A few years back, when I was still practicing law, a professional colleague moved into the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Most of us associate Williamsburg with Chasidim, especially Satmar Chasidim, though we (or at least the New Yorkers among us) may be aware that the Satmar, along with a few smaller Chassidic sects, have long shared the neighborhood with a substantial Hispanic population. In recent years, however, some parts of Williamsburg have started to “gentrify”, attracting a more varied crop of residents. My colleague was a part of that trend.
Shortly after he moved in, my colleague was walking down a Williamsburg street one Friday night when he was accosted by a Chasidic man seeking his help. The Chasid did not explain directly what he wanted, but through a series of hints succeeded in making it clear that a light on his stove had unexpectedly blown out and because of the Sabbath, the Chasid could not relight it himself. My colleague understood that he was being asked to play the role of what is commonly known as a “Shabbos goy.” (The concept of a Shabbos goy is well known, but the Halakha governing its use is complex and controversial, and is not the subject of this post.) He wanted to be a good neighbor, so he helped the man out by relighting the stove.
Only one problem: unbeknownst to the Chasid, my colleague is Jewish! He isn’t observant nor particularly knowledgeable, but he is unquestionably a Jew. Had the Chasid known that, of course, he would never have asked him to act as a “Shabbos goy”, but my colleague had no idea that his Jewishness made a halakhic difference. From his perspective, he was simply being a nice guy by doing for a neighbor what the neighbor couldn’t do for himself.
In fairness, there was nothing about my colleague’s appearance or manner that would have tipped the Chasid off that his ad hoc “Shabbos goy” was in fact a Jew. What is noteworthy, however – and more than a little disconcerting – is that it apparently never occurred to him to ask. The possibility that the man he was talking to, a man whose dress and speech were indistinguishable from those of the gentrifying Gentiles who were becoming a familiar sight on Williamsburg’s streets, was actually a fellow Jew never crossed his mind – and therein lies the problem.
When we come together on Kol Nidre night to begin the fast of Yom Kippur, the first words we will say as a community do not focus our attention on sin or repentance, which are the overarching themes of the day. They don’t even relate directly to the annulment of vows, which is the theme of Kol Nidre. The first words publicly spoken as we assemble on the holiest day of the year is a public declaration that, with the sanction of courts both human and divine, we are permitted to pray with sinners.
Whatever the technical reason for that declaration, it highlights one of the day’s primary themes: that as we stand before God in judgment, the entire Jewish people stands together. We confess our sins in the plural. Indeed, the catalog of sins is so long that it would be difficult for any one person to commit them all in a single year – but we can be confident that each of the sins we mention has been committed by some fellow Jew, somewhere, during that period. All Jews are responsible for one another, the sages tell us. The work of repentance is a communal, not an individual, task.
Those of us who are part of the halakhic community know this, of course. We can speak movingly about the importance of achdut (unity) and warn about the dangers of machloket (controversy). We know how to emphasize this fundamental message in a manner appropriate to each season. On Tisha b’Av we stress the rabbinic dictum that the second Beit haMikdash (Holy Temple) was destroyed because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred). On Sukkot we explain that the arbah minim (four species) represent Jews whose knowledge and observance differ, but to fulfill the mitzvah you have to bring all four together. On Pesach we point out that at least the four sons discussed in the Haggadah, for all the vast differences among them, were all present at the Seder.
We know the words to say, but do we believe them? Even more important, are our actions consistent with our words? Or have we so isolated ourselves from the rest of the Jewish people that it never even occurs to us – as it never occurred to that Williamsburg Chasid – that they are Jews.
That Chasid, in a sense, has an excuse. As part of the most insular segment of the Jewish people, he may really never have known that there are American Jews who by appearance are indistinguishable from non-Jews. But what excuse do the rest of us have? Most halakhic Jews are not isolated from mainstream American society. In the course of our daily lives, we interact all the time with our non-observant brethren, who are our co-workers, employers, customers, neighbors, or even members of our extended families. Yet increasingly, when we make the choices that define our religious lives – where to live, what shul to join, what schools to send our children to – we consciously or otherwise make the choices most likely to isolate ourselves and our families from the rest of America’s Jews.
It was not long after last Yom Kippur that the Pew Research Center released its report on the state of American Jewry. Few of its findings were surprising, but the picture it painted of the likely American Jewish future should have horrified us. Almost a year later, do we even remember the Pew report’s conclusions? How much thought have we given over the past year to the implications of the trends that Pew documented?
Given the Pew report’s findings as to the stark differences between the demographic trends among Orthodox Jews and those in the broader Jewish community, there is an understandable temptation for Orthodox Jews to respond with triumphalism. It is a temptation that must be resisted, however, for we are bound together in more ways than we would like to admit. Our enemies, of course – who are becoming bolder in Europe than at any time since the Holocaust — do not care about differences among us. Jewish history has proven repeatedly that the mutual responsibility of Jews for each other is not an abstract ideal but a recurring reality.
Unavoidably, there are differences among us, even within the halakhic community, as to the best means of translating that sense of mutual responsibility into practical policy. There need to be opportunities to explore those differences, but they should not preoccupy us as we enter Yom Kippur. Rather, let us use this year’s Yom Kippur as an opportunity to reflect on our responsibility to all our fellow Jews — even those who we may have trouble recognizing — and to renew our commitment to do whatever we can in the context of our own lives to translate that sense of responsibility into concrete action.
Gmar Chamita tova — an easy and meaningful fast to all.
P.S. All of us who use the internet to magnify the power of our words need to remain conscious of the responsibility that comes with that power. If the words in any of my posts this year have caused pain, I ask forgiveness, for that was not my intention.