Less than a week after the attack on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, Jews around the world enter into the most difficult and somber
holy days of the Jewish calendar. The time between Rosh Hashanah and
Kippur is known as the Days of Awe and Repentance. In the shadow of
destruction and death, the timing could not be more appropriate.
Like clergy of all faiths, rabbis prepare their sermons in advance.
these tragic events, most were preparing to speak to their congregations
about the need for Jews to remain unified behind the state of Israel,
especially in light of the negative publicity surrounding the continuing
Israeli suppression of Al Aksa intifada and the recently-concluded U N
conference on racism held in South Africa.
Despite the proximity in time, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and
Durban conference are, at least for the moment, distant in thought and
emotion. All is in the shadow of the destruction and death relived
endlessly on television. What, then, will the rabbis now emphasize in
sermons? What lessons can be drawn?
Some will highlight a connection between these events, for Americans
understand the violence and sorrow terrorism leaves in its wake, known
intimately by Israelis. Perhaps now America and Israel are drawn even
closer together, for they hold in common the values of decency and
democracy. Do we not now share the common war against the forces that
threaten civilization? Rabbis will reinforce the need for Jewish and
American unity in the broader arc of dramatic religious rhetoric.
Contrasting the forces of good and evil, dividing humanity into the
civilized and uncivilized, demanding before God that the line be drawn
who is for life and who is for death, Muslims will be called to join in
war. Rabbis will emphasize that the "real" Islam is, like "authentic"
Judaism, a religion of peace and justice. They will call on Muslims -
Christians for that matter - to condemn terrorism as their ticket to the
club of the civilized.
Yet this club is haunted by unanswered and, for the most part, unasked
questions. Are the solidarity of America and Israel and the fraternity
the civilized the only lessons to be learned during these days where
of destruction are omnipresent? Is repentance to be demanded only of
"other"? Are America and Israel innocent? Do the "real" Judaism, Islam
Christianity project civilization and righteousness and nothing else?
"they" - the shadowy and violent world of terrorists - only symbolize
darkness and chaos?
To see the rote lesson of the Jewish day of atonement - that as
of terrorism and approbation Jews can now support Israel and America
without thought of misdeeds and culpability - is simplistic. The
assassination of Palestinian leaders and the invasion of Palestinian
territory by Israel, using helicopter gunships built in America and
by American taxpayers, can hardly be justified as a war for
Terrorism that turns civilians into targets and commercial airliners
missiles deserves condemnation. But the dichotomy of innocence and
civilized and uncivilized, do not serve us well. They do not bode well
the clarion call to eliminate terrorism from the face of the earth, nor
raise the central question facing Jews as a people. And they do not
the demands of the Days of Awe and Repentance - to reflect anew, to
away from injustice, to confess our sins as individuals, as a community
as a nation. We too are part of the cycle of violence that we condemn so
easily when the burden is so dramatically placed on another people or
We can condemn terrorism and still make our confession: That no matter
reasons with regard to Jewish history, what Israel has done and what
is doing today to Palestinians is wrong. We can question the singling
of Jews and Israel at the conference on racism and still affirm that
benefit from racism in America. We can still acknowledge that far too
Jews in America and in Israel have racist attitudes toward Palestinians
Arabs in general. We can stand with America without confusing an
American goodness with innocence.
The criticisms of Israel, Jews and America, while too broadly drawn,
a kernel of truth. They are essential to our own "teshuvah," the turning
back to the deepest sense of oneself and to God, and to "tikkun olam,"
repair of a broken world. Both resonate with the demands of Rosh
and Yom Kippur.
Like our politicians and commentators who have filled the airwaves over
last days, only a small number of rabbis will wrestle with these
and complex issues. In light of these tragic events, the Days of Awe
Repentance, always difficult and demanding, are made more so. Affirming
one's identity as Jewish and American and thus innocent is too easy.
Identifying a way forward which is self-critical and inclusive involves
confession central to the days Jews observe so soberly. Amid the ruins,
have little choice.
Mr. Marc H. Ellis is University Professor of
American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and
Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.