Fein & Cohen to Yoffie: Let Secular Jews Be Secular

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Responding a HuffPo column by Rabbi Eric Yoffie (former President of the Union for Reform Judaism) entitled "The Self-Delusions of Secular Jews", Leonard Fein and BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen pen a defense of secular/cultural Judaism, also in the Huffington Post. Excerpts:

Secular Jews, Yoffie claims, regard themselves as "people of reason and not of faith, as champions of modernity rather than slaves to some concept of God or other outmoded patterns of belief." They seek to "throw off the oppressive power of the past."... Yoffie's description of so-called secular Jews rather closely mirrors the tradition of Reform Judaism....

True, some cultural or secular Jews can be dismissive of faith, if by faith we mean God-oriented belief. But nothing prevents honorable people from adhering to a faith pointed in other directions. One may, for example, have faith in the improvability of humankind, or in progress as the underlying cadence of the universe...

In our experience, secular Judaism is very far from withering, much less dying. Quite the contrary: A large number of Jews find Jewish identification and involvement in an entirely comfortable mode even if it is, in their view, more cultural than religious. Indeed, asked about how they define themselves in a national survey of American Jews sponsored by the Workmen's Circle and conducted by Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams, just 13 percent checked "to a great extent" when asked whether they were religious Jews. By contrast, slightly more - 16 percent -- called themselves secular Jews, and a hefty 36 percent saw themselves as cultural Jews...

Yoffie wants us to believe that "values such as social justice, hospitality and mentschlichkeit (decency) ... are grounded in the sacred texts of Jewish religious tradition and ... have endured solely because of the authority that the religious tradition imposes." He does not recognize that by now these values have momentum on their own, that their derivation may be interesting to historians and theologians, but are of very little interest to their practitioners, including the thousands of Jewish social activists who champion the social and economic justice causes of labor, civil rights, peace, freedom, human rights, feminism and, most recently, environmentalism.

Yoffie complains that these allegedly faithless secular Jews continue to assemble in synagogues and to undertake acts of family life and communal celebration that are either explicitly religious or that radiate with the power of deep faith. Indeed, he may be drawing upon his familiarity with his own Reform movement. In the same survey we find that of those identifying as Reform, just 6 percent (6 percent!) see themselves as religious Jews "to a great extent." Among the same Reform Jews three times as many (18 percent) see themselves as secular, and nearly seven times as many (41 percent) call themselves cultural Jews.

The self-ascribed definitions as religious, cultural and secular blend into one another. Most who see themselves as at least somewhat religious also see themselves as equally cultural. In fact, about 40 percent of all American Jews call themselves both at least somewhat religious and at least somewhat cultural. These blurry and fuzzy patterns stand in stark contrast with Yoffie's binary view of the world, one which sharply divides the faithful from the faithless...

One wonders if Yoffie has taken to relating to cultural and secular Jews the way Orthodox Jews have often related to Reform, asserting a claim to authentic Torah-true Judaism and dismissing the distinctive virtues of the stubbornly ignorant and resistant others. Just as some Orthodox leaders can't let Reform Jews be Reform, Rabbi Yoffie can't let cultural Jews be cultural.

Yoffie wants to make claims about Judaism's authentic roots. We prefer to give primacy to Judaism's wonderfully varied branches. One of those branches is Reform Judaism, Yoffie's obvious favorite; but just as assuredly, another is secular or cultural Judaism. And it is a great pity that Yoffie cannot being himself to acknowledge the authenticity of that sensibility, much less its transcendent (shall we say, religious?) quality. And it is an even greater pity, if not irony, that one of the most articulate and compelling advocates of religious pluralism cannot bring himself to celebrate the virtues and distinctiveness embodied in pluralistic cultural and secular approaches to being Jewish not only in America, but in Israel and the world as well.

 Read the entire piece here.

BJPA publications by Leonard Fein.

BJPA publications by Steven M. Cohen

BJPA publications by Eric Yoffie

47th Anniversary: Nostra Aetate

Vatican

In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions...

Thus begins the Roman Catholic Church's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, better known by its first two words, nostra aetate, "in our time". It was promulgated 47 years ago today--October 28, 1965.

Originally titled Decretum de Judaeis, "Declaration on the Jews," this text--whose final form had (and has) wide-ranging implications for Catholics' relationships with all religions--began as a piece concerned only with Christian-Jewish relations. Much has been written about the meanings in, effects of, and history leading up to this important milestone. Here are a few examples from BJPA:

Search BJPA for Catholic

Browse BJPA for Christianity

Browse BJPA for Jewish-Christian relations

 

 

Kol Nidrei

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 On Tuesday night, September 25th, Jews the world over (including many who go to synagogue only once per year) will gather in synagogues for the opening evening service of Yom Kippur, a service commonly known by the name of the declaration that begins it: Kol Nidrei, "All Vows..." This liturgical climax of the Jewish year is known for its haunting and beautiful melody.

 As a 1924 article from the American Jewish Year Book explains, however, the declaration of Kol Nidrei (it really isn't even a prayer) has a history of confusion and controversy.

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From the J-Vault: Kol Nidre (1924)

Kol Nidrei, Professor Israel Davidson explains,

takes its name from the opening words and is recited at the beginning of the evening service of the Day of Atonement, has come down to us in two versions, one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic... [T]he Hebrew version, which contains a reference to the vows contracted during the year that has passed... presents a legal difficulty. For, according to law, vows already contracted cannot be annulled unless the votary explicitly states what these vows were and makes his statement before a board of three, and none of these conditions is required in connection with Kol Nidre. To overcome these difficulties, R. Meir b. Samuel, the son-in-law of Rashi, changed the text of Kol Nidre and made it to read as we have it now in the Aramaic version: "from this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement"...

Kol Nidre presents a number of other difficulties. Why, for instance, is this prayer placed before the beginning of the services? What connection is there between the absolution of vows and the verse from Numbers 15:26, with which it concludes? If it is a prayer for forgiveness, why should the sin of non-fulfilment of vows be singled out from other transgressions for which the Day of Atonement is supposed to atone? How is it that this particular composition has come down to us in two languages?

Professor Davidson goes on to offer numerous theories and explanations related to these questions. He also discusses rabbinic objections to Kol Nidrei at many points during Jewish history, from an array of religious leaders--from medieval sages to the Reform Movement's early leaders (who completely altered the text, retaining only the popular melody). Yet, he notes, Kol Nidrei has endured:

Historic Judaism, however, still braves the storm of accusations, safe in the consciousness of its integrity, and mindful of the wise adage not to indulge in too many explanations, because friends do not need them and enemies would not believe them.

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Bonus: for anyone interested in a contemporary religious explanation of Kol Nidrei's history and purpose, I can't resist embedding this video lecture from British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (click here if you can't see the embedded video player):

Politics & Scripture

Romney-Obama

Both President Obama and Governor Romney recently granted an interview on faith to the magazine of National Cathedral in Washington. Both candidates named favorite passages of scripture, with the choices revealing a fascinating difference in emphasis. One candidate's chosen passage focuses on charity, and specifically on helping the needy with their physical needs. The other candidate's passage discusses God's power over the world, and to provide protection for human beings who trust Him.

If you think you know which favorite scriptural inspiration belongs to which candidate, think twice.

It was Pres. Obama who cited Isaiah 40:31—"But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (NIV)—and Psalm 46. And it was Gov. Romney who cited Matthew 25:35-6—"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me" (KJV).

What, if anything, can we learn from this seeming inversion of what we might expect the two candidates' theologies to emphasize? Why does the President, whose politics insist we are all collectively responsible as a human society to tend to the physical needs of the needy, emphasize God's sovereignty and ability to provide protection? Why does his conservative opponent emphasize handouts of food, hospitality and clothing? If the candidates chose these passages with an eye toward political traction, perhaps the inversion is a deliberate attempt to reassure religious swing voters that they are not the caricature the other side would paint. Pres. Obama is attacked as a secret Muslim and/or godless Communist, so his biblical passages imply his Christian faith is rock solid. Gov. Romney, on the other hand, knows that conservatism is often attacked as heartless, and one of his gaffes was a declaration that he was "not concerned about the very poor". So his biblical passage implies that he cares deeply about the needy, and his desire to cut government programs doesn't mean he doesn't value charity on a private basis.  Both choices can be read as damage control.

(You could argue that a New Testament passage might have made the Christian point for Pres. Obama more clearly than two Old Testament passages, but nobody is attacking him for being a secret Jew... Wait, scratch that, people in the Middle East probably are attacking him for being a secret Jew. But no significant voting bloc in America is doing so... Could the Old Testament choices have been aimed at shoring up the Jewish vote? Quite unlikely.)

What, if anything, can we make of Gov. Romney's decision to truncate verse 36? In the interview, the Governor didn't only mention the verses by name, he quoted them as above. But the complete verse 36 continues further than he quoted. The part of the verse Gov. Romney left out is in bold: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (KJV).

Drawing conclusions from this is awfully tempting. Is visiting prisoners not tough enough on crime for the Republican candidate to include in his favorite quotation? Did Gov. Romney stop where he stopped so as not to bring up the issue of health care, and the similarity of his Massachusetts plan to the President's national version? Or was the truncation simply a forgetful mistake? (And if he did forget the verse's conclusion, what (if anything) can we make of that?)

On all counts, the answer should be that there's nothing we can make of this at all. In a reasonably sane world, I'd be the first one to criticize a blog post like this one and say, "Are you crazy? Have some respect. Don't assume the candidates chose these passages cynically. Why not give these two leaders the benefit of the doubt and assume they both made their choices solely out of a genuine affinity for these verses, and not read political calculations into their choices?"

That's what I'd think in a sane world... Meanwhile, in this world: so vitriolic has this election been—so divisive and rhetorically dishonest—that the kind of cynical speculations in which I've just indulged (and I have indulged in them, I will say, not without a small hint of guilt) don't feel very much out of place. Both campaigns have at various times advanced such blatantly unfair arguments against the other side that I have a hard time imagining that either of these two candidates could let an opportunity to score even the tiniest political point go by, and simply choose their favorite passages without running it by a pollster.

The Dolphiner Rebbe: Football and Religion

Patriots

(Photo: New England Patriots / Associated Press)

In advance of Super Bowl Sunday, here's a gem from 1973 by Rabbi Solomon Schiff, who served for a time as a chaplain to the Miami Dolphins: Judaism and Professional Football.

Some excerpts:

My close relationship with the team has convinced me that theology and sports have a close kinship, that the message of religion can have its greatest audience in football, and that a game played well can be the best sermon and can provide a positive influence to vast numbers of people...

The Miami Dolphins is the only team in professional football which begins each home game with a public invocation. The invocations are given by clergymen of the various faiths on a rotating basis. Besides the public invocation before each game, there is a Catholic Mass and a non-denominational service. Seeing the men at these services you would never guess that they are the same ones who an hour or so later would be tearing and ripping their enemies apart on the field of combat. At the service they sit in prayerful humility, recognizing that whatever their talents and abilities, they were God-given, and that the game of football must be played with honesty and integrity, and according to the rules...
...Religion has played an important role in creating a fellowship atmosphere, which is part of the championship formula for the Miami Dolphins. The team feels a genuine sense of identity with a higher being. There is a real understanding that the game is a part of the overall game of life, that the important thing is to play the game well and according to the rules. As I said in part of my invocation at the Dolphins-Buffalo Bills game on December 20, 1970, "May this game serve as an example for the higher game of life, for the success of both is attained by fair play, hard work, and striving for the goal."...
...Most of the players feel the importance of religion in their personal and professional lives. They feel this on a mature level. They don't have the childish concept that "G-d is on our side" or that "HE is a Dolphin fan." Their prayer is not so much for victory but rather that they be given the health to do their best and to prove worthy of their championship abilities.
...Perhaps the best illustration of the great opportunity that professional football has for promoting spiritual values was seen in September 1972. This was evidenced following the Arab terrorist massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich. [Dolphins Managing General Partner] Joe Robbie, who attended the games at Munich, was extremely pained at the tragedy... He asked Rev. Edward T. Graham, Pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, who was scheduled to deliver the invocation for the following game, to devote the prayer to the Munich tragedy. The game which was to be played on September 10th, only five days after the massacre, was between the Dolphins and the Minnesota Vikings at the Orange Bowl. The game was to be nationally televised on CBS. Mr. Robbie called Mr. Pete Rozelle, Commissioner of the National Football League, to inform him of this and to insist that CBS carry the prayer and the minute of silence that was to be a part of the memorial service...
...Mr. Robbie was subsequently selected to be the recipient of an Honorary Fellowship by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at an event marking the establishment of the Physical Education & Physical Fitness Center at the Hebrew University in memory of the eleven Israeli athletes slain at the Munich Olympics.

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Hanukkah and the Other December Dilemmas

Hanukkiah

Hopefully you saw our December newsletter on intermarriage, but as the Festival of Lights begins, it is appropriate to note that not every "December Dilemma" has anything whatsoever to do with intermarriage. Tonight begins Hanukkah, a holiday defined in America by its awkward juxtaposition with Christmas -- a juxtaposition which is the source of much consternation, but also, perhaps, an entirely appropriate layer of meaning. Here are a few publications on the subject.

High school student Jessica Schutz tells the story of her family's "Hanukkah bush" and her own response: "I was forced to question my identity as a Jew. What kind of Jew was I? What entitled me to bear that title, besides birth to a Jewish mother?"

Nancy Wallack looks at Hanukkah cards and doesn't like what she sees:

Jews' beefing up of Chanukah celebrations to console our children (and perhaps ourselves), has crept into cards mixing Christmas and Chanukah, gentile and Jewish imagery. Mealy-mouthed "seasons greetings" are joined with wishes for "Shalom." My guess is that the Shalom is a straight translation of the Christian concept of the coming of or the promise of peace, in the birth of the Prince of Peace. Carolers sing, "Peace on earth, good will to men," why not extend this to our friends the Jews?

Steven Greenberg seeks "a plausible meaning of Hanukkah" that can be shared with non-Jewish friends and neighbors, specifically thinking of the common situation of explaining the holiday to public schoolchildren. He settles on two:

1. Hanukkah celebrates the strength it takes to be different. The Jewish people had a different way of looking at the world than their Greek neighbors. Although they learned much from Greek culture, Jews were proud of their very different way of living life. Everyone knows what it's like to be in the minority. We all are, in some way, different from the pack. It takes a lot of courage to be unique, to like yourself when you march to a different drummer. It takes even more courage to fight for what you believe in. Hanukkah celebrates the freedom everyone needs to be a little, or sometimes a lot different, from the majority.

2. Hanukkah means rededication. When Judah rededicated the Temple, he was also rededicating his people to their vision of the world, the Jewish dream of a world of justice and goodness. Justice and goodness are easier to talk about than to do. It takes a lot of work. Anyone can get tired working for even the greatest of goals. That's why rededication is so important. We all need a "Hanukkah" to remind us of our dreams as we work in small ways to make them happen, little by little, every day.

A final thought, in synthesis of these three perspectives: if a holiday can be seen as, in addition to a time to celebrate, a challenge to us to live up to that holiday's message, then Hanukkah's juxtaposition with Christmas could not possibly be more appropriate. As Wallack laments, it is true that Christmas often threatens to engulf Hanukkah and replace its native meanings. But, as Schutz discovers, this confrontation can crystallize the questions we must ask ourselves as Jews, and force us to ask them. The season may be a difficult time to be different, but as Rabbi Greenberg notes, it is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to being different.

Ḥag urim sameaḥ!

Matisyahu and the Spiral of Authenticity

By now you've heard the (apparently earth-shattering) news that Matisyahu has shaved his beard.

Beardless

The pundits of Jewry are abuzz with interpretive chatter -- and no surprise, since Matisyahu was already (in his hassidic incarnation) an icon and byword for all manner of Jewish discourse about culture, religion, and identity.

A very recent case in point: in the most recent issue of Sh'ma, Stuart Z. Charmé uses the hassidic Matisyahu as the denouement to his article, "The Spiral of Jewish Authenticity". Responding with circumspect detachment to his teenage daughter's announcement that she doesn't consider herself Jewish (since slam poetry is her true identity), Charmé notes that, as his research has shown, teenagers and the adults they grow to become have ever-shifting relationships to Judaism:

Ultimately, what I wish for my daughter is a Jewish journey that is intellectually and psychologically honest, vibrant, and creative; one that values questions more than answers, while avoiding the pitfalls of premature closure and rigidity. I trust that she will discover authentic forms of Jewish expression for herself as she redefines her past and plans for the future. I can’t predict whether slam poetry will be part of that process, but if the singer Matisyahu could use reggae to find a sense of Jewish authenticity for himself, then why not?

(Emphasis, of course, is added.) How unlucky for Stuart Charmé, one might think, that merely two weeks after he publishes a piece which uses the hassid Matisyahu as an example, Matisyahu goes and shaves and de-hassidifies.

But in this case, one would be wrong to think so. In fact, Charmé's point regarding Matisyahu not only still stands, but stands even stronger. Much of the article, read in hindsight following "ShaverGate," read as if they were written with the apparently-now-misnagdic Mat(thew? isyahu?) in mind:

I have described the experience of Jewishness over the course of one’s life as a loose spiral. We circle back to revisit a variety of issues related to Judaism and Jewishness; each time, we approach the experience of Jewishness from new perspectives and with new investments and understandings that emerge in response to other changes in our lives.

For many Jews, the feeling of Jewish authenticity involves a sense of connection to a romanticized or idealized image of the past... Much has also been written... about the postmodern freedom to “construct” or “invent” Jewish identity in a myriad of ways ranging from contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy to Torah Yoga and Jewish “mindfulness.”...

It is obvious that claims about authenticity can never really offer a scientific test of purity, a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, or a warranty against change. Some of what is now accepted as authentically Jewish will eventually be abandoned and some of what is now rejected will later be reclaimed. In this sense, each individual’s search for Jewish authenticity is a microcosm of the collective process of redefining Judaism at different moments of history.

The desire for Jewish authenticity, therefore, has both retrospective and prospective dimensions. On the one hand, it situates one in relationship to one’s personal and group history; it provides a sense of existential orientation and protection; and it, thereby, offers a provisional home in the world. But the goal of authenticity is simultaneously a warning to be careful of claiming too much certainty at the present moment — recognizing the permanently destabilizing power of the future to shatter and rebuild the foundations of our world in ever-new ways... There is probably some Zen-like truth to the idea that those who claim most adamantly to have found or achieved Jewish authenticity are also those who lack it in a deeper sense.

For those who responded to Matisyahu's naked face with disappointment, then, as well as for those who responded with anti-Orthodox glee, we might all do well to borrow some of Stuart Charmé's detachment and attention to the long view. Life keeps going on, the spiral of authenticity keeps spiralling, and we might all turn out to be someone a little (or a lot) different tomorrow.

David Elcott on Faith in Academia

As part of our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses the place of religion in an academic setting.

David Elcott on Interfaith Mideast Peace Work

Prof. David Elcott discusses the decline of interfaith work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Part of our Office Hours series.)

Sukkot Resources

Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs says that dwelling in sukkot offers us the opportunity to connect to our own history of wandering in an African desert. 

Is erecting a sukkah publicly breaking down the separation of church and state

Latino Evangelical Christians join in the Sukkot celebrations 

Could our sins be the covering over G-d’s sukkah?
 
Sukkot as a metaphor for relocation as a preemptive response to the threat of violence 
 
Browse more Sukkot publications.
 
 

David Elcott on Interfaith and Interethnic Coalition-Building

For the latest installment in our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses his experiences working with leaders across boundaries of religion and ethnicity to build meaningful interfaith and interethnic coalitions.

 

Yom Kippur Occupies Wall Street

As the Forward reports, hundreds of Jews (and others, one presumes) gathered in the midst of the ongoing financial district protests on Friday and Saturday for Yom Kippur prayers:

The high point came during one part of the sermon, as Getzel’s voice rose louder and louder:

“Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf! What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship! It is the fallacy that gold is God!”

...There are plans to build a sukkah at New York’s Occupy Wall Street and to continue holding Shabbat services until the protest is over.

That Jews should become involved in this (largely) economic protest is unsurprising. As Steven Windmueller has written, the economic upheaval of recent years has "devastating implications" for the Jewish community. Much economic coverage in Jewish media sources have focused on the effects of this crisis on Jewish philanthropists and communal organizations, but Windmueller also notes that "A new class of 'near-poor and new poor' Jews is one of the outcomes of this economic crisis." Jews, too, can be have-nots.

Speaking personally, it rubs me the wrong way that an occasion for repentance should be mixed up in an occasion of rebuking/protesting the actions of others. Of course all of us should criticize society when we feel societal structures are unjust, but shouldn't Yom Kippur be a day when it is important to turn around the scrutiny on oneself, focusing on one's own actions, beliefs, and responsibilities rather than on others? A sermon such as the one quoted above, attacking the greed/idolatry of others (a perfectly appropriate topic for another day) seems to miss the mark, in my opinion, on that day. Yom Kippur should be a day to ask urgently: what am I doing wrong?

Click here for more BJPA resources on the economy.

Yom Kippur Resources

Browse more Yom Kippur and High Holiday publications.

גמר חתימה טובה

Insisting on Forever

Jonathan S. Tobin is incensed in Commentary that Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh doesn't accept the formula of Israel as "a Jewish State." Nusseibeh feels that the term "Jewish state" implies either a theocracy (if Judaism is a religion) or apartheid (if Jewishness is racial or ethnic). He instead suggests "that Israeli leaders ask instead that Palestinians recognise Israel (proper) as a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish."

As Tobin correctly points out, "that is what it is now and what Israelis and those who support it understand to be a Jewish state." Nusseibeh's is a classic distinction without a difference.

Still, I can't seem to bring myself to care as much as Tobin what Palestinians think about Israel being a Jewish state. "The reason for Israel’s demand is simple," writes Tobin. "Unless and until the Palestinians specifically accept that the part of the country they do not control is forever Jewish, the conflict will not be over."

Forever Jewish, he wants from them? Forever is a pretty big deal. Will Israelis agree that even one inch of the West Bank will be forever Palestinian? (Giving up entirely the messianic visions of the Hebrew Bible.) Forever is an entirely unreasonable demand to make of either side. Maybe it's just me, but I say let's work on a practical peace deal for the forseeable future and leave the question of forever to a higher Authority. Both parties should be willing to let the other nation live in peace in its own state, and both parties will doubtless continue to dream of the messianic utopian day in which our side gets all the land back. As long as everybody's stays calm and respectful in the here and now, who cares about competing dreams of forever? Let the songs and dreams embrace and contain the conflict, and let the practical reality contain only peace, tolerance, and mutual dignity and security.

Tobin is right when he says that "Jewish identity is complex, and Israelis may well spend the rest of eternity trying to define themselves." (What a Jewish state means is a topic of constant debate among Jews.) That's all the more reason to say it's an unnecessary waste of time and diplomatic capital insisting that Palestinians call Israel a Jewish state.

Shanah Tovah

Shanah Tovah

From Hidden in a Holiday, by Jan R. Urbach:

A verse from Psalm 81 is featured prominently in the Rosh Hashanah evening service: Tiku bahodesh shofar, bakeseh l’yom chageinu, “Sound the shofar on the new moon, in the time appointed for our festival day.” The word bakeseh — translated here as “at the appointed time” — can also connote concealment...

...This idea of hiddenness is a powerful entree into the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah... Rosh Hashanah is a joyful festival celebrating renewal, and it is also Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, filled with pachad (terror) and yirah (fear and awe). Moreover, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in the autumn teaches us that the “newness” we seek is a hidden one. Overt, external renewal happens in the spring; the renewal that occurs in autumn is underground...

...The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah challenges us to face the mysteries of life and death, of justice and judgment, but it doesn’t help us solve them. The prayer U-Netanah Tokef raises the most challenging questions of meaning, justice, and the vulnerability and uncertainty of life; it answers them by saying only, “But You are Sovereign, God, living and eternal.” The text offers no explanation of God’s ways; it simply affirms God’s eternal existence and presence, veiled in mystery.

This is the beginning of teshuvah and it paves the way for our next steps. Even as we shift our vision from ourselves to focus on God, we learn something about how to see ourselves. As we confront and celebrate the hiddenness of God, we begin to see ourselves, too, as fundamentally hidden and mysterious. At some point in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will be ready to delve into the deepest parts of our souls and reveal what is hidden there...

...Concealed within us are not just the things we find shameful, but also hidden potential, creativity, talent, yearning, and complexity. To be an unknowable mystery is one of the ways — perhaps the most profound way — in which we are b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God. Before we rush to uncover and reveal what is hidden within, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy allows us to simply stand in awe, and more than a little fear and trembling, at the mystery.

Tiku bahodesh shofar, bakeseh l’yom chageinu. “The shofar of renewal is blown within the hiddenness of the festival day.” (Psalms 81:4) The renewal, teshuvah, comes through our growing sensitivity to and treasuring of that which is hidden: the subtle hidden meanings of the themes of the holiday, the non-obvious in the world around us, the unknown and unknowable within the self and, most importantly, the One Who is hidden in everything.

Click here to download this publication, which is from the September 2005 issue of Sh'ma, focusing on Rosh Hashanah.

לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו.

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