By Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
The late Joseph Aaron, z”l, the gifted and dedicated publisher of the Chicago Jewish News, once editorialized: “There are only about 16 million Jews in this entire world. That ain’t many. Which is why it’s important we stick together, feel a kinship with each other, have a special bond between us, feel that what one does reflects on all of us, that it is vital to keep the things that make us alive and well and protected.
“Young Jews don’t feel like Jews used to and I fear we are losing something very precious in that, something very necessary in that. Jewish identity is an amazing thing and one we dilute at our peril.
“At the same time, it bothers me that it bothers me that young Jews aren’t as clannish as I and past generations. After all, haven’t Jews fought and struggled to be accepted, to be part of society, to not feel singled out, left out, cut out….”
“In the end, I guess, like with so much of life, the answer is somewhere in the middle. We need to be not so tied to our past that we fail to enjoy the fruits of finally being accepted, finally being part of things. And yet we need not to be so part of things that we completely let go of our past, our feeling of connection to our fellow Jews, our sense that there is much value to clinging to our Jewish ways.
“The trick is to keep a sense of being a Jew apart from the wider world, and being proud of it, while feeling that as Jews we are very much a part of the wider world and be glad about it.”
On a plane flight I overheard a conversation taking place in the seats behind me. A twenty-something young woman who said her name was Rachel was pouring out her heart to a thirty-something woman with a baby. She said she had been to Israel, describing it as a gorgeous country, but with so many problems. She said that she goes to the synagogue but finds it too restricting; she wants to be spiritual and in the world. She said that her parents and siblings are picking up on her discontent and circling the ethnic wagons.
The other woman, the young mother, advised, “Enjoy yourself. Cherish every moment. Do not listen to other people, even parents. Make your own way.”
The things you overhear on an airplane, especially when you purposely move your ear closer to the space in between the seats behind you. That young mother was, of course, the voice of popular culture.
But the High Holy Days emphasize the quality of loyalty or emunah. After all, of Abraham, the hero of the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings, it is said in the Book of Chronicles, umatzata et-levavo ne-e-man l’fanecha, that God found Abraham’s heart “faithful.” (Nehemiah 9:8). Abraham is the person of Covenant with God and with other people. And he keeps his agreements.
The Hebrew term for one who keeps his or her agreements, who is loyal, is emunah. This is one of the most important words in all of Judaism. Its root is aleph, mem, nun, which spells “amen.” To say “Amen” is to confirm and to support. It is to have faith and to foster faith. Emunah means faithfulness as well as faith; it is trust as well as trustworthiness.
The word, emunah, describes the kind of loyalty which fosters and ensures every other kind of loyalty. The words in the Bible that derive from emunah show this beautifully. The word for “truth,” emet, is related to emunah and may have originally been emenet. The terms omen and omenet describe raising a child in a foster-parent role (as Mordecai did for Esther)and derive from the concept of absolute faithfulness or trustworthiness, emunah. So does the term, aman, for a master workman, suggesting that gifted workers should be trustworthy.
My point is that the kind of loyalty in Covenant expected of Abraham and his descendants is the loyalty that ensures and allows for every kind of loyalty and promise. The Bible speaks of the importance of an ed emunah, a loyal, steadfast witness, if there is to be justice.
The ancient Jewish concept of emunah is more than mere group loyalty. If we want to understand it, we need only look to some of the best things that have been said or written about marriage. A wall hanging wisely says it all: “Motto for the bride and groom: We are a work in progress with a lifetime contract.” Thornton Wilder had one of his characters describe eloquently faithfulness as promise in The Skin of our Teeth:
“I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them – it was that promise.”
There is no one way to sell Jewish loyalty to everyone, in any generation. Different people have different attachments and entrees into Jewish life. But I believe that the biblical concept of emunah, of a loyalty that preserves and enhances every kind of promise in society and in life, is a very compelling one.
Our Western values of loyalty, Constitutional government, justice, marriage and responsibility are established on the biblical concept of emunah, a faithfulness of secular as well as religious value. Is that not a compelling reason to cherish such loyalty to Judaism and to the Jewish People in our own lives and in our Jewish institutions, especially the synagogue?
Elliot B. Gertel is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago. He is the author of What Jews Know About Salvation, which prompted the Library of Congress to catalogue “salvation” as a Jewish category, and of Over the Top Judaism.