Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Social change and Erev Rosh Hashana

Erev Rosh Hashanah

In Genesis, we find eternal messages. Although written so long ago about a time even further in the past, perhaps only in imagination, “G-d said: ‘Let us make Man in Our image, after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth…’” The first of Tishrei marks the creation of man, the sixth day of creation. On this date of year one of creation, humanity was tasked with keeping the Garden of Eden: “And G-d took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to keep it.” The date also marks the creation of the first sin by humanity. Genesis also describes the serpent that tempts Eve into consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge by saying, “You are not going to die, but G-d knows that as soon as you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like divine beings and know good from bad.” There are many themes worth exploring in the first few verses from Genesis. These themes are not only appropriate to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah but also to our contemporary experience as Jews in modernity. The theme of these verses that can be applied to our contemporary setting is that the world is changing as a result of humanity being in a constant struggle of moral confusion. Change is inevitable and the consequence of an evolving society.

Change: The world is changing and always has been. The world was upset by humanity’s choice to consume fruit from the tree of knowledge. The consequence was Adam and Eve’s banishment into the wilderness by G-d. The world we are living in today is no different from the day Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, except in one major way. Our society is changing at a rapid pace, and many of the changes happening to Jews and non-Jews today are the consequence of our judicious leanings on moral and social issues.

But how does change happen? Rabbi Norman Cohen picked up on the methodology in years past. He noted on Rosh Hashana 5751 how writer Marilyn Ferguson contrasts two different kinds of change: pendulum change and paradigm change. Pendulum change is relatively simple, just like the extremes of a pendulum as it swings from one side to the other in two different radical directions. We often incorrectly assume change must be in one direction or the other through this methodology. However, wisdom has taught that this kind of change is often short-lived and results in the pendulum swinging right back to where we started.

Pendulum change is, as understood by Ferguson, an immediate change and extreme, such as born-again fundamentalists, who are people who adopt a passionate belief defined by a kind of blind faith. These kinds of changes can look good, but these changes are generally unhealthy, scary, and radical.

Immediate changes are difficult to make. They are the hardest. Imagine the resolutions we have made in years past, that is, to immediately begin the practices of kosher, vegetarian, Shabbat, etc. The decisions to make radical changes are usually the hardest to keep. They are also pure in their endeavors, as well as idealistic.

Ferguson contrasts pendulum change with what she calls paradigm change. Paradigm change involves a more gradual process that involves a careful overhauling of the very patterns of our life. Creating new paradigms of our thinking, actions, and behaviors is more difficult than pendulum changes. However, in the long run, paradigm change is more effective and permanent. It is gradual, and therefore it is more difficult to notice. It requires hard work, but it is steady and real.

Because they are gradual and not immediate, a period of adjustment is accounted for. Think of the gradual transitions we have made in years past from today, that is, the gradual transitions to kashrut, to becoming a Jew, and to the belief. These changes stick with us.

Many of the social changes we have witnessed in the past decade have unfortunately had more in common with pendulum changes than paradigm changes. Paradigm changes involve permanent social changes. Let us recall, three decades ago, the genesis of my creation, when LGBTQ+ issues were a distant star in the universe. It was illegal for gays to wed and even to be out in many states. Women were marching for equal pay in the workforce. Four decades ago, AIDS became an epidemic, and then it was sidelined because it primarily affected the LGBTQ+ community. Five decades ago, the civil rights movement was fighting for African-American rights. Each decade saw vast improvements and social changes. In the 60s, the Civil Rights Movement defeated segregation. Through an ongoing battle in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, women’s groups won the right to more bodily autonomy and better inclusion in the workforce. These were permanent changes made gradually over time in America.

However, many of the more recent changes in the past decade can be linked to the consumption from the tree of knowledge of the millennial era: the Internet. These changes appear to have been pendulum shifts. I say this because so much of what we have fought for has been quickly repealed. It has been undone overnight.

But what have the pendulum shifts brought us? The answer is moral ambiguity and confusion. The consequence of transgressing G-d is described in Genesis 3:23: “G-d banished [them] him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken.” Moral confusion was the greatest consequence of transgressing the Eternal. Eternal truth is something man has been in search of ever since. Saaydia Gaon, head of the rabbinic academy of Sura (modern-day Iraq) in the Middle Ages writes in The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs that Truth is ultimately unattainable, but humanity is in a constant pursuit of that Truth with a capital “T.”

As a consequence of sailing the winds of change with the internet, this flood of knowledge in which we currently find ourselves is confusion—moral confusion. Truth is something that has been disturbed at its very core due to the era we live in. It has changed our language and forced us to try to understand things differently. Through this confusion of major moral dilemmas, many powerful voices have emerged. They offer answers to where we are left uncertain. So much is unknown in this dawn of the millennial age. So much has been called into question and changed. So little makes sense to many of us. Every generation faces questions regarding their morality. The question is, “How will we address it? How will we affect permanent social changes on this planet?”

I believe the answer to these questions can be found in our texts and our sages. Again and again in our biblical tradition, teshuvah, or repentance, is linked to our people, which is Am Yisrael’s connection to the Eternal. Deuteronomy 30:1-10 describes the need for Am Yisrael to perform teshuvah before entering into the Land of Israel. Rabbi David Sears, from the Jewish Vegetarians of America, has said that the key that opens the Gates of Eden is teshuvah. The Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuvah about remedying sins by actions.

But how is this applicable to a world of moral confusion? How can teshuvah open the gates of moral clarity? Teshuvah restores the brokenness of the world at a very basic level, and it is about respecting each other. Hatred clouds the mind—the consciousness of decency. We must do a better job of loving each other in the upcoming year, even our enemies. Teshuvah is the window through which to do this. With it obstructed, we cannot escape ourselves. Without starting at this baseline, progress—social change—will be nothing more than confusion to most. Let us go into 5779 as ambassadors for this vision, which is one of love and change.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Polin is the Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation - Monroe Township Jewish Center on Monroe Township, New Jersey. A New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Subsequent to both of masters programs, Rabbi Polin graduated with a third Masters in Hebrew Letters and received his Semikhah (Rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations.