Rabbi Phil Miller on the Jewish High Holy Days, Jewish spiritual practice and more

Interviewed by Jon M. Sweeney

Rabbi Phil Millerexplorefaith sat down recently with Rabbi Phil Miller, Vice President of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. Rabbi Phil attended Yeshiva University in New York City and has traveled all over the world as an educator and social activist for the last twenty years.

explorefaith: Rabbi Phil, let’s start with ritual in general…Why is ritual important?

Rabbi Phil Miller: Ritual is important because, to quote Sheryl Crow, "every day is a winding road." Not only winding but very congested, filled with potholes and some not so safe drivers. Confronted by all of that, we lose sight of our big moral and spiritual hopes and aspirations.

Ritual is a reliable GPS system that keeps us focused on that larger reality in the midst of our over connected, overbooked days.

explorefaith: The Jewish High Holy Days are coming up soon. When do they begin? And, why are they so important in the lives of Jewish people?

Rabbi Phil Miller: Let’s work backwards from your last question. These days are so important because they give individuals and a community an important opportunity for three essential human processes: cheshbon hanefesh—literally taking stock of one’s soul; tshuvah—usually translated as repentance but simply translated as returning to one’s self; and finally, tikkun—or repair.

Obviously we should be doing these three things all the time. However, if Sheryl’s winding road just overwhelms us, at least at the close of one year and the birth of a new year we have to take this path in a deliberate way.

This season actually begins with the beginning of the month of Elul, the final month in the Jewish calendar. A month later the Jewish People around the world take two days for Rosh Hashanah, which end Elul and begin the month of Tishrei and the new year. Ten Days of Return and Tikkun then bring us to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. In sum this is a forty day process that hopefully affords us an opportunity for tikkun/repair of our human and divine relationships.

explorefaith: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are mostly a time for personal introspection, right? What are the special things that you do during these days?

Rabbi Phil: It all begins with my conversations with my wife, Ruth. By the beginning of Elul we start asking each other the big questions. How are our kids? How are we doing? What was great about the last year and what was lousy? We then widen that conversation to include our four kids as a group and with each of them individually. They are Jewish Day School kids so they do a lot of powerful preparatory learning there, but nothing can replace putting it into practice at home.

I also spend as much time as I can reading old books. I’m always involved in Talmud and Bible study. These last few years I’ve been particularly influenced by the writings of Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a contemporary Rabbinic scholar with a wonderful literary mind and soul. I also spend as much time as I can on Western classics.

Here in Baltimore I’m blessed to have St. John’s College just down the road in Annapolis. The monthly seminar I attend tackles the big books of the western canon. Last summer I read Dante’s Inferno going into Elul. This summer it was King Lear, Oedipus Rex, and several plays by Aristophanes. I’ve found him particularly soul-penetrating this year. He used humor and satire to push back at the loss of ethics and the war-obsessed reality he saw in the Athens of his day. For me, this year, that posture gets to the core of much of what I’m feeling deep down.

Finally, I find I have an ever growing love/hate relationship with the newspaper this time of year. On one hand the newspaper (read online more than at the kitchen table for me these days) is my window to this amazing, complex, and painful world that God has created. How can I stand in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and pray for a better world if I’m clueless as to what’s going on there?

What’s more, on many years throughout history, some momentous and sometimes painful events have taken place right before Rosh Hashanah. The Oslo Peace Accords were signed in the days before Rosh Hashanah, 9/11, Katrina and now this year Gustav remind me of the shatteredness and fragility of my own life and this globe.

Sometimes I worry that I’ll become a news junkie and replace the Book of Samuel, Shakespeare, or John Coltrane with a compulsion to read blog after blog on this election or what’s happening with this embattled mayor of Detroit!

explorefaith: Are there any ways that Jewish families—I mean parents and children—honor these special days together, as families?

Rabbi Phil: There are the conversations we have that I mentioned already. And of course much more than that, too. There is a whole other side to this time of year that I’ve learned from my wife’s family. My wife’s family has a very rich culture full of special foods and customs they relive each year. Of course with each food and custom there are wonderful, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny narratives that must be retold each year as well.

explorefaith: The Days of Awe, or Yamim Noraim, Days of Repentance, are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the most intensive time each year for considering one’s sins of the previous year, and to repent of those sins, before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Tell me, if you don’t mind, what you personally do during this time that is different from what you normally do in your spiritual life.

Rabbi Phil: I know there are many people who take on all kinds of new commitments for those days. Personally I’ve always found that very hard and not authentic for me. I guess I just try and do what I do the rest of the year, just do it a little more carefully. I will dwell longer on the words of my daily prayers, linger at carpool an extra minute to watch my kids heading off into school, or give the benefit of the doubt that much quicker to people at work or in my personal circles.

Inevitably I have some apologizing to do. At some points in the past year, I fell considerably short in how I dealt with someone. I know I’ve hurt them and I’ve got to find them, apologize and try to clear the air.

explorefaith:  This may be a dumb question, but for those of us who aren’t Jewish: Are the High Holy Days a time to send a greeting card or a gift to a Jewish friend—or to just leave your friends alone for a couple of weeks?

Rabbi Phil:    No, no please don't leave us alone! If you’re really good friends then most likely you may be a part of this tshuvah and tikkun process yourself. A Jewish friend may reach out to you to talk, take stock of your friendship, or something that came between you in the past year. Always, greeting cards are polite and nice; a gift that has meaning like a heartbreaking novel you might have just read that you want to share will mean that much more.

explorefaith: Throughout the year, as a religiously observant Jew, how do you nourish your spiritual life—daily, weekly?

Rabbi Phil:  My wife, my kids my books. That’s the miracle of Shabbat, the weekly Sabbath. From sundown on Friday until nightfall on Saturday, I can tune out everything else and live my life immersed in those three pillars of my world.

explorefaith:  I know that you’re one of the leaders of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Baltimore. What does a JCC do?

Rabbi Phil: The JCCs are big tents for the Jewish communities throughout North America. Fifty to 75 years ago, Jews all lived in small, often financially impoverished but culturally and socially boundlessly rich neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are, for the most part, gone. The JCC’s early childhood centers, fitness studios, cafés and teen youth groups are 21st century attempts to recapture that sense of belonging. Our grandparents in the old neighborhoods took these connections for granted like we take oxygen for granted.

explorefaith: Do non-Jewish people ever come to the JCC?

Rabbi Phil: Sure, in this postmodern, post-denominational, post-ethnic America of ours we have many non-Jewish citizens of the Jewish community.

explorefaith: If you could make one wish come true for the Jewish community in the United States, what would it be?

Rabbi Phil: I’d really love to see those Jews who are singularly involved in the Jewish community open themselves up to the rich and profound complexities and problems of the larger American society. Then, I’d love to see those Jews who spend all their time outside the Jewish world, put a toe in the water and discover the beauty and wisdom of Jewish life and learning.

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