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Rosh Hashanah 5779: Who We Are

September 14, 2018

“Excuse me.  Are you Jewish?”

It’s a straight-forward question.  Given that today is Rosh Hashanah and we are all in shul, the answer should be pretty obvious, as well.  But in different settings, the question may elicit very different reactions.  If someone were to ask on the streets of Pikesville, we might think, “how much is this going to cost to me?”  But if we were asked on the streets of one of the European cities where anti-Semitism is on the rise, we might run the other way.

As most of you know, I am fond of listening to podcasts.  This past summer as I made one of my many drives back and forth to the Poconos where Toby and the kids were at camp, one of these podcasts wrestled with the “are you Jewish?” in a fascinating way.

The podcast is called Unorthodox.  It features three Jewish hosts, none of whom are Orthodox.  They spent the day on a Chabad Mitzvah Tank in Midtown Manhattan asking people if they are Jewish and then offering them Shabbos candles or the opportunity to put on Tefilin. (

It was quite interesting to hear their own personal reflections to how they feel when they are asked whether they are Jewish.  As one of the podcasters said at the beginning: “All non-Orthodox Jews, when they are approached by Lubavitchers, have feelings about it.  Nobody is neutral…They really force Jews to confront Judaism.”

They struggled with how to ask strangers the question, how to avoid profiling people and making assumptions about their appearances.  And they spoke about how to understand and interpret people’s reactions to the question.  One of the most interesting discussions they had, and a favorite game was to guess which people who said “No, they are not Jewish” and walked on, were in fact Jewish but were too embarrassed/ashamed/upset, etc. to admit it.

It is not only Jews on the streets of Manhattan accosted by strangers who have a hard time admitting who they actually are.  In fact, being able to articulate who we are and what we stand for is one the greatest challenges facing us today.

A few months ago the Jewish world was up in arms over the passage of the Israel Nation State Law.  While Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu declared that the law was a “defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the State of Israel,” not everyone shared his excitement.

First some of the basics.  Here are the basic features of the bill:

  • Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, who have the unique right of national self-determination
  • The flag and the Menorah are national symbols. Hatikvah is the national anthem
  • Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel
  • The official language of Israel is Hebrew.

I was most surprised to learn that these were not well-established laws from the founding of the State in 1948.

I was perhaps less surprised if not deeply disappointed to hear the outcry against the bill.  The American Jewish Committee, for example, issued a statement saying it was deeply disappointed by the law” and that it “put[s] at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism said: “This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy.  The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic — and Jewish — nation is enormous.”

Much of the criticism stems from the fact that the new law downgrades the status of Arabic from an official language to a language with special status.  This combined with the fact that only Jewish rights to self-determination are recognized, leads many to conclude that the bill is racist and promotes apartheid.  Non-Jewish citizens of Israel, especially Arab citizens, are being relegated to second-class citizens.

Others were less concerned about the content of the bill – after all, these are firmly established facts on the ground.  Rather they questioned the need to pass a bill stating the obvious and questioned what political gains there were in entrenching these facts into law.

Similar questions were raised over President Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  Rather than celebrate a move that was long overdue, much of the Jewish world reacted as if the move was a tragedy.

The words of Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, resonate with me.  In an Op-Ed in the Jewish Press titled “Stop Apologizing for Jewish Values,” he writes:

It seems to me, in this season of forgiveness, the one deserving some of these apologies is the Almighty, for how in the interest of political correctness, we sometimes put His agenda second and our eagerness to be loved and to integrate first. …While we must always carry ourselves with sensitivity and concern for others, we must not apologize for our existence or for being ourselves. (

In a very different context, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon gave a shocking commencement speech at the Hebrew Union College Institute for Jewish Religion.  Intermarriage remains one of the biggest challenges facing the Jewish community.  In the broader Jewish world, among sociologists and demographers, there is almost universal agreement that intermarried families should be welcomed into the Jewish community.  If conversion has not occurred, perhaps it will some time in the future.  And at the very least, the children should grow up with a Jewish identity.  But all agree that the best way to assure Jewish identity and Jewish continuity is in-marriage.  Jews should marry Jews.  That is, all except Chabon.

He told the graduates at HUC:

“were you to ask me if I hope my children marry-in, I would say, Yes. I want them to marry into the tribe that prizes learning, inquiry, skepticism, openness to new ideas. I want my children to marry into the tribe that enshrines equality before the law, and freedom of conscience, and human rights. I want them to marry into the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct prone, like all constructs, to endless reconfiguration.”

Anticipating the obvious response that such an attitude will ultimately lead to Judaism’s extinction, Chabon seemingly shrugs his shoulders and says:

“If Judaism should ever pass from the world, it won’t be the first time in history—far from it—that a great and ancient religion lost its hold on the moral imaginations of its adherents and its relevance to their lives. Nor will it be the first time that an ethnic minority has been absorbed, one exogamous marriage at a time, into the surrounding population.”  (

A former teacher of mine, Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman co-wrote a response to Chabon along with Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, where they claim that Chabon’s views are already gaining traction:

It is tempting to dismiss Chabon’s thinking as hyperbolic, idiosyncratic or unworthy of reply, perhaps performance art of a personal psychodrama in a public setting. But Chabon’s undeniable and sometimes dazzling talent as a novelist and the high status he enjoys among elite reading audiences make it critical to respond…
Chabon’s views are worrisome because among liberal American Jews they are not so outlandish. We live in an age that not only is opposed to behavioral norms imposed from above but to social boundaries to our left and right. Jews, a tiny minority in a sea of over 300 million Americans, are being engulfed increasingly by the majority society.  (

And a friend of mine, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, who is the rabbi of a shul in Chicago wrote a response with Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Toronto:

In our view, even on a universal level, Chabon is wrong. The absence (and vilification) of identity is self-defeating. If you want to be a good universalist, you need to have a solid and particular identity. Judaism has done this throughout its history. Judaism has something to teach the world at a moment when so much political debate surrounds borders and the interface between particular and universal identities.   (

This is the very message of Rosh Hashanah.  Rosh Hashanah is the most universalistic holiday that we have.  It marks the anniversary of the creation of the world and all of humanity; not just the Jewish people.

The Gemara Rosh Hashanah 27a states that we follow the opinion of R. Eliezer that the world was created in Tishrei.  Tosafot explain that there is a competing opinion that the world was created in Nissan.

Rabbi Yehdua Mirsky explains the debate as follows:

To say that creation began in Nissan, therefore, is to imply that the rhythm of the universe follows the rhythm of this one people’s life.

Tishrei is the beginning of the rainy season in the Land of Israel, when new life replaces the brown fields of summer. Looking outward from where we live, Tishrei appears to be when nature – rather than history – is born. To say Tishrei is the moment of creation is to stress the universal, the beginning of a universe in which the people of Israel is just a small part.  (R. Yehuda Mirsky “When the World Began, When We Began”  Uri L’Tzedek Mah Ani: Self Reflection and Social Action for the High Holidays. )

And because it is the anniversary of the creation of the entire world, ALL of humanity is judged.  After sounding the Shofar we declare:

היום הרת עולם.  היום יעמיד במשפט כל יצורי עולמים

Today is the birthday of the world.  Today all of creation stands in judgment.

This morning’s Torah reading concludes with the story of Avraham and Avimelech, the king of the Gerar creating a covenant, or a peace treaty.

בראשית כ״א:כ״ב-כ״ג
(כב) וַֽיְהִי֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲבִימֶ֗לֶךְ וּפִיכֹל֙ שַׂר־צְבָא֔וֹ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר אֱלֹהִ֣ים עִמְּךָ֔ בְּכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה׃ (כג) וְעַתָּ֗ה הִשָּׁ֨בְעָה לִּ֤י בֵֽאלֹהִים֙ הֵ֔נָּה אִם־תִּשְׁקֹ֣ר לִ֔י וּלְנִינִ֖י וּלְנֶכְדִּ֑י כַּחֶ֜סֶד אֲשֶׁר־עָשִׂ֤יתִי עִמְּךָ֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה עִמָּדִ֔י וְעִם־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־גַּ֥רְתָּה בָּֽהּ׃

 (22) At that time Abimelech and Phicol, chief of his troops, said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything that you do. (23) Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you.”

With this covenant Avraham is established as a player on the global scale – or at least in the Ancient Near East.  What prompts Avimelech to forge a covenant with Avraham now?

The Rashbam writes:

רשב”ם על בראשית כ״א:כ״ב:א׳
ויהי בעת ההיא – שנולד יצחק משרה וידע אבימלך נסים שעשה לו הקב”ה, לכך בא עתה לכרות ברית עמו.

Rashbam on Genesis 21:22:1
ויהי בעת ההיא, at the time when Yitzchok was born by Sarah and Avimelech had become a first-hand witness to the miracles G’d had performed for Avraham. This is why he and his chief general were now interested in concluding an alliance with Avraham.


The Sforno similarly explains:

ספורנו על בראשית כ״א:כ״ב:א׳
אלהים עמך לפיכך אני ירא ממך לא מגבורתך ועשרך לכן אני מבקש שתשבע לי:

Sforno on Genesis 21:22:1
אלוקים עמך, seeing that G’d clearly is on your side I am afraid of you. I am not afraid of your personal strength, but of that of your G’d. This is why I ask you to swear to me.


As he emerges as a political force, recognized by other for his closeness to God, Avraham has a new challenge.  He must be able to articulate who he is and what he stands for.


In previous years we have discussed the significance of the Torah identifying Avraham as Avraham ha-Ivri (Breishit 14:13).

Genesis Rabbah 48:2 בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח

רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד,

  1. Yehudah – all the world was on one side and he stood alone on the other.

Being isolated, going against the tide is no easy task.  But integration and acceptance into broader presents challenges as well. Not only are there challenges of maintaining one’s commitments and identity, but there is also the challenge of being able to articulate your beliefs, and commitments to others.

This is one of the great challenges that the Modern Orthodox community faces.  Over Shabbos we discussed Rambam’s idea of negative attributes – that when it comes to God, we cannot make any positive statements describing God.  We can only say what God is not.  God is not corporal.  God is not bound by time. Etc.  This allows us to approximate an understanding of God, but it would be wrong and problematic for us to try to say what God IS.

This is one area in life where we are very good at acting Godly.  Because too many times we define ourselves by what we are not.

  • We are Orthodox, but not Crazy Orthodox like the Black Hatters.
  • We believe that women should have more roles in shul and leadership opportunities. But NOT like the Reform or Conservative.

Our challenge is to be able to articulate a vision of what it means to be committed, Modern Orthodox Jews. What does it mean to be a community that is accepting, and non-judgmental and also bound by Halacha?  What are our red lines and how can we express them in ways that are true to who we are and not hurtful to others?

In Hichot Teshuvah the Rambam writes that viduy/Confession is an essential component of Teshuvah.  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains in Al Ha-Teshuvah

Feeling, emotion, thoughts and ideas become clear and are grasped only after they are expressed in sentences bearing a logical and grammatical structure.  As long as one’s thoughts remain repressed, as long as one has not brought them out into the open, no matter how sublime or exalted they may be, they are not truly yours; they are foreign and elusive…Repentance contemplated and not verbalized is valueless. (pp.91-92)

The same is true when it comes to our religious lives.

I began my talk by describing a ragtag group of Jewish podcasters who spent a day with Chabad Shluchim on a mitzvah Tank in Manhattan.

After spending a long time asking people if they are Jewish, they get their first yes…. Sort of.  Someone says they’re Jewish but don’t have time for Tefilin.

They turn to one of the Shluchim and ask, “Does that count?”

The Shaliach answers  “Well make it this way.  You have a Jew who in the middle of the streets of NYC is proud to say ‘Yes.  I am Jewish”

And that is a success.  To embrace and articulate who you are.

The bracha and the challenge to us this year is that we should be able to articulate – first to ourselves and then to others – who we are and what we stand for.  Shanah Tovah!


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