High Holy Days Amid the Ruins


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 Yom 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. Before 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 the 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 their sermons? What lessons can be drawn?

Some will highlight a connection between these events, for Americans now 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 as to who is for life and who is for death, Muslims will be called to join in this war. Rabbis will emphasize that the “real” Islam is, like “authentic” Judaism, a religion of peace and justice. They will call on Muslims – and 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 of the civilized the only lessons to be learned during these days where images of destruction are omnipresent? Is repentance to be demanded only of the “other”? Are America and Israel innocent? Do the “real” Judaism, Islam and Christianity project civilization and righteousness and nothing else? Do “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 victims of terrorism and approbation Jews can now support Israel and America without thought of misdeeds and culpability – is simplistic. The systematic assassination of Palestinian leaders and the invasion of Palestinian territory by Israel, using helicopter gunships built in America and funded by American taxpayers, can hardly be justified as a war for civilization.

Terrorism that turns civilians into targets and commercial airliners into missiles deserves condemnation. But the dichotomy of innocence and guilt, civilized and uncivilized, do not serve us well. They do not bode well for 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 fulfill the demands of the Days of Awe and Repentance – to reflect anew, to turn away from injustice, to confess our sins as individuals, as a community and 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 nation.

We can condemn terrorism and still make our confession: That no matter the reasons with regard to Jewish history, what Israel has done and what Israel is doing today to Palestinians is wrong. We can question the singling out of Jews and Israel at the conference on racism and still affirm that Jews benefit from racism in America. We can still acknowledge that far too many Jews in America and in Israel have racist attitudes toward Palestinians and Arabs in general. We can stand with America without confusing an essential American goodness with innocence.

The criticisms of Israel, Jews and America, while too broadly drawn, retain 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,” the repair of a broken world. Both resonate with the demands of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Like our politicians and commentators who have filled the airwaves over the last days, only a small number of rabbis will wrestle with these difficult and complex issues. In light of these tragic events, the Days of Awe and 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 a confession central to the days Jews observe so soberly. Amid the ruins, we 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.