Friday, December 31, 2010

New Years: Judeo-Islamic Insights

I believe that religious Jews and Muslims have more to contribute to this culture than their taxes or their skills as doctors, lawyers and researchers. We have a (surprisingly common) set of values and world-view which can act as a healthy critique of the greater culture we live in. Many have said that the hope of America is in the revival of the Judeo-Christian traditions of this country. I would suggest that a Judeo-Islamic tradition may have more to offer, not G-d forbid, through imposition but through example and inspiration.

To be more blunt. In the next 24 hours, much of our culture is going to celebrate the New Year by getting stupidly drunk, endangering the lives of themselves and others and doing things that their inhibitions would never have allowed otherwise.
In the words of humorist P.J. O'Rourke,

“The proper behavior all through the holiday season is to be drunk. This drunkenness culminates on New Year's Eve, when you get so drunk you kiss the person you're married to. “

They will top this by making “resolutions,” commitments to improve themselves that they have little or no intention of fulfilling. People make these resolutions with no plan for fulfilling them. The gyms will have special deals tomorrow for all the suckers (and you know who we are- rubbing his belly) who will buy memberships they will never use. That brief thought of change will be dissipated in inaction.

In the words of Jay Leno,
“Now there are more overweight people in America than average-weight people. So overweight people are now average. Which means you've met your New Year's resolution. “

Americans will unreflectively drop the old year like a hot potato to embrace the new. There will be outrageous predictions for the future and virtually no reflection on the past.

"Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go."
- Brooks Atkinson

As many Americans totter into the New Year on unsteady feet and addled brains, it would seem that what they most value is drunken debauchery, false promises and an absolutely unreflective attitude on the past.

Judaism has something to teach America!

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Ha Shanah is completely different. It is a day of Judgement (Yom ha Din – Muslims will recognize the term). It is already the culmination of the previous month of Elul, which is supposed to be a month of introspection, it will be followed by ten days of repentence (teshuvah / taubah), the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe. It is part of a process that begins before Rosh Hashanah and continues after it.

We spend the day in synagogue praying. We blow the Shofar, the ram’s horn, as a kind of universal alarm clock to wake ourselves up to repentance. We begin to repair our relationships with other people. We acknowledge the ways in which we have failed G-d.

Rebbe Nachman said,
“During the Days of Awe it is good to weep profusely like a child. Throw
aside all sophistication. Just cry like a child before God ,cry for the
diseases of the heart, for the anguish and confusion of the soul.”

We cry out to G-d to fix us. We make concrete plans to change ONE thing about ourselves, realizing that change is a slow and gradual process.

At the same time we celebrate with eating and drinking with our families, we wear our finest clothes.

The Talmud ( Kiddushin 40a) comments on this,

Rabbi. Hama ben. Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hoshaya: One says – which other nation is like this nation? Normally, if a person knows that he is being judged, he dresses in black and wraps himself in black and allows his beard to grow, for he doesn’t know how the judgment will turn out. But Bnai Israel is not like this, rather, they dress in white and wrap themselves in white and trim their beards and eat and drink and rejoice: For they know that God will perform miracles for them.

We are instructed by Halacha (Jewish law) to conduct ourselves with joyous dignity on the New Year..

When one leaves the synagogue one should walk quietly, at ease, happy and with a good heart, confident that Hashem has heard our prayers and our Shofar blowing in mercy. One eats and drinks fully to show G-d’s bounty, but in any event, not to eat in a gross, vulgar way, and the awe of G-d should be on him.
-Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 129:21

We combine a sense of joy and renewal with a genuine trembling before G-d in the awareness of His greatness and our shortcomings.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphal Hirsch wrote..

"It is only in serene joyousness that man as a whole blossoms forth and that those energies are liberated which man needs in order to discharge his task. But this unclouded joy is only found "biradah" ("with trembling"), in the complete disappearance of any opposition to the will of G-d, in the awareness of the fact that, without G-d, we are nothing and that our being and striving begin to have some meaning only if we permit them to be completely absorbed in G-d and His will. If we attach ourselves to the great sovereign purpose of G-d with our every achievement, great or small, then no contribution of ours, however small, shall be lost, and we may rejoice in it…"
(Commentary on the Psalms, p. 13)

The values of Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe, preceded by Elul and culminating in the fast of Yom Kippur are…

Teshuvah (taubah) returning to G-d
Self-restraint and sobreity
Yirat Shamayim (taqwa)- Fear of G-d
Commitment to real change
True Joy with dignity
Renewal of the spirit

I believe that my Muslim brothers and sisters will recognize these as the same values reflected in the observance of Ramadan.

(I hope that when Ramadan comes we will use this blog to share with Jews what that is all about. For those of you who don’t know, you are going to be amazed and impressed. Its even better that it usually coincides with Elul and Tishrei for us.)

It says in the Psalms… “flee from evil and do good.”
Flee from evil…
Do not be drawn into the impoverished ideas of the society around you. New Years is a good illustration of how dumb this society can be. Don’t buy into it. Skip the champagne and useless resolutions.

Do good..
We have an opportunity and a responsibility to teach our values to the society around us both through instruction and example. Let the world see what we do. Share our values with each other and with the folks around us.

As for me, I have a great new years planned. Shabbat with my family and good friends.
I hope to see lots and lots of you at my table soon.

1 comment:

  1. Passions and concerns change with the seasons as history moves on. History sometimes forgets that religious fervor is rarely spawned by evil intent, with of course some notable exceptions. If divergent ideas seem to clash without obvious cause, then history has probably obscured the universal origins of truth. No religion preaches that there is a creator who implants lies and evil within non-believers to insure that they continue on a amoral or immoral path. Sometimes, however, we forget the simple fact that all of humanity has been the opportunity to know the truth by whatever means has been gifted to them by a Universe that is the product of G-d's compassion and merciful kindness.