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Rosh HaShana Thought | What Will Be | What Was |
Rosh HaShana Thoughts | Rabbi Arik Ascherman
We have sinned before you
Be Merciful with us
Adon HaSlikhot – Sefardic Piyut (Religious Poem) for High Holy Days
Asei Imanu Tzedakah V’Khesed v’hoshianu
Deal with us with both justice and mercy, and save us.
How many times do we invoke God’s Rakhamim (mercy) during the year, and especially during the High Holy Days? The two well known lines above are but two examples from the High Holy Day liturgy in which we emphasize God’s trait of mercy, and request that God treat us mercifully. On Yom Kippur we will pray that God moves from the throne of strict justice, and sits on the throne of mercy when God judges all of humanity…. When we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, we will learn that God’s mercy extends to all human beings.
However, recall that Jonah was angry with God for acting with rakhamim towards non-Jews. For many, God’s mercy is confined, or should be confined, to the Jewish people.
When a settler asked to meet with me a few months ago to request that we withdraw a High Court petition designed to return some 2,500 dunam of land to their rightful owners, he told me how much he admired our social justice work on behalf of Israelis. He said that we would volunteer for us, if he had the time. On the other hand, he simply couldn’t understand why we didn’t just stick to that, and abandon our work on behalf of Palestinians. (I think he realized that there is no way we could work for social justice for Jewish Israelis without working for non-Jewish Israelis as well, but he would have preferred that we help Jews only.)
The real story and test of the amazing Israeli social justice protest movement which began this summer is the as yet to be completed chapter regarding the extent and boundaries of social solidarity. Even before this summers protest, I was almost moved to tears at a meeting of public housing tenants brining together the religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, as well as European and Eastern Jews from around the country.
But, they were all suffering from similar social-economic distress. Relatively often a common threat brings people together in unlikely partnerships. We also saw this in our work with Jewish and Arab women forced into the Israeli Wisconsin Plan.
When I first accompanied an activist from one of the low income neighborhoods to the tent encampment being set up by students, he came away feeling unwanted. The decision was made to set up a separate tent camp. I told the students that same evening that the commitment some of them were expressing regarding the needs of lower income Israelis would be tested when the government made them an offer leaving others behind. When that in fact happened a few weeks later, and the middle class leadership of the protest movement stated that they would not accept an offer meeting their needs only, I knew that something dramatic and significant was taking place. It was the first time that I recall a student protest in which the students cared about anybody other than themselves. Much hard work by ourselves and others was paying off.
However, this newfound and moving social solidarity does not necessarily extend to all Israelis.
While it was clear from the outset that the protest movement would be ripped apart if it were to address Palestinian issues, it has spoken with different voices regarding Israeli Palestinians. The shadow committee, set up as an alternative to the Trachtenberg Committee (The committee set up by the government to address the protest movement’s demands), is recommending that the so called “unrecognized” Bedouin villages primarily in the Negev be finally recognized. Their residents should be treated as valued and equal Israelis. However, the dramatic demonstration that was the largest in Israel’s history took place the evening before the Government was to discuss the recommendations of the Praver Committee to expel some 30,000 Bedouin from their homes. We were able to get one of the speakers in Tel Aviv and one in Haifa to mention the issue, but the organizers were not open to inviting a speaker to specifically address this issue. In some places the situation is fluid. In one poverty stricken neighborhood of Tel Aviv some of the tent activists originally nixed the idea of a joint protest with the Arab residents of a tent encampment in Jaffa. The next week, others from that same neighborhood indicated that they did want to work together.
Are there limits to God’s rakhamim? Are there limits to our social solidarity? Will the new bonds of solidarity forged this summer manage to extend beyond our Jewish ethnic/religious border?
It is faith in God’s universal mercifulness that sustains me. For many years I have been reflecting on the huge difference between what I imagine God will do “BaYom HaHu,” on that day when God will establish God’s rule. When I pray these lines from our daily liturgy I envision an era of world peace and universal brotherhood and sisterhood, but I know that others pray those very same words with a Jewish triumphalist vision in their hearts.
Then, it hit me like a lightening bolt one day during prayer that we pray “V’Tekhezeinu eineinu b’shuvkha l’tzion b’rakhamim May our eyes behold your return in mercy to Zion. The very essence of establishing God’s rule in this world is creating a world ruled by mercy. It is a world in which, in the words of our High Holy Days prayerbook, “Ta’avir memshet zadon min ha’aretz.” God will remove the regime of brazen wrongdoing from the world.
I should be relieved.
Or, should I?
What do we mean, and what does our tradition mean, when we speak of mercy, and call God the Merciful One? We all can read into this concept what we wish. I recall my teacher of Bible in rabbinical school, Dr. David Sperling. He loved to point out that, while many wanted to connect between rakhamim and rekhem (womb) in order to say that mercy was a feminine motherly trait, the womb was a dark and foreboding place in the Bible.
Am I reading what I want to read into the concept of mercy?
According to the rabbis, God’s name “Elohim” represents God’s trait of justice, while God’s name Yud Heh Vav Heh represents God’s trait of mercy. Both are necessary, and ideally complement each other. Many of you recall my testimony when I took the stand between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur during my trial for standing in front of bulldozers coming to demolish Palestinian homes. I reminded the judge that on Yom Kippur we will ask God in the Yeshivah Shel Malah (Heavenly Court) to move from the throne of strict justice and judge us while sitting on the throne of mercy and compassion. I asked how we could ask this of God in the Heavenly Court if we did not do the same in earthly courts where we are responsible both for justice and for mercy. There was no question in my mind then or now that the God I believe in has rakhamim for all humanity, and so must we. The midrash teaches us that “All the prophets exhibited the trait of rakhamim both towards Jews and non-Jews.” (Bamidbar Rabah 20:1)
However, the rabbis interpret the fact that in Exodus God tells Moses that God is revealing God’s name Yud Heh Vav Heh for the first time (Or according to some, the name had been revealed, but God is now revealing this trait) to mean that the Exodus, including the plagues and the drowning of Egyptians at the sea, is an expression of God’s mercy and compassion. Of course, the compassionate act of freeing the Israelites from slavery entailed exercising terrible judgment on the Egyptians. Some commentators recognize this, saying that God employed both judgment and mercy in the course of the Exodus. The midrash from Bamidbar Rabbah, cites passages from Jeremiah and Ezekiel which contain some expression of sorrow in the midst of prophecies regarding the destruction of other nations. (To be fair to Jeremiah, he similarly expresses sorrow when prophesying the downfall of his own people.)
The limiting of God’s rakhamim to one’s own group is not unique to Judaism. Recently I sat next to a lovely and deeply believing Anabaptist on a plane. He wanted to know how I understood the Biblical verses which his tradition sees as prophesying that Jesus was the son of God, and what I thought about Jesus himself. After giving many of the standard answers from Jewish theology and my own opinion that Jesus might well have been quoted as a Talmudic rabbi had he not become the focus of a new religion, I had to tell him my truth as respectfully as I could, not wishing to offend him or challenge his faith. I told him that I simply could not fathom how a figure whose teaching was so much about love could possibly have decreed that people would be damned for not believing that he was the son of God (Any more than we are all God’s children.)
We can share with others our faith and learn about the faith of others, but hopefully we are not so presumptuous as to think that we should or could attempt to change people’s faith.
And yet, when lives are in the balance, we do want to change people’s faith. Whether it comes from my own Jewish tradition or the faith of others, it is not simply that I cannot believe, or perhaps do not want to believe, that God’s rakhamim can be for anything less than all of humanity. It would be wrong for me to be simply relativistic and understanding when these concepts have implications for how we treat our fellow human beings.
And yet again, even if I am prepared to say that I “Should,” that doesn’t mean that I “Can.” The challenge involved in attempting to engage or question others in matters of faith often leads us to be irreconcilably on two sides of a divide. I am sure of my faith on this point, and how it is grounded in many Jewish sources, but I am less sure of how to talk and convince others.
Perhaps things would be easier if my own beliefs were more clearly categorical, and less “messy.”
I accept the Torah’s teaching that God has a special relationship with the Jewish people. But, I don’t think that the great love God declares for Israel in the Haftarah for the second day of Rosh HaShana (Jeremiah 31:1-19) negates God’s love for non-Jews.
I believe that the Jewish people were chosen for a task. I feel honored and obligated to do my part to fulfill that task. I also note that at least one midrash suggests that other peoples were chosen for other tasks.
I believe that we must always be respectful and tolerant of the beliefs of others. But, my tolerance and respect are not total relativism. As mentioned above, I simply can’t grasp why the God of all existence would exclusively care for one group only. This is axiomatic for me, and probably for most of you who are reading this.
Some of you would go farther than I do. Simply stating that something is based on Jewish privilege or exceptionalism is a slam dunk. It means that it is bad. Period. There are no exceptions, and there is no need to argue any further.
I am arguing that Jewish exceptionalism is not in and of itself wrong. It all too often leads to a concept of Jewish privilege that I reject, but does not need to. Furthermore, we can both celebrate Jewish exceptionalism and the exceptionalism of other peoples as well.
This is not an easy position to defend. That midrash from BaMidbar Rabbah invokes a negative exceptionalism. Not only might we question the mercy in the two proof texts, but the midrash makes a negative comparison between the Jewish prophets and non-Jewish prophets. I would like to think there can also be positive exceptionalism.. In the Aleinu prayer we dramatically recite on Rosh HaShana (And less dramatically during the rest of the year), I change the negative images of non Jews and our thankfulness not to be them, to positive images and thankfulness for being ourselves. For me this is deeply meaningful and significant, but some will see this as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
While not all will agree, I think that the nuances between these two positions on exceptionalism pales in comparison to our shared rejection of Jewish privilege. We have a common challenge because the necessity of God’s love and mercy extending to all God’s creatures is so ingrained in our shared moral universe. We cannot grasp the fact that there are others who fervently believe not only that the connection between Jewish exceptionalism and privelege is moral, but that rejecting such a connection or positing God’s concern for others is un-Jewish and immoral.
I have told before the story of being in mediation after the slanderous remarks made on me by Women in Green and former Kahanists just at this time of year. When we finished a session the judge wished us a Shana Tova. We all nodded in agreement when the representative of Women in Green added, “And for the entire Jewish People.” When I added “And for the entire world,” the representative of Women in Green said that I had gone too far. Some of you may also recall that a few years ago we debated with prominent Israeli rabbis who argued that the IDF was too concerned about the lives of Palestinian civilians when pursuing terrorist. This was seen as immoral and not Jewish. This debate surfaced again during the Gaza War, although there it was colored by the terrible question whether we are in some cases sacrificing the lives of our soldiers when we criticize the casualty free strategies of warfare that increase civilian deaths.
So where does this leave us? Must we simply accept that we have Jonah and the teaching in the first verses of Genesis that every human being is created in God’s Image, and God telling the angels in Shir HaShirim Rabah to stop celebrating when God’s Egyptian children are drowning in the sea, while others focus on their equally authentic sources?
Yes and no. Yes, we must accept that those for whom Jewish exceptionalism and privilege are positive moral values have their sources, including in our High Holy Day liturgy. We must acknowledge both the great deal of sensitivity required to talk to anybody about their faith, and the incredible hubris involved in thinking that we might actually change somebody’s beliefs when the are a matter of faith. I must recognize the slippery slope in my own belief which allows for some degree of positive Jewish exceptionalism, celebrates multiple exceptionalism and rejects Jewish and/or Israeli privilege. As always, I feel that abandoning the field is not an option because my faith is too important to me, and because religion too powerful and influential to be left to those who would use it to back Jewish privilege.
Not engaging is not an option.
Our Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShana are all about that messy slippery slope. God chooses Isaac over Ishmael, but is clearly concerned for Ishmael’s welfare and destiny. God backs the expelling of Hagar and Ishmael, but then saves them. The midrash tells us that the angels foresaw future conflict between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, and asked God to let Ishmael die in the desert. God, knowing that no future is inevitable and that one standard of justice must be applied to every human being, refuses to let an innocent boy die. Clearly this story leaves almost everybody dissatisfied. There is both Jewish privilege and human concern for the non Jew, potentially at the expense of Jews.
I don’t like finishing my thoughts on a messy note, but I am not sure that I have a choice. I will note that the Book of Jonah is our final scriptural reading of the High Holy Days. Universal rakhamim does get the final word. Jonah is rebuked for resenting God’s concern for all of God’s creatures. If this is ultimately a matter of faith, I pray that rakhamim will also have the last word in our hearts.
And then, the final words in our Yom Kippur liturgy will be:
Hear O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One
Praised be God’s glorious sovereignty throughout all time
Adonai alone is God
May we have the spiritual insight to understand that God’s Oneness makes us all one.
ה’ האחד המאחד את כל אחד/ת
May our eyes witness the manifestation of God’s rakhamim for all.
May this be a Shana Tova, a good and sweet year satisfying the passion for universal justice in our souls, as guided by universal rakhamim in our hearts.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman
What Will Be
“Unrecognized” Bedouin villages – Weekly Demonstration on behalf of the “unrecognized” Bedouin villages of the Negev every Sunday at 16:30 at the Lehavim Junction.
Harvest – This sunday (2.10.2011) Urgent Call for Volunteers for the 2011 Olive Harvest
The Week that Was
The Forum of the Tents of the Periphery has decided to participate in and to support the campaign of “Fair Employment is Social Justice” - The Forum of the Tents of the Periphery has decided to participate in and to support the campaign of “Fair Employment is Social Justice.” Continue reading →
The number of children in a class – a moral, budgetary and essential question - The number of children in a class is one on the most important factors in terms of feelings and success of children. The Ministry of Education decides on the number of the children in a class, and this decision is influenced by a socioeconomic “ranking” of the neighborhood. The municipality has the option to give the school extra hours but it is not obligated to do so. Continue reading →
RHR Media Coverage
- Rabbi Arik Ascherman: On my recent trip to the U.S. and Canada I was interviewed for the popular Marc Steiner Show out of Baltimore. Among other topics I spoke about the tent protest movement, the situation on the ground as the fall U.N. session opens, and the connection between the High Holy Days, RHR’s work and our faith that our fellow Israelis can change.
- Jpost: Price tag – A violation of Jewish values, Reb Barry Leff
Messeges from Other Organization
We publish these media links as a service to the community, but they are not our activities and we are not responsible for their content. The links are a mixture of English and Hebrew articles
- Arutz Sheva – 7: Yechimovich Slams Trachtenberg Report
Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom