Three Ways to Be Jewish Today | Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5779
Delivered by Assistant Rabbi Matt Green
A week or so ago I got into a cab in Bed-Stuy and I happened to be wearing a yarmulke. The driver, who eventually told me he was a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, turns to me and says: “now I have to ask you a question, as a Jewish person.” Whenever someone I don’t know begins a question like that, my heart drops a little bit. But the man continued, and he said, “tell me…why the heck are the Jewish holidays so early this year?”
I laughed and breathed a sigh of relief. I said something about the relationship of the solar and lunar calendars, and we continued chatting our way down Flatbush, after having one of those only-in-New York moments.
But over the past week, I realized that the cabbie’s question was really on point. Many of us, especially those of us with kids, or those of us starting another year of school, have noted that the Jewish holidays feel early this year. To be honest, I can’t remember a single year when the Jewish holidays were right on time. And therein, I think, is an important truth about me, and about so many of us here tonight, and our relationship to Judaism.
The Mishna explains that there are no less than four new years in Judaism. Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishrei is one of them, referring to the day on which the world was created. Tu b’Shvat, the new year for the trees. The first of Nisan, the new year of kings, when we commemorate being freed from slavery, and finally the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of cattle. Remarkably, no one seems to have noted that the new year for tithing cattle came early this year…but be that as it may.
If we’re being honest, even Rosh Hashanah, the most famous Jewish new year, the one we all know of, the one which begins tonight, is not the new year by which many of us mark our real lives. The lives we share with coworkers and neighbors and according to which we pay our taxes. That new year we celebrate at midnight on December 31st, not at sundown some evening in Fall.
And so it’s no wonder that we consider the first of Tishrei as the other new year, one that comes early or late depending on its relationship to the more primary, Gregorian calendar.
In the double consciousness of American Jews, this is a place in which secularism wins out. Yet it’s worth asking on this the Jewish birthday of the world: at what point does our Jewishness win out? Or, if we prefer language whereby the two identities don’t have to compete: in what ways might Judaism appear in our lives in a full-throated, unadulterated way? In what ways might we not feel that Jewishness is other to us — but indeed deeply embedded within our lives?
With Rosh Hashanah upon us, now is exactly the right time to answer this question.
Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Hasidism who lived two centuries ago, taught that on Rosh Hashanah, the souls of all Jews — both religious and non-observant — stand before God on Rosh Hashanah each year, joining as one into a single soul. In his mind, this meant that Rosh Hashanah allowed each Jew a new opportunity to draw from the source and from one another and thereby reconnect to Judaism.
Of course, according to Chabad Hasidism, any day is a good day to reconnect to Judaism, especially if it involves wrapping tefillin and adhering to their standards.
And there’s the rub. When we think about fully realized, unambiguous Judaism, our minds inevitably turn to the standards of people whose Jewish practice is impossible to us, or anathema to our values, or even just unappealing in some way.
Modern Jewish thinkers, especially non-Orthodox ones, have spent the last two centuries trying to articulate ways for us to be both Jewish and modern. Reform Judaism, for instance, gave us the idea of choice-through-knowledge, allowing us to identify meaningfully with Judaism while setting aside certain ritual behaviors.
Yet despite all of our modern and liberal theology, American Jews find ourselves today facing a dilemma. Every major population survey finds that more and more Jews feel ambivalent, or even antagonistic, toward Jewish practice. It seems that each week there’s some article wringing its hands or shreying gevalt about the state of Jewish indifference in America. And let’s face it: many of us here tonight, though we might love being Jewish so deeply…we may not have fully internalized how to be…or to do Jewish in a way that touches each part of our lives. Some of us might not want to, and that’s OK, too. But many of us do.
So at the risk of seeming chutzpadick, as if I’ve figured it all out, in my full four months of being an ordained rabbi, I’d like to offer us tonight three specific ways by which we might actually experience Judaism seriously in the year to come. Three ways that celebrate the lives of modern people, yet root us is in Jewish authenticity.
Number One: See yourself within the Jewish story.
It’s probably inaccurate to suggest that there’s only one singular Jewish story. There are, obviously, many Jewish stories. But all of them at least on some level emanate out of the same story, beginning at Sinai. And as that story has expanded by way of the Midrash and Baruch Spinoza and Fiddler on the Roof, and Transparent, we haven’t merely read the story of the Jewish past, but we’ve seen ourselves as if we experienced it directly. Each year at Passover we say that we ourselves were freed from slavery in Egypt. But what about during the rest of the year? A great way of locating yourself in the Jewish story is by asking: what brought you here to this service tonight? This marker of time from over two thousand years ago. Why does it matter this this thing has lasted for so long? Who were the people who brought you here today? What’s the history there?
Whether by family inheritance or by choice or even by chance, you are part of that great, illustrious lineage. But placing yourself in the Jewish story doesn’t merely mean having a relationship to the Jewish past. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik spoke of two covenants that exist between all Jews: a brit goral, a covenant of fate, and a brit yeud, a covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate is rooted in a shared past, from Egyptian bondage onward. But the covenant of destiny emerges out of people’s will to participate, in which, Soloveitchik says, the people “finds the full realization of its historical being.”
In other words, the covenant of destiny is something we willingly affirm each day. Memory of the past is only a conduit to achieving some shared, better future, which we ourselves must build. Putting these covenants together, we might say that each of us has a role to play in adding to the story we inherit. By seeing our lives in relationship to what came before, we can self-consciously add to the ever unfolding Torah of our lives.
For Soloveitchik, these covenants were exclusive only to those people whom Orthodox rabbis recognize as Jewish. But I’d argue that even if you’re not Jewish, or Jewish according to those standards…if you’re here tonight, you’re in on this thing. You’re part of the Jewish story, both past and future, so long as you recognize it.
And that leads us to…
Number Two: Find the Jewishness in the story you already live.
Let’s say you’re having dinner on a Friday night, out with a group of friends. You’re probably not lighting Shabbat candles at a restaurant, and you don’t really think about singing the blessings, because there are lots of other people around…and that might be kind of weird. It’s been a hard week, and this dinner finally gives you a chance to relax, so you wonder: does this count as doing Shabbat?
All things being equal, the answer is…probably not.
As the Reform Jewish legal scholar Mark Washofsky has argued: Jewish practices are only Jewish when we recognize them as such. And so far, there’s nothing recognizably Jewish about this dinner scenario.
But what if you sat there, waiting for the check, and considered the fact that the Yismechu prayer, echoing the book of Isaiah, urges us to experience oneg on Shabbat, to delight in the Sabbath? And let’s say, for a moment, that you happen to be dining in a Chinese restaurant, conjuring an image of countless Jewish Christmasses, which actually has a history that extends back to a generation of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side who preferred Chinese restaurants because they were less likely to have crucifixes on the walls.
Suddenly, there becomes something recognizably Jewish within this dinner. There becomes a conversation with Jewish memory. And maybe that non-Shabbat dinner is a little more Shabbosdik than it would’ve been otherwise.
Jewish practice is inherently intertextual. Every self-conscious Jewish act refers back to some other text and some other Jew who experienced something similar in history. You might think of Judaism as a set of hyperlinks, in a constant conversation of references back and forth between different texts, traditions, and people. The more you’re able to find the Jewish hyperlink to whatever you’re doing in regular daily life, the more you become a walking Talmud, living and breathing Jewish civilization.
To throw another piece into the mix, let’s say that when you made the dinner plans in the first place, you thought to yourself: gee, it’s Friday night, it’s Shabbat. Going out to dinner is exactly what I need to rest meaningfully at the end of this week. In this case, you intended to do something Jewish by enjoying your Friday evening practice. And intention is a key ingredient in making this count.
In the 21st century, each of us has autonomy over our actions. There isn’t some rabbinic court watching over our every move. Each of us gets to decide for ourselves whether or not our actions feel Jewish. But I submit to you that in order to be authentically Jewish, we need both to recognize the relationship between our behavior and some Jewish antecedent, religious or cultural or whatever, and we also have to intend to see what we’re doing as Jewish.
By doing so, you take the Jewish story and meld it with your own.
Which brings us, finally, to…
Number Three: Allow your story to play out according to the rhythm of Jewish time.
The Jewish calendar is rich with anniversaries and references to our people’s story. Some of it is familiar to us. On Passover, we remember our exodus from Egypt. On Shavuot, we remember the moment when we received the Torah at Sinai. On Hanukkah, we remember that our people survived in the face of persecution, as we do again on Purim, and kind of on Passover, and, well, actually kind of a lot times. On Tisha B’Av, we remember the destruction of our Temples in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE and then in the year 70.
But the Jewish calendar is not merely a recitation of Jewish history.
Going back to the text from the Mishna that I mentioned earlier tonight, describing the four new years of Jewish tradition, we read that on Rosh Hashanah, all the world passes before God like sheep. We learn that everything is judged on Rosh Hashanah, and its sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur. The commentary expands on this, saying that all grain is judged on Passover, all fruit is judged on Shavuot, all water is judged on Sukkot, and by Yom Kippur, the fate of human beings is sealed.
In light of this text, NYU scholar Jeffrey Rubenstein notes that our holidays become not merely the remembrance of Jewish history, but the script of a cyclical drama that plays out each year. Every single thing that happens in the Jewish calendar locates us in relationship to our past, and to each other. And it allows us to reinsert ourselves into the Jewish story at various moments throughout the year.
For this reason, Jews over the past two thousand years have ascribed countless communal tragedies to Tisha B’Av. Medieval crusades and early modern pogroms are all commemorated on Tisha B’Av, not because they literally happened on that date…but because the mythic feeling attached to it corresponded to the emotional drama of the Jewish calendar.
We might say that the Jewish calendar is not merely about remembering certain events, but locating ourselves temporally in relation to the ever unfolding story of the Jewish people, especially as it relates to our emotional selves.
Inevitably, we all live according to many different calendars. We’ve got the school year, the fiscal year, and of course, the secular, Gregorian year that puts us in relationship to the rest of the world. But distinct from all of those, only the Jewish year allows us to locate our emotions, our relationships, our aspirations in relation to a cyclical drama in conversation with our people’s past.
When you experience a personal tragedy, you can recognize it on Tisha B’Av. When something liberates you and you want to celebrate it, write it into your Passover Haggadah. When you really need a break from the burdens of the world, remember that Shabbat is designed not to limit you with traditional restrictions, but to give you a chance to breathe, to check in with yourself and remember that you’re human.
The Jewish calendar is one of the things we have in common with all Jews across time and space and denomination. If there is such a thing as the Jewish story at all, the rhythm of Jewish time is what keeps each character progressing toward a shared destiny. Ahad Ha’am famously wrote that more than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people. So, too, does the broader expression of Jewish time, keep us in sync with the Jewish story.
If in the new year, you’re looking to experience Judaism in a way that honors and celebrates both modern life and Jewish authenticity, these three things allow you to do so. If keeping kosher isn’t for you, or if you’re not interested in coming to Shabbat services (even though we’ve got an awesome lineup of Friday nights this Fall and you should totally check it out)…this is a way. A new way. I offer these to you because I’m aware that the American Jewish community is in need of new ways of doing Jewish. As a rabbi, I want my community to feel good and empowered, as Jewish as possible, but also as Jewish as we want to be.
In the coming year, may we see ourselves within the Jewish story. May we find the Jewishness in the stories we already live. And may we allow our stories to play out according to Jewish time.
Above all my hope for all of us is that whenever we find ourselves experiencing Jewish life, we’re able to do so in a way that feels right to us, and whenever we celebrate a Jewish holiday, we’re able to feel that it’s right on time.