Saturday, October 08, 2011

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die: Post Yom Kippur Reflections

Yom Kippur 5772 was, for me, a truly profound, uplifting experience. Flanked by my sons, knowing that my daughters were sitting with their mother and grandmother, I was privileged to enwrap myself in its proffered sanctity and internalize the awesome power of the day, what the Rabbis called 'עיצומו של יום.' As the day reached its end and its crescendo at Neilah, I could not help but wish that the moment might never end. My emotions were, admittedly, mixed when the Shofar signaled the Shekhina's departure. And yet, the heightened spiritual awareness with which Yom Kippur vouchsafed us is so intoxicating, so overpowering that I dare to believe that it can accompany me (and everyone else who let it in) through the coming year. מיום כיפורים זה עד יום כיפורים הבא עלינו לטובה.

Here in Eretz Yisrael, Barukh HaShem, the number of Jews for whom the intimate encounter with God on Yom Kippur is important, rises every year. More and more formal and informal observances of the day are sprouting up over the length and breadth of the country. Communities and settlements that were doctrinally allergic to Judaism, know build synagogues, study Torah and reconnect with being Jewish. The papers claim that only 58% of Israeli Jews fast, but those numbers are (in my opinion) inaccurate. The real numbers are more like 70%. Either way, however, the rejudaization of the Holy Land is in full swing. It is, as many have noted, nothing less than a renaissance and Yom Kippur is a touchstone of that rebirth. The Jew's yearning for God, through Torah study and pure spirituality, is alive and well in Israel.

The state of the Exile is, sadly, much less promising.

After the fast, when I logged on to Facebook, I was really shocked and deeply saddened to see just how many of the American Jews with whom I am connected, were totally unaware (or didn't care) that today was Yom Kippur. When I was growing up, we spoke of Three Day a Year Jews. Then there were One Day a Year Jews. Now, it appears, there are many many No Day a Year Jews. I suppose it was inevitable. Through ignorance and intermarriage, acceptance in America and weakened identity, most American Jews will be gone within a generation. Or, they will have created for themselves a patina of attenuated Jewish affiliation that will not long last. The historian in me sees a parallel with the Graeco-Roman diaspora, which largely assimilated away during the First Century CE, when being Jewish ceased to be comfortable because the Jews of Eretz Yisrael kept rebelling against Rome, and Jews felt more comfortable in the academies of Greece than the synagogues of Jerusalem or Alexandria.

There are, of course, counter indications. Efforts at bringing alienated Jews back to Judaism are happily successful, and Orthodox Judaism rightfully prides itself in its achievements. The overall direction, though, is clear. The contrast with developments in Israel, only highlights that fact.

That does not mean that we should, God forbid, give up on any Jew in the Diaspora. However, it reinforces my conviction that any possibility of continued Jewish existence abroad is absolutely dependent upon the strengthening of Judaism in Israel. (Did I hear anyone say: כי מציון תצא תורה?)
One crucial way to do that is to create a credible Modern Orthodoxy in Eretz Yisrael, which will speak to intelligent secular Jews, and sensitively respond to men and women who can no longer relate to the religious koine of either the Religious Zionist or Haredi worlds.

Ultimately, as with our individual fates, so too the destiny of Jewish communities is in God's hands. However, we have a role in this as well.

The Book of Exodus (18, 13) recounts that: 'And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening.' The plain meaning of the verse is that Moses judged the people on the day after his father-in-law Jethro arrived at the Israelite encampment (as described in the previous verses). Rashi, however, asserts that the events described occurred 'on the morrow of Yom Kippur' (מחרת יום הכיפורים).

The Rav זצ"ל observed that, despite the textual difficulty, Rashi's comment contains a profound observation about the manner in which the Jew must go about his business. He must always feel, Rav Soloveitchik said, as if it were the day after Yom Kippur. The heightened spiritual awareness, the glow that remains from immersion in holiness that derives from one's encounter with God, must accompany oneself through the year.

In other words, in order to be Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur must transcend itself and infuse the other 354 days of the year. That lesson is both personal and national. On the personal level, as quotidian superficialities threaten to deaden our God-awareness, we need to hold on to the 'high' of Yom Kippur to prevent being dragged under, once again. One does that through ongoing actions like prayer and study, tzedakah and hesed; a carefully balancing of commandments between oneself and God and between oneself and one's fellow man or woman.

On a national level, that demands that all of us in Israel who were elevated by God's visit during these past ten days must work, through teaching and conduct, to intensify the trend back to Torah and to thereby save not only the Jews of Zion, but those abroad, as well.


adena said...

I'm glad you had a good Yom Kippur experience. However, to assume that, based on Facebook, American Jews aren't observing Yom Kippur is, at best, a bad sampling strategy. The shuls in Boston were filled to the brim. Also, I don't see how Modern Orthodox Judaism in Israel is going to "save" American Jews. In any event, I think your dire predictions for us are ill-founded. American Judaism is responding creatively to challenges, and is doing pretty well, in my opinion.

Jeffrey Woolf said...

1) I'm glad to hear that the shuls in Boston were full. The truth is that the Times, a couple of years ago, had a long article about the rapid decline in observance of Yom Kippur, so I was really using that as a point of departure.

2) I was not referring to MO as the balm for America's ills, but of Israel's ills. In turn, a strengthened Israel will be a source of strength for American Jewry. OTOH. I"d be less than honest if I said that I think the Diaspora has a long term sustainability.

Anonymous said...

i more or less agree with your point about the jews in the us.

but the orthodox in the us -- and the more observant the truer this seems to be -- have no immediate tangible need for israel, and their numbers and sustainability are eminently demonstrable. paradoxical perhaps, but i believe it to be so.

Anonymous said...

"American Jews aren't observing Yom Kippur is, at best, a bad sampling strategy. The shuls in Boston were filled to the brim."

Compare the total number of Jews who attended Orthodox schuls in the whole Metropolitan area-lets say a 30 mile radius of Boston in 1950 and today. I used the 30 mile to account for suburbanization and population migration-I will bet that there are far fewer today than there were 60-70 years ago. Are the schuls packed in that you have fewer large schuls than decades ago.