Jews begin at sundown tonight the New Year celebration of Rosh Hashana, marking the beginning of the High Holy Days with prayers and rituals handed down through millennia.
The prayers might seem dry and repetitive, and the traditions and rituals rote but, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin says, there's value in going through the motions - the feelings will follow.
Cardin, director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center and an author of growing acclaim, explores the possibilities offered by Jewish tradition in her new book, "The Tapestry of Jewish Time."
The High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashanaand culminate in 10 days with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are a period of introspection for the world's Jews. It also is a time of "teshuvah," Hebrew for repentance, when one is called to examine the past year's actions and ask forgiveness of any person who might have been offended. This is accompanied by "tefillah," prayer, and "tzedakah," charitable giving.
"Americans believe our actions should follow our feelings. So if you feel repentant, you can act on that repentance," Cardin said. "But I ask in the book, 'What if you don't feel repentant?' You're just not sorry. You really feel righteous and justified in a behavior that is otherwise not attractive.
"It seems to me what Judaism is saying is: Act repentant, and the feelings will follow," she said. "Judaism reminds us that actions can coax and awaken feelings."
Cardin recalls an experience several years ago, when she was living in New York, the High Holy Days rolled around, and she felt obligated to call a friend with whom she'd had a falling-out.
"I think because I was comfortable with a generic apology, I was able to give someone a call with whom I had heated words: 'With the New Year coming, I really would like to start over, please forgive me,'" she said. "I didn't think I was the one who was in the wrong, but the anger was there anyway. It healed us, and that anger is now history."
The three High Holy Day obligations of repentance, prayer and charity or philanthropy, Cardin says, provide a roadmap for better relationships.
"Teshuvah [repentance] is about me, my understanding of who I am and how I can better myself. Tefillah [prayer] is about me and God and how I will better understand my relationship with God. How do I best serve God? And tzedakah [philanthropy] deals with me and other human beings - how do I then go about and live my life?
"It's a brilliant trilogy of self, God and others."
In "The Tapestry of Jewish Time," Cardin describes Jews as "a union of weavers" each weaving a personal shawl of Judaism. Some weave more tightly, others more loosely, filtering to varying degrees the influence of the outside world. The book deals with each Jewish holiday and moves on to the Jewish meaning of events as profound as birth, marriage and death, and as everyday as a teen-ager getting a driver's license. Cardin seeks to make traditions relevant to modern people. But there isn't a whole lot about the High Holy Days that needs updating, she said.
"This season needs very little gilding. It needs very little to enhance it," she said. "It offers a heightened awareness of life."
Cardin's book is the latest in a series of publications that is garnering increasing attention for the Baltimore native.
A rabbi in the Conservative movement, Cardin was in the first class of women admitted to the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1984.
She spent four years on the seminary's faculty and administration and was co-founder and associate director of the New York-based National Center for Jewish Healing, part of a growing national movement that links prayer and spirituality to healing.
Before arriving in Baltimore last year, Cardin also edited "Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility," a biweekly publication of opinion and debate on the topics of the day. In 1992, she edited "Out of the Depths I Call to You: A Book of Prayers for the Married Jewish Woman," a translation and annotation of classic prayers from 18th-century Italian manuscripts. "We got these prayers into the hands of women who never knew there was even a small collection of prayers for them," she said.
Last year, she wrote "Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss."
"Nina is one of those rare people who is able to combine profound scholarship with great sensitivity for people and their pain," said Stuart M. Matlins, whose Jewish Lights Publishing Co. published "Tears of Sorrow."
"She's able to draw on deep resources of Jewish tradition and wisdom to help people cope with terrible moments in their lives and find healing," he said. "Baltimore is fortunate to have her."
Last year, Cardin, a mother of five who is married to Rabbi Avram Reisner, a bioethicist, returned to Baltimore. She continues the work started by Michael Wegier to deepen the religious and cultural identity of the Jewish Community Center locations in Upper Park Heights and Owings Mills, which had become primarily a center for recreational activity. Cardin became the community center's second director of Jewish life.
Louis "Buddy" Sapolsky, the community center's executive director, calls her "an extraordinary teacher and educator."
"She has helped the JCC bring Judaism alive to literally thousands of our constituents," he said. "Nina has used her creativity to help the center get into innovative Jewish programming, such as outdoor Jewish education and unique holiday programs."