I’m never sure if it’s the Jewish thing to say ‘Happy New Year’ on January the first, or whether this greeting should be reserved strictly for Rosh Hashanah. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with the words; I’ve already spoken them dozens of times this 2023.
Only, I’ve been struggling with what ‘happy’ means in today’s world. The definition I’ve come up with for myself is that this should be a year of striving to live faithfully by my deepest values as a Jew, a human being, and as privileged, albeit briefly, to belong to this breathing, vital, interconnected world of nature.
The challenges are overwhelming. In this time of shortages, one thing we aren’t short of is causes for which to fight. Whether it’s supporting our beleaguered health services, creating innovative social projects to alleviate hunger and loneliness, finding homes and work for refugees and displaced persons, or protecting nature in that slow, patient work of planting hedgerows and monitoring the numbers of newts and frogs, I’m constantly moved by the good so many people do. Across the world there are countless individuals and groups whose hearts and conscience are astutely awake, and who find the courage, creativity and commitment to act accordingly. They are my goad, my hope, and my unfailing source of inspiration.
But this week colleague after colleague and article after article has focussed on Israel’s new government. The Rabbinical Assembly, to which I and most Masorti rabbis across Europe belong, issued a powerful statement in response to Justice Minister Yariv Levin proposed changes to limit severely the powers of Israel’s High Court and make the judiciary a political appointment:
“It is excruciating to see this government directly undermine the core values of democracy and religious freedom that we value so deeply…the integrity of the state of Israel and the well-being of the entire Jewish people hang in the balance.”
Thinking also of the racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and potential violence incited by key ministers in the government, my friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Green, a true lover of Israel, sent an open letter. After acknowledging that the causes lie deep and include the long Jewish experience of being hated and persecuted, he wrote of certain racist members of the Knesset:
“The damage these people threaten is not only to the state of Israel and its democratic institutions, but to Judaism itself and its place as one of the world’s great spiritual traditions. We are engaged today in a great struggle for the soul of Judaism. Those who read it in an exclusivist and xenophobic way have taken center stage… but this is about a legacy that we all share, one in which we take great pride. Do we really want to give it away to the racists among us?”
This is no time, he stresses, for retreat.
What, then, is the Judaism for which I believe we should struggle? Any proper answer is inevitably complex, and that’s part of the point: it is a Judaism whose core is the Torah, the Prophets of Israel and the Hebrew Bible; whose teachings have been pondered, prayed, and argued over word by word through the extraordinary works of the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Responsa and the entire two-and-a-part millennia of rabbinic culture; whose values have been forged in the crucibles of exile, persecution, marginalisation and martyrdom, but also challenged and enriched by other faiths, and by the arts, science, and political cultures of enlightened humanism and universalism. It is a Judaism which has, throughout and despite these trials of history, preserved and deepened the search for God and for the sacred in every human being and every living thing. It is a Judaism which fights for justice against tyranny, compassion against cruelty, and human dignity against all forms of bigotry and contempt. It is a Judaism which, while contributing to and learning from the rest of the world, has maintained its spiritual, legal-halakhic, ethical and communal disciplines, cultures and integrity.
The happiness in ‘happy new year’ to which I aspire lies in trying to live by and struggle for these values.
Jonathan Wittenberg is Masorti Judaism’s Senior Rabbi and the Senior Rabbi at New North London Synagogue.