This High Holidays I’m Challenging the ‘Modern Jewish Sacred’

This High Holidays I’m Challenging the ‘Modern Jewish Sacred’ September 6, 2015

We are entering the Jewish High Holidays. A period of reflection, of repentance, of returning to God. In Hebrew we call it ‘teshuvah’.

Built in to the Jewish religious calendar is the assumption that every year we will lose our spiritual way and will need to find a way back to all that is Sacred. That period of ‘returning’ begins with the Jewish New Year and culminates with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) ten days later. It is not only a time of individual repentance, it is a time of Jewish communal contrition.

But what happens when we enter the New Year of 5776 (September 13th) and realise that the Jewish Sacred is itself lost and wandering?

First Aid Station at Tel Aviv beach 2015. Photo credit: Robert Cohen
First Aid Station at Tel Aviv beach 2015. Photo credit: Robert Cohen

In past centuries and millennia it was easy to define the Jewish Sacred.

God was sacred. So much so, that even his name could not be spoken or written.

God’s creation, and in particular human life, was sacred. Within us all we held the spark of the Divine.

The Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle where God dwelt during the Children of Israel’s forty years in the desert, was sacred.

The inner sanctuary of the First Temple where the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments were kept, was sacred.

The Torah, with its commandments for building and maintaining a God centred, just society in the Land of Israel, was sacred.

The rabbinic commentaries that helped us to interpret the Law and apply it in places far away from The Land of Israel, were sacred.

As Jews dispersed, the sacredness of Time replaced the sacredness of Land as we made holy the Sabbath and the annual cycle of festivals, liturgy and prayer.

Righteous acts were sacred as we fulfilled the commandments to protect the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

But what is sacred for Jews today? And is it worthy of holiness?

Confronting the Modern Jewish Sacred

I’ve just returned from two weeks travelling around Israel and the West Bank with my family.  We met with Jewish Israelis as well as Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim.

As we travelled, listened and talked, the Modern Jewish Sacred revealed itself to us.

The Modern Jewish Sacred was there as we explored the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv with its 4,000 year narrative that placed the State of Israel as the natural conclusion to our woe-filled global story. The exhibition was looking tired and rundown, not unlike Israel’s view of the wider Jewish world today.

Photo credit: Robert Cohen
Tel Aviv beach front. Photo credit: Robert Cohen

We left behind the black and white photographs of Lithuanian Yeshiva boys to discover the  Modern Jewish Sacred on show in the bright sunlight and bare skin of Gordon and Frishman beaches. The small rubber Matkot balls are hit back and forth in endless rallies as secular Tel Aviv welcomed in the Sabbath.

The new Sacred was inscribed on the beach front memorial to the 25 victims, mostly teenage girls, of the 2001 Dolphinarium discotheque bombing in which Saeed Hotari blew himself up.

“In memory of innocent citizens, among them many youngsters, whose lives were cut off by murderers in a bloody terrorism attack. May they rest in peace”.

At Yad Vashem in Jerusalem we watched a succession of young IDF conscripts (the same age as my eldest daughter) given Sacred guided tours through the escalating horrors of the Jewish mid- twentieth century.

We passed in and out of the Sacred Jewish checkpoints throughout the West Bank, back and forth between Area ‘C’ and Area ‘A’ reading the red highway signs that warn us that Palestinian controlled territory is “Dangerous to Your Lives”.

We saw the Sacred Separation Wall eating up the Palestinian vineyards of Cremisan and destroying the ancient olive trees sacred to another people, a people whose fate we fear to even acknowledge.

And we watched as the Sacred Settlements of the Jordan Valley expanded before our eyes taking spring water from the ‘ex-farmers’ of Auja near Jericho. We sat with Khaled who shared the dates he was taking to market. Once his family grew the region’s best bananas. Today his neighbours work as cheap labour in the well irrigated fields of the very Settlements that took away their livelihoods.

The Modern Jewish Sacred was easily found this summer.

Jewish Security is Sacred.

The Holocaust is Sacred.

The State of Israel is Sacred.

Challenging the Modern Jewish Sacred

The Sacred has become frayed. Photo: Robert Cohen
The Sacred has become frayed. Photo: Robert Cohen

Don’t get me wrong though.

The need for Jewish security is real. Anti-Semitism is real. And, like all racism, it always will be. Jews, like any other group, deserve to be in control of their destiny with their rights upheld and protected. There is no great virtue in being friendless and powerless for any group of people. But what you do with the power, once you have it, is the subject of legitimate debate.

The Holocaust was an unprecedented world event. What was lost in human life and Jewish  heritage will never be recovered or recovered from. Its victims need Yad Vashem, ‘a memorial and a name’, and we must study the Holocaust well because the ‘Never Again’ keeps on happening. But we must not make a political shield out of the ashes of our murdered brethren nor use them to excuse our oppression of another people.

The State of Israel has become Sacred because the narrative of homelessness and eternal rejection has become our dominant paradigm, the distorting lens through which our worldview is skewed, sending our moral compass into spasm.

But the Modern Jewish Sacred, this Jewish trinity of Security, Holocaust and State, has left us ill equipped to manage the Jewish future with either political good sense or religious responsibility.

We have chosen the wrong Sacred. Now we must find a way back.

It will not be easy but there is plenty in the storehouse of Judaism to help us. We are not short of thinkers or role models to show us a way that is consistent with Jewish thought and practice across  the centuries.

And we do not need to be weak, powerless or vulnerable to begin teshuvah. These are not virtues to aspire to.

Our prayer book liturgy provides us with the beginnings of a way back, if we choose to take it.

Every year at this season, during these ‘Days of Awe’, we stand before God and we speak aloud in the synagogue our communal confessions, in Hebrew called ‘Vidui’.

The words are blunt and pull no punches. Our liturgists must have known how hard the task before us would be. If we speak the words truly and they ring in our ears longer the the blasts of the shofar horn, then maybe, just maybe, we can turn our face away from the Modern Jewish Sacred and turn back to something more Holy.

 “We have offended and betrayed; we have robbed and slandered; we have been perverse and corrupt, arrogant and violent; we have deceived and misled others; we have lied and scoffed; we have been rebellious, cynical and stubborn; we have cheated and transgressed; we have oppressed; we have been obstinate, vicious and destructive; we have acted shamefully; we have gone astray and led others astray.” Liberal Judaism prayer book

This High Holidays I’m challenging the Modern Jewish Sacred and I hope you will too.

Shona Tovah – To a Good New Year!























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