The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Message on Rosh Hashanah

[This drashah was given on Sept. 16, 2023]

For all of us who care about the State of Israel, this past year has been a wrenching time. Almost immediately after its last national election last November, as the new Israeli government proposed to give itself more power by weakening the ability of the courts to review its decisions, Israel entered a political crisis deeper and more painful than anything the country had ever experienced before. For about eight months now, there have been mass protests throughout the country, especially in Tel Aviv, where well over a hundred thousand demonstrators have been protesting every Saturday night since last winter. At its peak last March, the number approached 200,000 in Tel Aviv alone, not to mention the rest of the country. This past May, when Elana and I were in Israel to meet our new grandson, we joined those protests and experienced first-hand the sense of crisis that so many Israelis feel about the direction of their country.

On the surface, the crisis is over questions of judicial review that can seem arcane and academic to those of us who are not lawyers– and even to those who are lawyers but are unfamiliar with the Israeli legal system. For instance, they involve arguments about the use of “reasonableness standard” in judicial review, about the proper composition of the Judicial Appointments committee, about the status of basic laws as opposed to ordinary laws – none of which exist in our legal system. So it can be unclear to us what all the fuss is really about. But the overall effect of the changes would be to make the courts less independent of the government, and less able to block its decisions, which would threaten the separation of powers that democracy depends on.

But that doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. At a deeper level, the struggle is over specific values represented by the courts, values that bind Israel to the Western world – values such as universal human rights, equality under the law, freedom of speech and religion, which were guaranteed by Israel’s Declaration of Indepenence at the time of its founding. Those are values that the Israeli judiciary has played a key role in defending over the years, values that the protesters fear the government will water down unless the court retains the power to stop them.

So at that deeper level, the struggle is over the kind of country that Israel wants to be. What is Israel’s mission in the world? What was the whole point of the Zionist enterprise?

Most of the original leaders of the Zionist movement, the movement that eventually gave birth to the State of Israel, believed that the purpose of a Jewish state would be to normalize our status in the world, to make it possible for us to take our proper place among the other nations. The Zionist movement arose in the late 19th century at the same time that many other national groups were struggling to gain their own statehood: the Poles, the Hungarians, the Czechs and Slovaks, the Finns, and so on. Most Zionist leaders understood the movement as the Jewish people’s struggle to be more like everyone else, to have our own territory, our own government, our own national culture and institutions as other peoples had, or aspired to have, so that we could stand proudly among the nations of the world.

For those who understood the Zionist movement in that way, a respect for human rights and a commitment to equality under the law were at the heart of the whole enterprise. If the purpose of a Jewish state was to make us more part of the world, then its only natural that we would want to honor others as we honor ourselves, that we would want to respect the humanity of all people, both within our borders and outside them, and that that value would be at the heart of our national identity.

But, over the years, particularly since the Six-Day War, there has also been a deep current in Zionist thought that flows in the opposite direction. Today, there are many who believe that the purpose of a Jewish state is to separate us from the world, to provide a place where we can pursue our own unique destiny in relation to God and no one else.  For them, the return to Zion represents our redemption from a hostile world. It was, and is, our vindication after centuries of suffering at the hands of people who can never understand us, people to whom we owe nothing, and from whom we have nothing of value to learn. For them, Israel is the one place in the world where we should not have to worry about the needs of anyone except ourselves, where we can live out our unique relationship with God, unencumbered by anyone else’s claims on us. The new Israeli government, which is heavily populated with religious nationalists, is weighted heavily toward that position.

Fundamentally, I think, that is really what the conflict is about. Why do we want to have a Jewish state in the first place? Should universal human rights and equality for all of its inhabitants be at the heart of Israel’s vision, or should Israel be a place where, finally, at long last, we need not be concerned with other people’s claims on us? Is the Zionist dream about our own redemption with the larger world, as part of it, or our redemption from the larger world? The protesters who push back against the government’s attempts to weaken the courts are trying to insure that Israel will remain a country that looks outward, not just inward, one that remains aligned with the larger world, particularly the Western world with its egalitarian values.

What does that struggle have to do with us, who live outside of Israel? Certainly it has to matter to us to the extent that we care about Israel’s future. But the struggle has a more immediate relevance to us as well, because it’s a version of the same debate that we are engaged in here.  It’s not just Israel’s struggle, but ours too.

The Jewish community in this country, and throughout the diaspora, is deeply divided as well, over what amounts to the same question. Usually we think of ourselves as fighting over standards of religious practice, and the theologies that undergird those standards. Who is a Jew and who is not? Who is a rabbi and who is not? What is kosher and what is not? What is permitted and what is not? But those questions are really symptoms of a deeper, more fundamental divide, which is very much like the divide in Israel.

We talk about it differently here because our community is structured differently. We diaspora Jews are not a political entity, not a state, so we don’t frame the question in terms of politics and power, government and courts. We are a religious community, so we frame the question in terms of religious vision and commitment and boundaries.

In our debates here, there are two broad camps that line up roughly with the two broad political camps in Israel. Let me take them in reverse order. On one side of our debates are those who believe that to be authentic Jews means to be separate, the more separate the better. The outside world is a hostile place, a spiritually barren place, so we should not bother looking for common ground or common understandings. Of course, being a minority, we have to deal with the larger world. We can’t afford to ignore it. But that world has nothing of real value to teach us, and no standing to make moral demands on us. We are in the world, but not of it. Our mission is to walk our separate path, to seek our own particular redemption. For that camp, it is natural to place a higher value on the parts of our tradition that differentiate us from everyone else, to use the particularities of Jewish ritual to build higher and higher walls around us.

On the other side of our debates are those who say the opposite:  that being Jewish is essentially a way of being more human, that the purpose of being Jewish is to make us better people, to express and live out truths that bind us to all human beings. Yes, Judaism is different from other spiritual paths, but it is different in the way that one language is different from another language. If you want to communicate, you can’t just speak “human,” because there is no such language. You have to speak French or Spanish or Japanese or English or Urdu. None of those language can be perfectly translated into any other one. But the highest purpose of those languages – of any language – is to express things that all human beings share. That is what language is ultimately for.

Those in the second camp would argue that the same is true of religious traditions. There is no universal spiritual path. When we search for ultimate truths, the truths that bind all human beings together, we need to follow a particular path, in the same way that we need to speak a particular language. But what gives our spiritual particularity its ultimate significance is that it points us toward things that make us all one. Yes, our Jewishness makes us distinctive. But the reason why we dedicate ourselves to that distinctiveness is not to point us away from the world but to point us toward it. We seek to be more Jewish, ultimately, so that we can be more human. And so, naturally, even as we embrace our particularity, we balance that particularity by emphasizing those parts of our tradition that bind us to the rest of humanity.

That is the debate in a nutshell. It is one of the great debates – perhaps the great debate– at the heart of modern Jewish life, both in Israel and here. In Israel, that debate has come to a head recently over the question of the status of the courts versus the government, each of them representing a different side. Here the struggle crystalizes over questions of religious practice and theology. But at its root, it is the same struggle. The question is: Should being Jewish point us toward the larger world or away from it? Should it be about carving out our own unique space in a hostile world, or about living out values that bind us closer to the rest of humanity?

For me personally, the answer to the question is clear. The reason why I cherish our particularity as Jews – our unique ways of worshipping, of organizing time, of caring for each other, of framing ultimate questions and of seeking answers to them – is because it offers me a language to express things that I think are ultimately human things. For me, a Judaism that rejects the world, that denies that other traditions have anything to teach us, or that other human beings have any moral claim on us, would be a contradiction in terms. It would not be Judaism as I understand it.

That’s me. But I also recognize that where we place ourselves in this debate is a choice. The Jewish tradition itself – the Bible and the Talmud and our legal and philosophical and mystical literature will not answer that question for us. We all have to decide for ourselves.

Our textual tradition will not answer the question for us because the tradition comes down on both sides of the debate. It speaks with multiple, conflicting voices, and it always has. Almost a thousand years ago, two of the greatest Jewish philosophers who ever lived – Moses Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi – stood on opposite sides of this question. Maimonides taught that all of the mitzvot point toward universal values, which all reasonable people can grasp and affirm.  He insisted that Torah’s most important messages apply to everyone. Yehuda Halevi, whose life overlapped with Maimonides, taught the opposite: that the essence of the Torah is inaccessible to gentiles. They have no share in it, and can never truly hope to grasp it. The Torah is ours only, because we have a relationship with God that other people don’t have, and can never have. Our particularity emphatically does not point toward the universal. Our path, and other people’s paths, will never truly intersect.

Almost a thousand years before those two philosophers, in the time of the Mishnah, Rabbi Akiva and his colleague Shimon ben Azzai had a disagreement over what amounts to the same thing. Rabbi Akiva taught that, if you could boil down the Torah to one essential message, that message would be “love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai disagreed. He taught that the essential message of the Torah is that all human beings are created in the image of God. Why the difference? Probably because the word “neighbor” in “love your neighbor as yourself” might mean only those in your particular community. Ben Azzai’s point was that we are commanded not just to love our neighbor, one who is close to us, but to acknowledge our shared humanness with all people. For Ben Azzai, that is what Judaism is ultimately about.

Centuries before Akiva and Ben Azzai, the Bible itself was divided on this issue. For instance, the authors of the book of Jonah and the book of Ezra, who both lived in the time of the second Temple, split on this same question. The book of Yonah, which we will read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, teaches that God loves everyone, even the people of Nineveh, and that therefore we are answerable even to people who have been our enemies. We owe all people, even them, our love. More than that, we must be open to learning from them because sometimes they understand God’s message better than we do ourselves. It is the Ninevites, after all, who teach Yonah what teshuvah (repentance)  means. They teach him the meaning of his own mission. The book of Ezra, on the other hand, teaches that we Jews possess a unique holiness that no one else possesses, and that we must build high walls around our own community to keep outsiders out, so that they will not water down that holiness.

Our sacred texts will not resolve the debate for us, because they come down on both sides of the question. All through our textual tradition, from beginning to end, we find version after version of the same debate: Do we Jews share a destiny with all humanity, or do we walk alone? Does our path ultimately intersect with other people’s paths, or does it ultimately lead away from them. Does our faith point us toward the world or away from it?

Just as our sacred texts will not answer that question, our history as a people – our shared experience of the world – will not answer it either, because we can – and do – interpret that experience in opposite ways.

Think of the core collective memory that we recall each year at the Passover seder, the memory of our enslavement in Egypt. Near the beginning of the Seder, as we start to tell the story of our enslavement, we universalize its meaning. We say about the matzah:  “Ha lahma anya, This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” And then immediately we go on to say: “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need join in our celebration of Pesah.” Yes, we say, our suffering in Egypt was unique. But our memory of Egypt, which is concretized in the symbol of the matzah, ought to sensitize us to the fact that other people are suffering today. As we were oppressed then, other people are oppressed now. And remembering what we lived through should motivate us to reach out with a special empathy to others, to understand what they are going through today, and help them. In other words, our particular experience should point us toward the universal. It should bind us to the rest of humanity.

But then later in the Seder, near the end, after we have finished telling the story, we interpret the same memory of oppression in the opposite way.  We call out to God: “Sh’fokh hamatkha al ha-goyim asher lo y’da’ukha. Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home. . .  Destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord.” This is the opposite of “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Now, the lesson that we take from our experience of slavery is that the world is dangerous and hostile. It is filled with people that we cannot trust, people who are not only our enemies but enemies of God. In the earlier passage, we declared that we must be God’s partners in redeeming the whole world from suffering. Here, we ask God to redeem us from the world, a world to which we owe nothing. And we say that based on exactly the same memory.

Why does the Haggadah include both responses – opposite responses – to the same memory?  Maybe it is to teach us a lesson about freedom, about leaving Egypt, about making choices. Since we are free now, how we understand our history is up to us. Memory does not make sense of itself. It does not mean on its own. We have to make a choice, to decide what we will learn from our experience. Will our memories of suffering point us toward the rest of the world or away from it? It is up to us.

The same is true of our more recent memory of suffering, of the Holocaust, which still casts a great shadow over Jewish life. It is up to us to choose how we will understand that too. We all say “Never again.” But we mean different things when we say it. For some of us, “Never again” expresses a universal mitzvah.  Having suffered as we did, we have an obligation to be sensitive to all the other forms that bigotry and hatred take today, to fight for the safety and dignity of all people – because we especially know where hatred leads. Those of us who mean that when we say “Never Again” draw a straight line from our experience of Auschwitz to the mitzvah of defending universal human rights. But for others, “Never again” means exactly the opposite. It means that, having suffered as we did, we owe nothing to the rest of the world, a world that’s morally bankrupt and spiritually barren.  From now on, we must walk our separate path, and use whatever power we have to look out for ourselves alone. And if, by doing that, we impose costs on other people, that is simply too bad. As for universal human rights, who has any right to lecture us about what we owe to anyone else after what the world did to us?  How dare the world that gave us Hitler preach to us about morality?

“Never Again” can mean either one of those two opposite things. Our collective memory of the Holocaust will not resolve the question for us because we can – and do – draw opposite conclusions from that same shared memory.

Where does all this leave us? It leaves us with the choice. What will it mean to be Jewish in the 21st century? Will Judaism point us toward the larger world or away from it? Our sacred texts will not answer the question for us because they speak with many voices. Our historical memory will not answer the question for us because we can and do interpret it in different ways. The collective will of the Jewish people will not answer the question, because the Jewish people is bitterly divided, both in Israel and here.

So what is left? Only the choice that each of us has it in our hands to make. How do we cast our vote in this great debate? Which voices from the Jewish past do we choose to be guided by? Which Jewish path do we choose to walk? It all comes down to the choice that we make. And if you say, “I don’t want to choose a side. I don’t want to be part of this struggle, I just want everyone to get along; I abstain from this debate,” then that’s a choice too – a choice to let other people define our Judaism for us.

If Rosh Hashanah teaches anything, it is that, ultimately, everything comes down to our choices. That is why our Torah reading on this day – this day that we call the birthday of the world – is not a grand story of cosmic renewal, but a story about one lonely human being, Avraham, who lived in a particular place at a particular time, and had to make a choice. It was a hard and painful choice, on which the future of his family, and ultimately of the Jewish people, hinged. The message of the parashah, and the message of this day, is that it all comes down to how we use our freedom. Maimonides, in his Hilkhot Teshuvah, his laws of Repentance, wrote that before we act on anything, we should imagine that our mitzvot and our sins are equally balanced in a scale, and that the next that we do – for good or bad – will tip the balance one way or the other. We are judged by what we have the power to determine – and what we have the power to determine is which path we will choose right now. It’s all about the choice that lies before us at this moment. That is the meaning of this day.

What Judaism will look like in the 21st century depends on how we – each of us – chooses to cast our vote in this perennial debate – how we vote with our feet, and with our hearts, and with our heads, and with our bodies and with our voices. It is not a vote that we cast once and for all, but rather every day, in the way that we live our lives as Jews.  Will we choose to nurse our grievances against the world, or will we choose to use our history of suffering to empathize with those who are powerless today? Will we choose to turn in on ourselves, to cherish our own truths to the exclusion of everyone else’s, or will we open ourselves to the possibility that we can learn about the meaning of the Torah from the wisdom and experience of others? Will we choose to walk toward the rest of humanity or away from it?

The character of Judaism will be shaped, as it has always been shaped, by the choices that we Jews make. May our choices, those that are in our hands, be a source of blessing to ourselves, and to the world, in the year to come.