All over the world, we Jews are gathering in our synagogues. We are all celebrating together the beginning of the New Year. With only minor variation, we are all using the same liturgy, all reading the same portions of the Torah, all asking the same questions, about who will live and who will die. We are all eating the same apples and honey, all praying to the same G-d, or, for many of us, praying that there is a G-d.
And, of course, we are all complaining that the sermons are too long.
All of this may seem completely unremarkable. In fact, though, in our day and age, it’s extraordinary. We live in a post-modern time, a time that reflects, and even celebrates, the complete fragmentation of shared human experience. In our post-modern time, it is rare indeed for two human beings to share anything in common, much less everything in common.
A few years ago, there was a television commercial where a guy sits down in an old-fashioned diner, with an old-fashioned juke box on the table. An old-fashioned waitress comes over, and he asks if there was anything good in the jukebox. The waitress answers, in a tired waitress voice, “Only every piece of recorded music in human history.”
At the time, not so very long ago, the commercial seemed like science fiction, an exaggerated fantasy about something called the internet. We now know that it was no exaggeration. We can listen to every piece of music ever recorded. We can read every book ever written. We can look at every piece of art ever made. And, moving out of the virtual world, we can taste every style of food on the planet. A food court in an average airport has a greater variety of food than any Roman emperor ever enjoyed. We can discover, and travel to, every wonder of the world. And, perhaps most important we can listen to the compelling stories, and the pearls of wisdom, at the heart of every great culture on earth, past and present.
All of this is wonderful, and I am hardly suggesting that we should turn the clocks back, even if we could. But this extraordinary freedom constitutes a unique challenge for the Jewish people. How does our shared experience—of Rosh Hashanah, for example—stack up against the endless, enticing, and bewildering array of choices the modern world offers us? Why should we assign extra value to our stories, as opposed to all the other stories?
Judaism has faced the challenge of choice before. Ancient Judaism confronted the Greek Hellenistic world in the time of the Maccabees. Fast forward two thousand years, when traditional Jewish society was challenged, and threatened, by the world of The Enlightenment and The Emancipation.
These were estimable challenges, existential threats. And our survival of them was and is miraculous. But in one crucial regard, these challenges and the many others like them differ from the current situation.
In every previous ideological crisis, there was one challenge our people had to face. The responses to it might have varied widely, but all of us were facing the same challenge. For all that threatened to tear us apart, the uniformity of the challenge kept us together.
And even when there were a number of competing world views, say Judaism vs. Christianity vs. Islam, in religious terms, or Marxism vs. Capitalism in the realm of economics, everyone assumed that “the answer” to life’s deepest concerns was surely to be found in one of these widely shared ideologies. The question was only, “which one?”
Such is not the case today. We are not all coming together, like the rabbis of the Talmud, to debate the question of whether it is permissible to study Greek philosophical literature. We are not all coming together, like our ancestors two hundred years ago, to decide if our children may study secular subjects. In fact, we as a group are not coming together at all. Each one of us has an individual profile. I like Indian food, listen to the Dead, read Talmud, and want to go to Jerusalem. Someone else prefers Mexican food, Mozart, Confucius, and Machu Picchu. The next guy likes kreplach, Tibetan bells, Ann Coulter (G-d help you) and Williamsburg, Virginia. The combinations are endless. In and of themselves, completely harmless. In fact, for us as individuals, tremendously enriching.
But what of us as a society? Imagine we are all sitting with a TV clicker in our hand, and changing channels, and each channel reflects a different culture, and everyone all over the world is doing the same thing. Sure, I can associate with other Deadheads. And all the people who like kreplach can meet at Lox Stock. And all the Macchu Picchuians can take a trip together. Each of us can build a chevre around our very personal preferences. But it is unlikely in the extreme that I will find anyone who shares all or even most of my preferences consistently, or exclusively.
Not the end of the world, but there are prices to pay for our radical individual freedom, for what Walter Anderson refers to as our “over-exposure to otherness.” For one, it makes communal solidarity difficult, if not impossible. If we do not have a shared understanding of the present, we cannot mobilize to face the challenges of our day. Just to mention one example: consider the place that Israel had in the classic Jewish mind. Absolutely no one questioned whether or not Jerusalem was the center of the universe. Maps of the world were drawn to reflect this. Wedding invitations would announce that the simcha would be held in Jerusalem, on such and such a date, with an asterisk. At the bottom of the page, in small print it would say, “If G-d forbid the Messiah has not yet arrived, the wedding will take place here in Plodsk.”
A Jew who is unaware of the link between Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel, cannot defend the historical legitimacy of the State of Israel. That is a disaster. But when confronted with the vast smorgasbord of post-modern cultural options, such a Jew will not even be aware of the need to defend Israel. And thus disaster is transformed into catastrophe.
Today, less than half of American Jews think that caring about Israel is essential to be being Jewish (and among young people, it drops to a third). I’m not sure what space has taken Israel’s place in their mind, whether it is Paris, or Brooklyn, or something more personal, like a beach home in Florida. And there’s always Macchu Picchu. But if ever the occasion arises when we need every ounce of communal solidarity to defend the Land and the People and the State of Israel, G-d help us.
And if we can’t come together in support of Israel, the center of our existence for 4 millennia, what makes you think that we will suddenly be able to come together to deal effectively with Nazis in Charlottesville? Or with anti-Semitic leftist radicals at Berkeley?
Even worse, without a common present, we lose the ability to create a common future. Now, such a common future is not a necessity. It would not be unreasonable for a parent to say, “It’s a big world out there. I’ve had my favorite experiences, you’ll have yours. Enjoy.” But understand, the likelihood that any of those experiences will be recognizably Jewish is small. It is indeed a big world. If that’s the choice parents want to make, so be it. They should, however, at least be conscious of the consequences of their choice. I could understand, for example, choosing to go to Disneyworld instead of High Holy Day services. Disneyworld is going to be a lot more fun, for sure, and there are no sermons in sight. But just understand the choice being made. There may not be any bnai mitzvah in your future, or chuppahs, or bris’s—but you’ll always have Space Mountain.
A final point: Another devastating loss—perhaps the most significant—is the loss of communal support for, and reinforcement of, normative values. We’ve all heard the expression that it takes a village to raise a child. Or, as my father of blessed memory used to say, “It takes a village to raise an idiot.”
Or not to. The collective wisdom of our tradition comes into concrete expression in the lived life of the people of Israel. In our own way, according to our own standards and customs, we set boundaries, encourage social benevolence, reward exemplary behavior, and broadly speaking help each other through the manifold struggles that punctuate our lives.
When we sing Avinu Malkeynu, “Our Father, our King,” we usually contemplate what it means that the G-d of the Universe is a father, or a king. But today, I want to emphasize instead the “our” part, the fact that G-d is “our”. “Our” Father. “Our” King. The ability to say the word “our” is no longer incidental, or trivial. It is at the core of the struggle we face as Jews of the 21st century. If there is going to be an “our” today, and in the future, it’s going to be because we fight for it. It’s going to be because we fight to defend our communal solidarity, our shared rituals, our shared experiences, and valorize them over any particular individual thrill we might have in the big wide world.
Keeping it simple: I could buy a ticket to go anywhere in the world, and see any number of miraculous things. But there is something that I cannot find anywhere else but right here
—and that’s you. All of you, all of us, and what we create by being here together. And because of that, right now, I would rather be here than anywhere else in the whole wide world.
The story is told of Rabbi Isaac of Krakow who had a dream about a treasure buried under a bridge in far away Prague. He used all his money to be able to travel there. In the middle of the night, he began digging, but he was discovered by a policeman who asked him what in the world he was doing. The rabbi related his dream. The policeman laughed and said, “You believe that kind of nonsense? Don’t be an idiot. Why, I had a dream that a buried treasure was to be found right under the bed of some guy named Rabbi Isaac of Krakow. But you don’t see me running to go there!”
The rabbi went home, dug under his own bed, and lo and behold, the treasure was there. The moral of the story, of course, is that you don’t’ have to go anywhere else to find the treasure –not even Macchu Picchu. The treasure is right here, buried among us.
May we, in the coming year, come to understand how precious that treasure really is, the treasure of our heritage, the treasure of our community. And may we hunt for it together.
Ken yehi ratzon.