended up being scheduled so late in the evening. (Orthodox Jews still try to hit the nail on the head and schedule S’lichot evening services beginning at or past midnight, to coincide with chatzot halaila.) Reform Judaism, while retaining the late-evening aspect of S’lichot services, opted for convenience over the letter and pegged its S’lichot services to end at midnight. Not for a religious reason, but likely simply to make sure as many of us as possible would be able to attend at this earlier time–and most importantly, would be able to keep track of the time, too. It was and remains easier to schedule a service to begin or end at 12:00 a.m. than to ask Reform Jews to understand and calculate chatzot.

This is the same way our movement generally schedules our evening Shabbat and Yom Tov services–at extra-halachic times for the convenience of our worshippers, to make sure as many of us as possible can attend on time. Our post-sunset “adult” services allow people to get to synagogue from work more easily. Our pre-sunset “family” services allow parents with young children to attend together without keeping our kids up too late. In both instances, services are scheduled in response to secular conditions in order to achieve ends that have nothing to do with the religious impact of the service. The common aim was and is to give us a better shot at actually attending services.

To suggest Reform return S’lichot services closer to midnight is a qualitatively different thing. Here we are not trying merely to get people in the seats. Instead, we are trying to improve their religious experience while they’re in those seats. Because we are dealing specifically with a religious issue, secular midnight may not be the most appropriate motivation or goal for rescheduling Reform S’lichot services. I’m not sure leveraging secular motivation to achieve religious ends puts us on confident Jewish grounds.

Yes, our movement brings quite a lot of secular content into the worship service on the left-hand side pages of our current siddur, Mishkan T’filah. But the fact remains that our movement’s normative content now lives on the right-hand page, and that content is more traditional than ever. I think we take a step backwards if we begin again to reject or relinquish our legacy religious motivations.

It might be more in keeping with our current principles and direction as a movement to rephrase the suggestion. I do happen to think later S’lichot services would have greater impact. As Reform Jews we do not hold ourselves to be commanded by halacha, but over time we have increasingly come to value and find meaning, comfort, and connection in traditional ways of being Jewish.

With that in mind, I think we would be on stronger Jewish ground while still holding by our Reform principles to suggest we can increase the religious impact of S’lichot services by scheduling them closer to chatzot, but not specifically at chatzot–or secular midnight, or any other exact hour. In doing so, we would come closer to the later, more deeply experienced S’lichot services Rabbi Goldberg remembers while retaining firm and normative Reform Jewish religious motivations.

Although in the end, I think we’ve already done that with S’lichot. So many of our congregations switched over the years to earlier S’lichot services not to deepen the religious experience, but simply in order to make sure even more of us would be able to attend them. Making sure as many of us as possible can stand together before our God seems to me about the most normative Reform Jewish motivation of all.

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What do you think?