Challenging times, critical moments: Rosh Hashanah 5783

In Short

As we prepare for 5783, we are confronting a number of critical Jewish themes. On one level, we come to this moment anticipating an opportunity to repair our personal friendships, reimagine our place within the communal orbit, and re-envision the broader edgings of our global Jewish space.

The Jewish New Year symbolizes a time of reflection, as we personally and collectively assess our individual relationships and examine the state of our community. Each fall, these Days of Awe afford us that special period of reflection on the Jewish condition. Few cultures or civilizations are provided with this space for such a personal assessment. The genius of Judaism is found in its calendar, setting aside time for this form of self-encounter.

Indeed, in reviewing the themes of High Holiday messages in past seasons, one finds a degree of convergence, as specific issues would either globally or regionally emerge, setting the framework for sermon topics and Rosh Hashanah conversations. In 1947, rabbis in the greater Detroit area, as an example, collectively agreed to address the issue of Black-Jewish relations in that city. In 1956, as he routinely did, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan gathered his Jewish Theological Seminary students and some of his rabbinic colleagues to introduce the theme of “happiness” as a baseline priority. Indeed, during periods of great upheaval and transition, including the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, the fight to establish the Jewish state in the1940s and the civil rights era of the 1960s, rabbis would address these overarching considerations.

As we prepare for 5783, we are confronting a number of critical Jewish themes. On one level, we come to this moment anticipating an opportunity to repair our personal friendships, reimagine our place within the communal orbit, and re-envision the broader edgings of our global Jewish space.

Yet, even beyond these internal and personal reflective points, we seem as a people and as a society to be facing an array of structural and operational challenges that are ripping our social fabric apart. As we gather this year, a type of weariness appears to be taking hold, as an outgrowth of the pandemic’s imprint on our lives, combined with a level of frustration that today clouds our politics. Enough of conspiratorial craziness and the misrepresentations of political motives, a state of anomie seems present, replacing the rhythm of our democracy, shattering and undermining our beliefs and dreams about our society.

Beyond the framework of our democracy, we have been rudely and violently introduced to a 21st century rendition of antisemitism, raising its age-old crudeness and threats. Racial and identity politics have been reframed to define Israel as a white, colonialist bastion of oppression. In a setting where everything is being targeted through the lens of race, gender and culture, the layers of historical and social context are being readily dismissed. “Whiteness” is labeled as a problematic condition. With language becoming politicized, intersectionality has captured the mindset of progressive activists as they move to dismiss and critique Zionism and its supporters. Diversity and inclusion have moved from being understood as aspirational outcomes to being employed as measures of political correctness. 

The unleashing of social media has created its own distinctive challenges, as this platform has become the primary gateway for the delivery of hate messaging and the publications of untruths, further destabilizing confidence in others and our society as a whole.

Our Jewish Storyline:

As Jews, we are conscious of these destructive elements, as we desperately crave a degree of order in our lives, for we are a people whose historical clock has been riddled with disruption, death and demons. For us, context and reason are essential, as they serve to describe our unique place within civilization and anchor us as a people. In some measure, the rhythmic order of the high holy day liturgy gives us a degree of comfort and offers us a counterpoint to the disruptive character of so much that defines the rest of our lives.

As we enter this season, other themes, more internal to our communal state of mind, are emerging before us. The Jewish glue, whether framed around memorializing the Shoah, embracing our love of Zion and the Jewish national experiment, or through our sustaining commitment to community, appears to be becoming undone.

A bottom-up Jewish revolution appears to be underway, as Jews move from the public or institutional stage bringing forward their own personal platforms of learning, celebration and engagement. If the Jewish collective story is operating in a state of uncertainty, we then need to acknowledge the creative passions and personal tales of Jews uncovering their inner Jewish souls. The triumph of the Jewish sovereign-self seems to be exploding at the very moment when public Judaism appears to be experiencing a series of profound challenges. Will we reconvene in public and communal spaces or for now, will we continue to remain separated and removed from being part of the collective?

The privatization of American Judaism is in full form! These personalized, individualized models of Jewish expression are being developed around alternative spiritual and learning platforms and through grass-roots organizing initiatives. In this context the defenders of Jewish public space are trying to creatively reinvent community, as audiences experience a hybrid of in-person and virtual Judaism. 

As some of our legacy institutions and centers of Jewish worship struggle with finding their 21st century voice, we are experiencing a reframing of the Jewish religious and communal space. We are reminded that there exists an organizational life-cycle, as institutions rise, flourish, falter, regroup. Yet, as we know, we can today document the departure of some of these relic structures, just as we see the reigniting of other traditional models of practice.

Finally, in this sacred time frame, we have the occasion to rebuild and repair relationships torn apart by disagreement or allowed to wither as the pandemic consumes us. This personal encounter is profound, even powerful, as we move to reconstruct our lives.

Moving Us Forward:

The New Year brings with it the opportunity to always begin again, affording each of us associated with the Jewish enterprise the opportunity to draw upon this occasion to reassess where we are, how best we can serve and what it is that we collectively must achieve! 

Whether we focus on the public spaces or the Jewish ones, these high holy days serve to reignite the great work before us in healing our democracy. In partnership with others, we will need to diligently rebuild the institutions and the ideas that undergird this experiment in democratic practice that has embraced and blessed our community for nearly 250 years.

At this season of our reflections, we must acknowledge the weakening of some of our historic Jewish organizations and synagogues, as we encounter a new generation who are expressing their vision for the Jewish future. In understanding this new reality, we will need to reimagine the radical and rapid changes taking form in reshaping 21st century Jewish enterprise. 

And in this hour we have that unique occasion to reclaim old friendships, worn or torn by time and temperament. The collective and the personal come together in a complex balance of connection in this renewal moment.

In this distinctive season we have these extraordinary opportunities to re-chart our lives, re-envision our communities, and re-engage with the general society.

Steven Windmueller is professor emeritus of Jewish communal studies and currently serves as the interim director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Dr. Windmueller’s writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.