Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish holiday celebrating redemption and forgiveness, comes early this year, hot on the heels of Labor Day and followed in quick succession by Yom Kippur and Sukkot, barely leaving yeshiva and day school students time to get sick of school before throwing them into an almost monthlong vacation. Perhaps the most well-known of Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also among the least typically fun, with much of the day spent in prayer and serious introspection into our past misdeeds. Still, Jews who don’t step foot inside a synagogue all year feel drawn to attend services, and even the most secular and unaffiliated among us often commit token acts in commemoration, like a once-per-year abstention from pork.
Fewer are familiar with the ten days between the two holidays, called the Yamin Noraim, or the Days of Awe and Redemption. It is during this time that we are really meant to repent for our sins during the previous year, and it is customary to seek forgiveness from people we’ve wronged. Few of us summon the courage to do so, however, finding it far easier apologize to a deity than an actual person.
And we owe each other a lot of apologies of late. 5773 was a particularly ugly year for the Jewish people and one filled with sinat chinam, senseless hatred for another Jew.
It was pure sinat chinam when a group of yeshiva students took to their own accord to commit physical violence against the Women of the Wall, which included throwing an egg at a pregnant member of the pluralistic women’s prayer group; when disgruntled Haredim stoned a couple of Egged buses in support of the couple who coerced a woman to give up her seat, illegally, and was summarily arrested; when a Haredi man walked around in uniform and was subsequently attacked by an angry mob of his compatriots.
In case this reads too much like a polemic against Haredim, others have not been without fault. Too many cases of sexual abuse have been unearthed and perpetrated by Jews from across the spectrum of observance, leaving in their wake countless victims with untold emotional trauma. Criticism of fundamental Haredi theology in the liberal and secular Jewish press have, at times, degenerated into truly hostile personal attacks on the Torah way of life and an indictment of every religious Jew, including the many who are horrified by the physical violence being committed in the name of God.
It’s incredible that just a few short decades ago we were facing mass extermination, where the way we practiced Judaism, how or where we prayed, or what exactly we believed mattered not at all but only that we had Jewish blood.
And I have to wonder what God, today, really cares about: which group of women is praying the “right” way or how those women are treating each other? Whether a desire for modesty can be respected without name-calling, and whether people can recognize that their goal of modesty needs to be re-evaluated when women are getting spat on or rocks thrown at them when they step outside?
We repeatedly refuse to step inside the shoes of another Jew and consider life from his perspective, and we continue to hate what we do not know. Hitler didn’t care much about labels, but to us, it’s a matter of supreme importance.
I know it’s naive and simplistic to ask why we can’t all just get along, for as long as the Jewish people live, there will always be numerous opinions on how we should practice our religion, and different conclusions drawn to communal issues that we face. But I don’t think it’s overreaching to say that there must be a better way to do so. There must be more civility and kindness in the way we approach and debate these issues, and the way we treat our fellow Jews. More ultra-Orthodox leaders and rabbis must insist that physical violence never be used to show disapproval, no matter how Haredim feel their values are being violated.
Clearly, God takes sinat chinam pretty seriously if He could destroy the Second Temple because of it. It is taught that another one will not be rebuilt so long as there remain vestiges of this groundless loathing.
Rosh Hashanah is, in essence, our Jewish New Year, and offers us a chance to forget the ugliness and misdeeds of the past twelve months and adopt resolutions to do and be better. It gives us a clean slate that opens a world of opportunity and allows for the possibility of greatness. As we look to the year ahead, I hope there’s fewer headlines trumpeting infighting and hatred, and more of mutual respect and tolerance as we resolve to cross the divide of religious differences peacefully, and with an open mind.
It won’t be easy, but us Jews tend to shine in situations of extreme difficulty. It’s what has allowed us to prosper and multiply for generations despite enemies and the threat of annihilation at every turn.
How ironic and truly unfortunate it would be if it turned out to be sinat chinam – an enemy from within – that finally destroys us.
Tova Ross works in university development and as a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, and Kveller. She lives in New Jersey with her family, and tweets at @tovamos.