The headlines in 5769 were horrendous when it comes to chilul ha-Shem, desecration of God’s Holy Name.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day Three weeks before Rosh Hashanah, in Postville, Iowa, Aaron and Sholom Rubashkin were charged with over 9,000 violations of federal labor laws, most of which were child labor laws. Barely eight days after Simchat Torah, Sholom Rubashkin was arrested on identity theft charges and for conspiracy to violate federal immigration laws. Two weeks after that, he was arrested yet again, this time for bank fraud.
Then, last winter, Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion-dollar scam hit the front pages – the largest financial fraud in history. This summer, five rabbis were arrested for allegedly laundering money – and a Jewish man in Brookllyn for selling body parts.
In all three instances, Judaism got a bad name. Worst of all, Judaism’s God got a bad name.
After the Madoff scandal broke, there was a flurry of hair-pulling pronouncements from all of Judaism’s streams about the importance of Jewish ethics and Jewish values, and how we Jews have lost our way.
All of the streams made commitments to address – in their own terms to their own communities – the issues that were raised by Postville and by Madoff. Some of these promises were repeated in the summer, following the arrest of the five rabbis. Only in the Orthodox world was there any real attempt to honor these promises, but these efforts were few and far between.
From Judaism’s other streams, there were rivers of press releases, but only the drip, drip, drip of real action.
And then the concern evaporated. The initial flurry trailed off into the ether.
Each stream must work to restore morality and ethics to pride of place at the top of Jewish concerns. Ritual was never meant to be a substitute for the demands of our moral and ethical code. It was meant to be an essential and active supplement to that code – a collection of required memory devices meant to remind us of our obligations under that code.
We have lost our way as a people. Too many of us have dissociated how we behave from who – and what – we are. Too many of us have shoved Judaism into a small corner of our lives. We trade a few rituals for the larger demands and deny that Judaism plays any part in our lives out there, in the world at large.
It cannot be done. How we behave is critical to our identity as Jews. It is at the very core of our purpose for being in the first place. And all four streams have an obligation to drill that into our heads and our hearts.
Before we rebuild the Jewish world, we have to restore the purpose for there being a Jewish world.
But we are not doing that. One of the first things that the streams and the communal organizations cut to the bone, as they say, was funding for Jewish education of any kind – early childhood, childhood, day school, afterschool, adult Jewish education – all Jewish education has suffered, and we are suffering for it.
Day school tuitions have reached unaffordable heights, yet Jewish educators continue to be underpaid. Jewish education continues to be underfunded.
Too many students are trading day schools for public schools because their parents no longer can afford the tuition. The number of afterschool programs that were started for these children is almost zero. What will happen to these children? Do we as a community even care? I am not so certain that we do. We have denied our past, damaged our present, and cheated our future.
And we have done this just when we needed to give Jewish education a really big boost, and to refocus Jewish education back to Judaism’s core values.
Let’s be brutally honest: God has no use for a people whose job it is to show the world how to look for a kosher symbol on a can of mushroom soup.
Our mission is to be an ohr la-goyim, which does not mean a light onto the nations, but a light for the nations – to help the world at large find the path that leads to a better world for all humankind. Our mission is to teach by example how God wants people to behave.
And we are not doing a good job of that. We are failing in our mission and we are losing our reason for being.
If you want to know what our reason for being is, the Yom Kippur liturgy offers an excellent summary in the form of the vidui rabbah, the Great Confessional, the series of Al Chets that we recite over and again during Yom Kippur.
Consider some of the Al Chets we recite on this day:
For the sin we have committed before You with the utterance of the lips…. For the sin we have committed before You by impurity of lips…. For the sin we have committed before You by deliberate lying … by tale-bearing … by being quick to condemn … through callousness … by oppressing another … by plotting against others … by selfishness … by defaming Your Name.
Where in this litany do we see anything about ritual? At best, ritual sins are referenced obliquely; how we behave is specifically referenced and in some detail.
Where did we go wrong?
That is a complex question for which no simple answer will do.
But one factor – and, I think, a major one – is this: We were only too happy a couple of hundred years ago to allow ourselves to be redefined as a religion, rather than a way of life. It took a tremendous burden off of our shoulders to shove God and our responsibilities to Him into a corner of our lives, leaving the rest of our lives free of Him so that we could be like everyone else.
To behave like everyone else is not to be a Jew, no matter how religious one thinks he or she is. If Judaism is just a religion, there is no point to it; it is just a bunch of silly rituals without any purpose.
To be a Jew is to be God’s priest to the world. As Leviticus 19:2 puts it, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
Everything we do, from when we get up in the morning until we go to bed at night, must be filled with that sense of holiness, with that sense of mission.
If we want to call ourselves Jews, then we must act like Jews; we cannot lose sight of our purpose for being.
In 5770, resolve to be holy, for the Lord our God is holy.