Rosh Hashanah, 5779:
Our History as a Roadmap for the Jewish Future

Courtesy Fine Art America

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

At this season of our renewal we have the opportunity to reflect upon our lives and personal stories, but this moment permits us to also contemplate the collective fate of the Jewish people. Jewish history may provide an interesting roadmap for us toward envisioning the future. What then are some of the key markers that hold value and meaning to our story as a community?

Throughout our history Jews have experienced both periods of profound uncertainty and moments of extraordinary influence and pride. Our learning curve has enabled us not only to survive but also to creatively operate both under conditions of powerlessness and within the contours of having access to power. At this time of introspection, we might well consider what will be our fate as a community in this century.

How Can Our Past Be Instructive?

As the historian Heinrich Graetz noted, during periods when Jews held power and lived within their own nation, the political focus of their tradition would be the dominant element of Judaism. In contrast, during periods of dispersion, the religious elements would be more prevalent, as Jews sought to draw upon theological and spiritual sources to sustain them. Yet we would also learn that internal divisions compromised Jewish nation building during the period of the Second Temple, ultimately undermining our well-being.

Historian Salo Baron has suggested, “Political powerlessness has often been mistaken by foe and friend alike as the equivalent of the Jews’ utter despondency… throughout the history of dispersion.” He concludes, “Justice, and especially social justice, remained throughout the ages the corner stone of Jewish public life and theology.”

In light of their tumultuous story of exile and redemption, Jews would become accustom to political change and social upheaval that over time would prepare them for the uncertainties of modern politics. This adaptability has served us well while living under different political regimes.

Baron also noted “Jewish history has increasingly become a rare combination of national and world history. The Jewish faith also represents a peculiar synthesis of a national and a universal religion.” This creative interchange between constructing a national identity and fostering universal social values represents the duality of the Jewish experience. The tenacity of the Jewish people is reflected on the one hand by their commitment over the centuries to their covenant with God to be a “holy nation” and on the other by their engagement with humanity in fashioning a messianic vision.

For certain Jews find themselves today operating in a complex and challenging environment. Where unbridled nationalism, economic transformation, cultural wars, and religious triumphalism appear to be dominant themes, the quality and context of Jewish life are compromised. These conditions must be seen as potentially dangerous and destructive to the wellbeing and status of Jews.

Reflections on our Nation and the World:

Our country appears to be at a transformational moment in its history. Civility has left the stage, replaced by a pattern of social disrespect and a culture of personal aggrandizement. Our politics reflects our flawed status as a nation, caught up as we are in a profound battle over how we ought to define this our American story. We will need to reaffirm our sense of national identity, repelling those who seek to tear down the ideals that have defined this society. These civic ideas define who we are and what we can become:

  • Affirming the dignity of the individual
  • Acknowledging American diversity
  • Promoting civil liberties
  • Celebrating our freedom
  • Repudiating hate and sexism
  • Promoting the idea of “truth” over falsehoods
  • Insuring transparency
  • Respecting differences and welcoming compromise, and
  • Investing in the Public Square and civic engagement

Yet, we as citizens seem to be tired, divided, and disconnected, somehow unprepared and unable, or maybe unwilling to tackle the challenges ahead. Complexity has masked and clouded our vision.

Our destiny as a society is at stake! At this season we are reminded that Judaism articulates a message that transcends time and place, calling upon us to join with others to help repair this nation, just as we seek to create “Shalom” or wholeness within our own community.

Our Community and Our People:

We affirm these ideals as a people:

We are God’s stake in human history. …We carry the gold of God in our souls to forge the gate of the kingdom.” Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us of our ultimate responsibilities.

The community of Israel represents a holy nation. Our tradition speaks to the principles of the sacred covenant that has been bestowed upon us.

The well being of the Jewish people is bound together by faith and fate. Each Jew is responsible for the ensuring the welfare of the community, even as we may hold disagreements. We need to affirm the meaning of peoplehood in this new age.

If Judaism did not exist, we should have to invent it. Rabbi Leo Baeck taught “Judaism bears witness to the power of the idea.” Our religious tradition requires our activist hand in pursuing our ongoing commitment to heal the world.

We affirm that Israel’s security and wellbeing are our collective responsibility. Our dream for a safe and secure Jewish State still seems uncertain, the national character of Zion remains to be affirmed as Israel seeks to redefine its Jewish and democratic identity, while charting its way unevenly to secure the unfulfilled vision of peace between Jews and neighbors.

Encountering 5779:

In every period of our people’s existence, we can identify a mix of threats and opportunities that have altered the course of Jewish life. What are we likely to encounter as we move into the third decade of the 21st century?

At different points in time Jewish personalities have inspired and given leadership to the Jewish people and to humanity as a whole. Who might emerge in the generation before us to inspire and lead our community?

Jews would create and maintain internal networks of communication and systems of social invention that have allowed us a people to retain a shared sense of our identity and vision. Over the decades ahead in what ways will we be able to communicate our universal passion for healing the world and our more particular commitment to the Jewish national enterprise?

Jews have monitored their past as a way to memorialize special moments, sanctify their losses, pay tribute to their heroes and teachers, and above all to acknowledge how we have managed threats to our survival. How might we understand this current phase of our journey?

Moving Forward:

The global picture might best be defined as one of social disruption, where core axioms and norms appear to be shifting. While such rapid and radical changes have profound and problematic implications for world Jewry, this also affords an opportunity for Judaism to be understood as an ideology committed to the idea of human perfectibility.

Is it possible to reimagine our world constructed and governed by a moral code of civility? This task of renewal must inevitably begin within our own communal orbit. The dignity of the individual is the centerpiece of our tradition. How we embrace and engage our fellow Jews becomes core to how we define ourselves and understand the world. The principles of civil discourse permit us the opportunity to promote and sustain relationships with the other; are we open to the possibilities of new beginnings?

Drawing upon our tradition with its focus on the ethical imperatives of social responsibility and conduct, can we again re-envision a humanity that is bound up in the perfectibility of the human condition, and as Jews can we model such a commitment? At this season we are reminded that Judaism articulates a message that transcends time and place, calling upon us to redeem ourselves as we rebuild the world.

The shofar calls the household of the Jewish people to action, compelling us to be responsive to our collective welfare and requiring us to heal the deep strains that divide us within our community, this nation and beyond.

As we reflect on our unique march through time and place, may we have the insight to step back and examine our journey through history, as we move forward at this season of our redemption to embark on creating another chapter in the saga of our people.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings may be found on his website: