01/09/2014 02:02 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

Keeping Time, Seeking Meaning: Celebrating According to the Calendar

New Year's celebrations mark endings and beginnings and remind us of the inexorable passing of time. Even if we take seriously the annual ritual of making new year's resolutions, our celebrations are mostly a time of frivolity. The annual cycle of secular American holidays -- New Year's Day, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, July Fourth, Labor Day, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving -- have come to be more about an extra day off and a barbecue or family gathering than about connect to moral or spiritual values.

For most Americans, celebrating moral and religious values takes place in the context of Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter if such values are celebrated at all. For an increasing number of Americans, even these holidays have eroded into family gatherings that no longer connect strongly to the spiritual meaning that they have in the religious cultures in which they developed. The consequence of this shift is that conveying virtues across generations has become weakened, and support for the deepening of spirituality has eroded. That has damaged the fabric of our society.

The American Jewish community faces the same challenge. There is a rich cycle of Jewish holy days -- Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Hanukah, Purim, Pesach, Shavuot and Tisha B'Av. But most American Jews experience relatively little of the rich meaning and joyous celebration of these holy days. This loss of religious celebration has taken from us a wonderful opportunity to enrich our personal lives and to share values and meaning between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, friends and extended family. Shared calendrical rhythms strengthen relationships both in families and communities.

Many of us have abandoned religious holiday observance because of understandable discomfort with religious strictures, with inherited theological ideas or with particular religious institutions or leaders. The vital importance of ethical living and spiritual groundedness in an often morally rudderless society make this an important time to ask how we can connect to religious practice and values without encountering the aspects of religious life that we find problematic.

The key to that, it seems to me, is to find ways to explore the potential meaning to be found in religious practice. For that to take place, we need rituals, liturgy and community that harmonize with our beliefs and taste; we need ways to mark our lives that link the riches of inherited tradition with forms that speak to these postmodern times. 90 percent of the American Jewish community does not determine its practices by following halakha, Jewish law. For that overwhelming majority, Shabbat and holidays can work only if they find ways to connect their heritage to their lives. The need to address that issue for the 90 percent led me to start working on A Guide to Jewish Practice. The first volume, on everyday living, came out in 2011. The second, on Shabbat and holidays, has just come out. The book includes the voices of rabbis and dozens of commentators, so it is an invitation to join a conversation that is a search for meaning and practice that can speak deeply to us in our own time. Its suggestions for fresh approaches to practice and new ways of understanding ancient rituals provide entries to Jewish journeys that can enhance our lives and contribute to the moral vigor and spiritual groundedness of our world.