The words came very easy when I was a young rabbi. I had all of the answers. I could answer every question a congregant posed to me and I could even answer all of the rhetorical questions posed by Biblical, Rabbinic, Mystical and Philosophical texts. I could speak with great certainty about any and all topics religious, sociological or political.
During Neila we will ask the question “What are we and what are our lives?” The questions become so pertinent as our lives advance and as societal and religious changes occur at the fastest pace ever in our lives, perhaps even in the entire history of humanity.
Change used to be measured over generations. In fact, change was often so gradual that people never realized that practices, actions and beliefs were in fact changes from earlier forms of experience.
My studies this summer awakened that realization within me.
Since even Biblical times we have wrestled with the question of Who Is A Jew yet still the Jewish people have not resolved issues of halacha, biology, free-will, sociology and personal identification.
Yet the meta-question lurks. What Is A Jew? I wish for the dogmatic certainty of youth to be able respond smugly and confidently, moving then to the next great life question.
Still, the more we studied and delved into that question, we continued to return to the pragmatic question of Who Is A Jew, finding it is difficult to speak in global terms until we actually could define about whom we are speaking.
To guide us into the thoughtful season of repentance, I would like us to consider not broad definitions but personal ones. It is a time to ask ourselves What am I as a Jew as well as Who Am I As A Jew.
I refuse to succumb to the nay-sayers who maintain we are beyond a tradition and Kaplanian notion of Jewish Peoplehood. As fuzzy as the lines may be, I continue to hold to Am Yisrael. I struggle with the boundaries of the People even as I struggle with the fast-paced changes that test the very nature of Am Yisrael.
This past Tisha B’Av during my fast I lamented not just historical tragedy but the vituperative diatribes that Jews cast upon each other. I lament the ability to have a cogent discussion with either a Charedi Jew or a Jew so enmeshed the far left who sees Israel as a genocidal and apartheid nation. I cannot even begin to fathom the future of a notion of Am Yisrael with boundaries stretched so thin.
All that I can do and all that I can ask of our community is to ponder the individual question. What is it that I do that sets me apart as a Jew? Observance, and what kind of observance? A sense of justice and where is the source of that sense of justice? An ethnicity to which we are closer than our descendants? And to the question of who we are as Jews, how much does a conscious awareness of being Jewish contribute to what I am as a Jew.
May our thoughts for the Yamim Noraim
lead us to new personal understanding. May our prayers on the Yamim Noraim lead us and in turn our society to greater union and civility. May our awareness of the laws, mores and values of our people lead us to being instruments of an all pervasive godliness.
And may the New Year of 5777 bring for all of us, our families, our people and our world prosperity, health and peace.
Rabbi Ned Soltz