When I heard the rabbi pronounce Charlottesville about midway through his Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, my reaction was uh-oh. At a liberal service downtown, I reckoned this was going to be the standard anti-Nazi spiel, probably seguing into a criticism of the Republic’s top magistrate for being evenhanded regarding louts and thugs.
Wrong. Once again, the Jewish New Year really does, as advertised, refresh you in body mind soul by making you wake up to your own bigotries and lapses and showing you the way back to some semblance of decency.
And first of all I should mention that this was an excellent service. Say what you will about the Reform movement in Judaism, it all depends on who’s there — rabbi, cantor, assembly. I am not using the word congregation because this was taking place in temporary quarters amiably lent by Christians, near the oversubscribed Sixth and I Synagogue.
I am not up on Jewish life in the nation’s capital, but my impression is that Sixth and I, an attractive old fashioned colonial building, is used for classes, holidays, and other occasions but is not home to a congregation. So the people who attend, maybe they are visitors to the city or, like me, feel intimidated by organized religion even as they appreciate its value. This sounds kind of like having your cake and eating it and I know life is with people, but that’s my problem.
Anyhow, the Sixth and I sanctuary is used for an Orthodox service, the basement a Conservative one, so those inclined toward the Reform tradition (which let us not forget began in the early 19th century) are indebted for their service to kindly gentiles — Chinese Christians — who have a very nice, simple, spacious church at Fifth that they did not need that evening and day, Rosh Hashanah this year falling on a Thursday. Don’t quote me on any of this because additional to not being up on Jewish life in Washington I am a ‘am-ha-aretz. It looked and felt like a Reform service, men and women sitting together and the whole lot dressed more for a weekend party than a high holy day. The rabbi was great.
And the people too. The fact is, as I say, you can think what you will of the different currents in Judaism, it all depends on who you’re with, whether saying the blessings at home or reciting the amidah (which, in case you, the reader, are non-J, is functionally like the Lord’s Prayer, there is no service at which you will not recite it). These people — it was packed — were here to hear and be heard, which is the key disposition of a religious moment; otherwise you are there because your wife asked you and you are glancing at your watch every five minutes.
What he said about Charlottesville was this: you would be wrong to condemn the people who made a mess of things there. They are lost souls, and if they are driven by hate, it is primarily directed against themselves, only due to certain historical circumstances completely beyond their control or understanding, they turn it on others.
I am paraphrasing, don’t quote me, but it seemed clear enough that he was saying they all deserved each other — and our compassion. Your job, he continued, is not to take from others, or to take out your problems on others. Your frustrations, fears, hate are yours, don’t blame others for them. Instead, give. Giving is better than getting, even were the getting earned. To give is to repair the world. Repair, tikkun in Hebrew, tikkun olam, repair the world, is a big theme in the Reform or liberal currents in Judaism as it has obvious potential as part of a universalist political program.
The concept of repair in early Jewish thought — I have a vague remembrance of learning this in a history of religions course — had to do with rejecting idolatry. As you know from reading this or that book in the Bible, the Jews were against idols, Baal and all that prehistoric hocus pocus. The idea was, still is, you have one God so you cannot worship a turd, sorry, that was low, bad form, at least I could have said a pile of beads and bird feathers. I mean you have to concentrate your mind. You know, mind body soul.
However, the mental fight (viz. William Blake, “Jerusalem”) against idolatry is, if you consider the facts for a moment, in line against the fight against injustice favored by liberal universalists and other Wilsonian foreign policists, editors of the New York Times and Tikkun magazine, and fellows like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
Well, good for them. I am for. I am entirely for. Rick Blaine at the end of Casablanca, trading his I-don’t-stick-my-head-out-for-anybody attitude (which we knew all along was a pose) to enlist with the Free French in Brazzaville, planning to march and fight all the way up the continent to the Mediterranean and then cross it. This guitar kills fascists and all that, cheers.
But there is this, which is also a pearl of Jewish wisdom: “If I am not for myself,” asks Rabbi Hillel in the Talmud (or an appendix to the Talmud called Sayings or Ethics of the Fathers), “who is?” Had it not been for this insight (which, note, continues with the thought, “If I am only for myself, what am I,” implying: miserable), the ragged under-armed outnumbered Jewish survivors of the biggest massacre ever, would not have, miraculously but also willfully, made the one and only successful anti-colonial national liberation movement in our times. Tell that to the stuffed shirts at the United Nations, assembled in New York this week and allegedly scheming to aid the world’s oppressed but each and every one of them aiming to aid himself alone.
In repairing, you begin by repairing yourself, or more exactly, you continue the never-finished work of repairing yourself, and you repair yourself in order to be of service to your community, your people, your society, your nation. It seems to me — again, don’t quote, I may have misunderstood, but my beloved says this was her understanding, too — the rabbi underscored this with a discrete aside about h*m*s*x’s. He said, don’t blame your inclinations or the problems you encounter on society. Do not blame others or think they owe you.
Here I include in the best universalist spirit a proverb from West Africa: “Allah” — many West Africans are Muslims — “owes you nothing.” He may, may not; he’s not obligated. Good point. Nor is society. But secularism, as a kind of substitute religion, introduces the heresy that it — society, the omnipotent state? — is indeed obligated. Bad show.
You have in the more traditional approach which the rabbi expressed a key conservative concept. You can dream as big as you want about how things might be, but you must begin where you are, small. Thus: you smash the idols to get a clearer head of what really matters in your religion.
And this, too: it is no accident, as the followers of Hegel used to say, whether or not they stood on their heads or thought their opponents did, it is no accident that at the UN meeting in New York, the president of the U.S. rejected liberal internationalism in foreign policy. He announced a tikkun project. Fix your own houses, no one can do it for you, neither the UN nor the U.S. — both have tried and all you’ve done is ask for more.
In this month ninety-nine years ago, American troops, including New York’s own 369th Infantry regiment, who were in French uniforms and under French command and did not complain about it, refused to give an inch of ground and thereby announced to the world the Kaiser’s final drive west would fail. Next came the Meuse-Argonne offensive (in which they participated) and the end of the Great War. Followed by a poorly conceived peace that got idolatry and tikkun upside down.
I am extrapolating; I can’t state the rabbi had any of this in mind. But you can always think and ponder anew. It’s required in this season, during this holiday. So happy new year, all, and repair the world.