Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rosh Hashanah

The New Year, Israel, and Two Powerful Sermons

As Jews gathered last week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, one major question haunting the American Jewish community was this: How would its rabbis handle the issue of the summer’s war and the response to it here and abroad? Everywhere, one heard the complaint that Israel has become a divisive topic in synagogues, so much so that rabbis are too frightened to speak on it for fear of alienating someone. In New York City, the epicenter of the community (it and its environs are home to 40 percent of America’s Jews), two rabbis would not remain silent, and they deserve every blessing.

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As Jews gathered last week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, one major question haunting the American Jewish community was this: How would its rabbis handle the issue of the summer’s war and the response to it here and abroad? Everywhere, one heard the complaint that Israel has become a divisive topic in synagogues, so much so that rabbis are too frightened to speak on it for fear of alienating someone. In New York City, the epicenter of the community (it and its environs are home to 40 percent of America’s Jews), two rabbis would not remain silent, and they deserve every blessing.

Elliot Cosgrove holds the pulpit at Park Avenue Synagogue—the largest conservative shul in the city (with a storied history that includes the tenure of Milton Steinberg, the novelist and community leader who was the model mid-century American rabbi). His beautiful, wrenching sermon can be found here in its entirety. He begins with the story of his British cousins, set upon violently as children 20 years in the city of Manchester by anti-Semitic thugs who shouted “kill the Jews” as local residents shut their doors and refused to help. All four eventually moved to Israel; two fought in the war this summer:

I wondered if Rafi, uniform on and rifle in hand, called on to defend his nation, was remembering the day when he–a yiddische boy in his school blazer–banged in vain on a neighborhood door crying for help. Never again would he allow his safety and the safety of his brothers to be dependent on the kindness of strangers. And I wondered if Benji, now in his third tour of duty, was recalling that day when he froze in horror, believing that somehow his enemy would play by the same moral standards as he did. Never again would a naïve belief in the goodness of humanity lead him to hesitate in fulfilling his obligation to defend himself as his attackers prepared their assault. It would be his decision–his and his country’s alone–to choose the moment and manner by which his destiny would be shaped and his safety secured. I wondered if, twenty years later, my cousins could see the accordion-like nature of their personal history playing out in the events of their lives.

Like I said, you can read the whole thing here.

The other was Ammiel Hirsch, whose pulpit is at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue near Lincoln Center—one of the key progressive shuls in American history and the first to employ a female rabbi in the 1970s. The text is not online, though there is video of it here. An excerpt from his powerful talk:

There is a human tendency to assume that our times are unique; that we can break away from history. We have not suddenly appeared on this earth free of all the social vices of the past. Europe was always infected with anti-Semitism: Not all Europeans were anti-Semitic, but enough of them were, so as to make life difficult for our ancestors, at best, and at worst, it led to mass murder – even in the most enlightened and cultured societies…When people introduce the Holocaust against Israel, something deeper is going on. When leaders like Turkey’s Erdogan compare the Nazis with the Israeli government, and the Nazis come out looking better – you know that something deeper is going on. It does not excuse any Israeli wrongdoing, but at some point, even the most enlightened of us cannot suppress the terrible feeling welling up inside that the monster is stirring again, and that this beast is irrational, inexplicable and impossible to eradicate. It is not something that people have reasoned themselves into, and hence it cannot be reasoned out of them… I would say this to Jewish critics of Israel: If you feel compelled to speak, you must speak. If you feel compelled to act, you must act. You must be guided by your own moral compass. But you may want to ask yourselves whether you are contributing to the increasing efforts to weaken, isolate and delegitimize Israel. If that is your intention, so be it; we will never see eye-to-eye. But if that is not your intention, it is not wrong to assess the ramifications of your words and deeds.

To both rabbis, I say what you say in shul when someone performs admirably: Yasher koach. May your strength be increased.

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A Pause to Account for Ourselves

Today, President Obama gave a speech at the United Nations that almost seemed as if he has taken account of the foreign policy blunders that have been the hallmarks of his six years in office and is trying to chart a different cause. His very different tone was not accompanied by any admission of error but nonetheless the juxtaposition of his shift to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah was quite apt, as this is a day when all persons should think about taking stock of their past offenses and mistakes.

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Today, President Obama gave a speech at the United Nations that almost seemed as if he has taken account of the foreign policy blunders that have been the hallmarks of his six years in office and is trying to chart a different cause. His very different tone was not accompanied by any admission of error but nonetheless the juxtaposition of his shift to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah was quite apt, as this is a day when all persons should think about taking stock of their past offenses and mistakes.

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the beginning of this festival until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. But this period of introspection should cause all of us to think about the same questions. Indeed, as Americans now take stock of the war against Islamist terrorists that they have been dragged back into against their will, it is an apt moment to look at issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though my point of reference is Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that the public must judge leaders. While politicians and pundits fill up the 24/7 news cycle with endless debate every day, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to preserve our republic and its institutions in a manner befitting the ideals upon which it was founded. That is why appeals to fear as well as mindless defenses of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh—or accounting of the soul—that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform each year.

One of the keynotes of our political life in the last year, as well as those that preceded it, is the never-ending attempt of our parties and ideological factions to demonize their political opponents. But the dawn of the New Year represents an opportunity to step back and realize that efforts to brand leaders, parties, and movements as being beyond the pale has done much to undermine any hope for a resolution of our national problems.

Abroad we have seen the way the natural American desire to withdraw ourselves from difficult problems only made the threat from Islamist terror worse. For the moment, strident voices of isolationism have been quieted as the nation realizes the awful nature of the peril we face, but the impulse to ignore these problems is always there and must be answered directly.

Just as important, we have seen the failure of much of our media to give sufficient attention to genuine scandals that go to the heart of the concept of accountability on the part of a democratically elected government. Elsewhere, it also failed to adequately cover the rising tide of anti-Semitism and viciously distorted Israel’s efforts to defend its people against rocket attacks and terrorist tunnels.

In the coming 12 months, Americans will find themselves dealing with another war in the Middle East that can’t be avoided. And unless the president is able to match deeds to his new rhetoric, the nuclear threat from Iran that dwarfs even that of ISIS will only grow more serious. Nor should we allow those who continue to seek to delegitimize Israel or its supporters to go unanswered.

The passage of the calendar also reminds us at COMMENTARY of the urgency of our task to speak up in defense of Zionism and Israel; to bear witness against the scourge of anti-Semitism; and to support the United States as well as the best of Western civilization. Our work is, as our editor John Podhoretz wrote back in February 2009, an act of faith in the power of ideas as well as in our own nation, and as we take inventory of our personal lives we also seek to rededicate ourselves to the causes to which our magazine is devoted.

Jewish liturgy tells us that the fate of all humanity is decided during these Days of Awe, but it also says that teshuva (repentance), tefilla (prayer), and tzedaka (acts of justice and charity) may avert the severe decree. In that spirit of reflection and dedication to carrying on our task of informing and educating our readers in the coming year, we at COMMENTARY wish you all a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year. We’ll be back next week after the holiday.

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A Pause for Introspection

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate how we can do better. Indeed, as Americans take in the debate over intervention in Syria as well as other divisive questions, it is an apt moment to look at issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though I refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that the public must judge leaders. While politicians and pundits fill up the 24/7 news cycle with endless debate every day, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to preserve our republic and its institutions in a manner befitting the ideals upon which it was founded. That is why appeals to fear as well as mindless defenses of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh—or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform each year.

Read More

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate how we can do better. Indeed, as Americans take in the debate over intervention in Syria as well as other divisive questions, it is an apt moment to look at issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though I refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that the public must judge leaders. While politicians and pundits fill up the 24/7 news cycle with endless debate every day, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to preserve our republic and its institutions in a manner befitting the ideals upon which it was founded. That is why appeals to fear as well as mindless defenses of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh—or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform each year.

One of the keynotes of our political life in the last year, as well as those that preceded it, is the never-ending attempt of our parties and ideological factions to demonize their political opponents. But the dawn of the New Year represents an opportunity to step back and realize that efforts to brand leaders, parties and movements as being beyond the pale has done much to undermine any hope for a resolution of our national problems. We must seek to restrain the efforts of the government to trespass on our rights without paranoia about legitimate efforts to protect our national security or mindless and partisan cynicism that would paralyze democracy.

Abroad, Americans must also perform an accounting, but should do so honestly without a reflexive desire to appease those who hate or allow the understandable desire to avoid conflict to cause us to abdicate our responsibility to confront problems or threats. Currently, the United States is struggling with the decision over whether to treat the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “red line” across which no nation may cross. In the coming 12 months, another threat to the world, the specter of a nuclear Iran, will become even greater. It is vital that Americans not let the growing and strident voices of isolationism cause them to shrink from the obligation to halt the ayatollahs’ march to nuclear capability. Nor should we allow those who continue to seek to delegitimize Israel or its supporters to go unanswered.

The passage of the calendar also reminds us at COMMENTARY of the urgency of our four-fold task to speak up in defense of Zionism and Israel; to bear witness against the scourge of anti-Semitism; and to support the United States as well as the best of Western civilization. Our work is, as our editor John Podhoretz wrote back in February 2009, an act of faith in the power of ideas as well as in our own nation, and as we take inventory of our personal lives we also seek to rededicate ourselves to the causes to which our magazine is devoted.

Jewish liturgy tells us that the fate of all humanity is decided during these Days of Awe, but it also says that teshuva (repentance), tefilla (prayer), and tzedaka (acts of justice and charity) may avert the severe decree. In that spirit of reflection and dedication to carrying on our task of informing and educating our readers in the coming year, we at COMMENTARY wish you all a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year. We’ll be back next week after the holiday.

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Days of Reflection and Rededication

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate what can be done to do better. Indeed, as Americans contemplate the final weeks of the presidential campaign it is an apt moment for all of us to look at the issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though we refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that elected leaders must be judged by the voters. While Republicans and Democrats debate whether we are better off than we were four years ago, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to better our fate. Appeals to fear and mindless defense of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh — or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform.

Read More

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate what can be done to do better. Indeed, as Americans contemplate the final weeks of the presidential campaign it is an apt moment for all of us to look at the issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though we refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that elected leaders must be judged by the voters. While Republicans and Democrats debate whether we are better off than we were four years ago, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to better our fate. Appeals to fear and mindless defense of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh — or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform.

For those in both parties who have sought to demonize their political opponents, the dawn of the New Year represents an opportunity to step back and realize that attempts to brand leaders, parties and movements as being beyond the pale or even questioning the wisdom of democracy itself — that is to say, questioning the right of the voters to override the dictates of the politicians and the intellectuals — has done much to undermine any hope for a resolution of our national problems.

Abroad, Americans must also perform an accounting but should do so without a reflexive desire to appease those who hate. It also requires us to not try to evade the necessity to confront problems or threats. In the coming 12 months, one very specific threat to the world, the specter of a nuclear Iran, will become even greater. Regardless of who wins the presidency in November, it is vital that Americans not let the voices of isolationism or hatred cause them to shrink from the obligation to halt the ayatollahs march to nuclear capability. Nor should we allow those who seek to delegitimize Israel or its supporters have the last word on this subject.

The passage of the calendar also reminds us at COMMENTARY of the urgency of our four-fold task to speak up in defense of Zionism and Israel; to bear witness against the scourge of anti-Semitism; and to support the United States as well as the best of Western civilization. Our work is, as our editor John Podhoretz wrote back in February 2009, an act of faith in the power of ideas as well as in our own nation and as we take inventory of our personal lives we also seek to rededicate ourselves to the causes to which our magazine is devoted.

Jewish liturgy tells us that the fate of all humanity is decided during these Days of Awe but it also says that teshuva (repentance), tefilla (prayer) and tzedaka (acts of justice and charity) may avert the severe decree. In that spirit of reflection and dedication to carrying on our task of informing and educating our readers in the coming year, we at COMMENTARY wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. We’ll be back on Wednesday after the conclusion of the holiday.

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