Teshuvah – Configuring a Fragmented Life

Today is the first Sabbath following the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It a special Sabbath which takes its name from the opening verse of the biblical passage read in synagogue on this day: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin” (Hosea 14:2). The Hebrew word for return is shuvah, hence the Sabbath is known as Shabbat Shuvah or the Sabbath of Return. Traditionally on this day rabbis devote their sermons to the theme of repentance, encouraging their congregants to take advantage of the propitious time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which falls eight days later, by repenting and making amends.

What does “return” in this context actually mean? On the most basic level it means a return to God. When one commits a sin, one is distanced from God. Repentance then is the act of returning to God. On a deeper level, though, repentance can mean a return to one’s self.

Many of us live fragmented lives. We rush about trying to make a living or raise a family, which in today’s climate are both becoming increasingly difficult. Our focus tends to be on output; long hours at work, time-consuming commutes and responding to the demands of clients, colleagues or managers. Consequently we are left with very little time for any meaningful input such as personal learning and development, cultivating relationships and just thinking and reflecting. As a result we lose touch with who we really are, what we are truly capable of and what matters most in life. This tragic fragmentation of self can lead to behaviour that conflicts with one’s deepest principles. Repentance then is a process of returning to one’s deepest self and rediscovering the moral bedrock of one’s value system.

But how does one begin to put together a fragmented life? How does one recover the lost inner self? The answer is by contemplating higher-order questions. The types of questions we routinely contemplate in the course of our busy lives are what can be termed as lower-order questions. These are questions that begin with what and how and that have relatively clearcut, straightforward answers. Higher-order questions on the other hand begin with why. Why am I here? Why do I have the gifts and talents that I do? While the particular answers to such higher-order questions can be deeply subjective, Judaism at least provides a framework for considering them by asserting that every single life is imbued with unique purpose. Such as the following passage from the Talmud: “A human being creates many coins from the same die and they are all identical; the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed is He, coins all people from Adam’s die and not one looks like another. This is why every person must say ‘The world was created just for me’.”

The Talmud is not encouraging narcissism. On the contrary, it is calling on each individual to recognise his or her uniqueness and as a result to make a distinctive contribution in life. It is not a lesson about taking; it is a lesson about contributing and doing something extraordinary with one’s life. In other words, identifying that which is unique in us leads us to think less about what we need and more about what we are needed for.

Returning to one’s true self through higher-order questioning is what the Sabbath of return is all about. One needn’t be Jewish to appreciate its importance and recognise its potential positive impact on our lives and society.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 1October.


The Crucial Role Rabbis Can Play in The Peace Process

Less than a week before Rosh Hashanah the Palestinians made a bit at the UN for statehood. This will almost certainly lead to unrest and renewed tension in the Middle East. The Israel-Palestine issue will be in the minds of many Jews attending synagogues this festival season of Tishrei. It will be very difficult for any pulpit rabbi to avoid talking about the situation in at least some sermons.

What realistically can a rabbi hope to achieve by giving a sermon about the Middle East?

The Israel-Palestine conflict has three dimensions; historical, political and religious and each feeds off the other in a vicious cycle. Rabbis can do very little to contribute to the historical and political aspects but that can make a great contribution to the religious one; and that is in the way they talk about God.

Judaism has a complex and nuanced theology. Some scriptural and rabbinic sources see God as a particularistic, tribal God of Israel who is ‘on our side’ while other scriptural and rabbinic sources depict God as a Universal God who is the God of all humanity.

Which of these two images Jews Historically invoked depended on what they were experiencing at the time. During periods in which Jews felt threatened or marginalised they tended to conceive of God as particularistic, during periods of relative calm and social integration the Universal God was brought to the fore.

The temptation for many rabbis this festival season will be to invoke the particularistic tribal God of Israel who is on the side of the Israelis and who will defend His chosen people from the machinations of the Palestinians.

I believe that this is the most unhelpful thing rabbis could do at this tense and sensitive time. Instead Rabbis should have the courage to invoke the universal God before whom all lives are precious and worthy of dignity and before whom the tears of a Palestinian child are as distressing as those of a Jewish child.

Each of the festivals in this month of Tishrei contains sources that portray both the particularistic and Universal God.

Rabbis can focus on the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah that tells the story about the banishment of Ishmael or they can focus on the verses in the story that tell of God’s mercy to Hagar and her son.

On Yom Kippur they can discuss the story contained in the afternoon service about the ten Jewish sages tortured and murdered by Rome and use that as a springboard to portray Jewish victimhood and its contemporary parallels or they can discuss the story of Jonah which speaks of God’s deep love and concern for all His creatures.

On Sukot they can draw on the well known Tamudic story that portrays gentiles as unworthy of sitting in the Sukah, or they can teach the Talmudic passage that explains how on sukot 70 bulls were offered as sacrifices so as to extend God’s blessing to the 70 nations.

Rabbis cannot change the political or historical realities but that can play a major role in framing the way Jews will think about the conflict in the crucial months ahead.

The easy option is for rabbis to play to the gallery by reinforcing our sense of victimhood, righteous indignation and moral superiority. They can do this by invoking the tribal God of Israel who listens to our prayers alone. Such sermons will garner compliments and comments like ‘rabbi excellent sermon, you told it like it is.’ But they will do little to pave the way for any meaningful peace.

That leaves the difficult option and that is for rabbis to challenge their listener’s particularistic tendencies by forcing them to think of God in a universalistic way.  It will certainly upset some and unsettle many. But it is only through thinking of God in this way that we can begin to appreciate the divine in the other and that is the crucial first step towards peace.

This short essay appeared in the Jewish Chronicle as a letter on 29 September

The Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Never Cease to Journey

Judaism is about forging a relationship with God and this relationship demands continuous striving of the part of the Jew. This means being on a constant journey towards spiritual growth. Sadly many Jews today apply a “destination” metric meaning they measure Jewish commitment in terms of what level of religious observance a Jew maintains. This results in differentiating between Jews who observe more and Jews who observe less.

I don’t think this is a very helpful or useful measure of Jewish commitment. I prefer a “journey” metric in which Jewish commitment is measured in terms of the extent of one’s journey. In this measure what matters is not the quantity of one’s observance but rather the distance travelled in one’s personal quest for greater observance.

One can be a fully Sabbath observant Jew and still not be on a Jewish journey if it is nothing more than a habitual lifestyle inherited from one’s Sabbath observant parents. On the other hand one might only observe one aspect of the Sabbath such as making Kiddush on Friday night but that Jew is on a journey if it involves a personal struggle and commitment.  The point is not how advanced you are on the journey but whether you keep moving. A Jew that feels he has arrived at his spiritual destination ranks lower in this metric than the Jew who is struggling to take her first spiritual steps.