Sunday night, on Rosh Hashanah eve, Jews around the world will be reciting weighty and beautiful piyutim (liturgical poems). I am conflicted about the first one. The refrain of the inaugural poem is the adamant request that תכלה שנה וקללותיה, תחל שנה וברכותיה. I am considering forgoing that request, at least partially.
Wait, you say. Would you not first tell us, Rabbi, what the refrain means? Knowing what it means will help us understand why you consider excising that particular phrase from your high-holiday prayers.
Well, good you asked, I say. Your inquiry speaks to the crux of my dilemma.
As is often the case, interpreting poetry is a bit of a challenge. Interpretations are multi-pronged, almost never unidimensional. The above mentioned Hebrew phrase is no different, it too bears more than one interpretation. One possibility is that it is a prayer for a better global future. We are beseeching God to replace the outgoing accursed year with a blessed one. Another possibility is that it reflects our wishes for improved communal dynamics. It articulates our hopes that the interpersonal and intra-communal curses (bickering) of the past year will be replaced with newfound intra-communal blessings.
While the Hebrew phrase bears both interpretations, I will direct my prayers towards the first one. I am certainly going to pray for our accursed world to be healed. But I, at the same time, refuse to ask God to intercede in our intra-communal fights. World pain needs to stop. The communal bickering, however, should continue apace-perhaps with the volume turned down a bit
I am the Chair of the Talmud Dept. at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a New York based rabbinical school that is at the progressive end of the Modern Orthodox spectrum. We have been at the receiving end of brutal intra-communal attacks by the more conservative elements in the community ever since our inception. The attackers do not only condemn the institution, they also attack me personally on a regular basis. Some of their websites seem to thrive on an approximately bi-monthly diet of critique and invective. The animus is strong and persistent.
While an outside observer would assume reciprocal animosity, this is not the case. I and my school do not begrudge the naysayers for a moment. Their withering criticisms, instead of hurting us, has, surprisingly, been a boon. Their incessant attacks only strengthens our resolve and fortifies our determination. It has been an ironic blessing, bringing in its wake growth and healing.
Criticism is like an injection administered by a nurse, the prick punctures the surface, allowing the healing salve to penetrate the body. Relentless attacks do the same. They crack open the communal shell and inject a metaphorical salve that inspires reparative self-reflection. It is the inverse of a sugar coated pill, savory and psychologically painful from the outside but sweet and spiritually healing from the inside.
In the rabbinic taxonomy of bickering there are good fights and bad ones. Constructive conflicts are called machlokot le’shem shamaim; controversies whose purpose is to generate holiness and increase sacredness. Those fights the Rabbis declare are sofo le’hitkayeim which, according to some interpretations, means that those disputations are destined to continue in perpetuity. While communal discord is unpleasant, their long-term healing power negates the short-term discomfort, ultimately creating a community which is healthy, mature and self-reflective. Living perpetually under a magnified spotlight forces YCT to constantly examine its motives, doubt its intentions, and double check its goals.
A cursory look at Jewish history confirms this Rabbinic observation about the perpetual nature of religious disputation. Our religious history is essentially a narrative of legal debate and theological conflict, whereby the community moves from one controversy to another. Those debates were no doubt extremely painful for the participants, particularly for those who, like us, were on the receiving end of the critic’s mean spiritedness. In retrospect we, nevertheless, realize how beneficial they were. They spurred growth and improvement.
Realizing the value of a culture of rebuke and reflection makes me and my school cherish the intense debates we have engaged in for the last fourteen years, since the founding of our Yeshiva. We do not want them to stop.
May this also be God’s will. May this year’s debates be cloned and repeated next year, making the Hebrew calendar’s year 5776 another year of intense disputation and passionate argumentation. Such fervor will stand as a heartwarming testament to the communal investment in shaping the Jewish future in this marvelously promising twenty first century.
Shanah tova u’metukah!