Israel should support the Palestinian statehood push

Israelis and Jews around the world are awaiting the Palestinians’ push at the United Nations for statehood with trepidation.

The official response of the government of Israel and American Jewish groups has been to do everything possible to prevent any action at the U.N. and to line up votes against it. Only America and a few other nations have joined Israel’s side. Most European countries are likely to either support the Palestinians or abstain. The current Israeli strategy seems certain to fail.

While the Palestinians are unlikely to get the Security Council’s approval because of the U.S. veto, they will get the support of the General Assembly. Legally a General Assembly vote means little, but it doesn’t matter. As far as the world goes, Palestine will have achieved statehood. The new State of Palestine will be recognized by many countries. And it won’t stop there.

Israel will be accused of establishing settlements in a foreign country, and each time Israel acts in response to a rocket from Gaza or an attack from the West Bank, it will be attacked verbally for threatening the sovereignty of a neighboring country. Israel will find itself embroiled in lawsuits at the International Court at The Hague and in other European countries, accused of violating the rights of a sovereign nation. The new “frontline” in the Israel-Palestinian conflict will be about water, airspace, territorial waters, imports and exports, taxation and more.

Israel cannot win in this battle.

There is, however, an alternative to Israel’s current approach and our community’s wall-to-wall condemnation of the Palestinian plan: Israel should support Palestinian statehood in the strongest manner. This is the right approach on both moral and pragmatic grounds.

As an Israeli and a Zionist, I have a moral duty to support any people that desires national self-determination. This was our dream for 2,000 years, and we began the journey toward realizing that aspiration in Basel 120 years ago. We achieved statehood in 1948, and yet we still struggle to have our right to self-determination accepted.

Today, especially as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement works to challenge Israel’s national legitimacy, we need not only to defend our Jewish state but also to support others seeking self-determination.

Is there any moral reason to deny that right to the Palestinians? True, they have only become a people in recent times, but what right do we have to say that they are not a nation entitled to their own state? Our doomed attempt to prevent recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations will only serve to bolster the cause of those who are trying to delegitimize Israel’s national rights.

Israel would do better by endorsing the Palestinian effort to gain recognition, and it should be the first nation to vote in favor of Palestinian statehood. This should be followed by demands that the Palestinians prove they can fulfill the responsibilities of statehood.

The new Palestinian government must develop an economy that can provide for the well-being of its citizens. It must teach its children to respect all peoples and remove anti-Israel rhetoric from its textbooks and media. The Palestinian government’s police force needs not only to protect its own citizens but also to ensure that terrorism is rooted out.

The new state must embrace democracy and protect civil rights. These have been the demands of the citizens of Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring, and the Palestinian people deserve the same. They are entitled to a free press, free speech and freedom of religion. The status of Palestinian women must be advanced and their rights protected.

The new Palestinian government faces an especially difficult challenge in dealing with Jewish settlements. Yet a modern state must learn to live with citizens of other countries and peoples of other faiths in its midst. It will behoove the new Palestinian government to protect the Jewish settlers and guarantee their rights.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should call upon Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to fulfill the responsibilities of enlightened government. Netanyahu should offer to meet with the head of the new Palestinian state to negotiate borders and resolve all outstanding issues between the two countries.

I doubt that Abbas will respond favorably. Nor do I expect that the Palestinians will be eager to return to peace negotiations. But their refusal will put the Palestinians on the defensive and expose their current statehood push as just an empty public relations tactic. Meanwhile, by supporting Palestinian statehood, Israel would underscore its willingness to move forward and achieve the ultimate goal of peace.

This approach is a lot better than the one now being pursued by Israel. It is also the morally correct, Zionist and Jewish thing to do.

(Michael J. Weil is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. He lived in Israel for 30 years and served in the Israeli army. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the policy of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.)

A Palestinian state must come from negotiations

To establish its independence, Israel had to win a war against the combined might of the Arab nations in 1948. The Arab failure to destroy the nascent Jewish state became known, in Orwellian Arab vernacular, as “Nakba,” a catastrophe. For the next 20 years, neither Jordan nor any of the other Arab states even spoke of giving Palestinian Arabs their independence, concentrating instead on boycotting and delegitimizing Israel.

Only some years after the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel, beating back the annilihation attempt by Egypt, Jordan and Syria, found itself in possession of the West Bank and Gaza Strip did the Arabs suddenly develop a passion for Palestinian statehood.

Even though Arab national aspirations in Palestine are little more than a century old and developed in response to Zionism, Israel, whose Jewish roots in the land go back thousands of years, repeatedly has sought a negotiated settlement so that Israel and a Palestinian state could live side by side in peace. Generous Israeli offers were made at Camp David and Taba under President Clinton’s aegis in 2000-01, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walked out on the talks. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled all Israelis out of Gaza, but instead of developing into an embryonic Palestinian state, the region became a Hamas-ridden launching pad for anti-Israel terror.

Subsequent Israeli attempts to restart negotiations have met a wall of Palestinian refusal to recognize it as a Jewish state and insistence on a refugee “right of return” to Israel proper—both positions clearly intended to keep up the conflict, not solve it.

Rebuffing the very idea of a Jewish state means the Palestinians are not ready to concede that Israel was the place of origin of the Jewish people, the focus of its prayers and dreams for centuries and the center of a renewed Jewish people today in the wake of the Holocaust. Indeed, Palestinian negotiators seem to deny that Jews constitute a people at all.

Combining this with the demand that anyone claiming to be a descendant of a Palestinian who left what is now Israel should be allowed to return confirms that the Palestinian strategy is indeed to snuff out the Jewish state demographically, turning Israel into a second Palestinian state alongside the one to be created in Gaza and the West Bank.

Hamas, classified by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden and has categorically rejected any acceptance of Israel. Coming at a time when the Palestinian Authority is allied with Hamas, passage of a U.N. resolution backing the creation of a Palestinian state could put an abrupt end to any hope for the resumption of peace talks with Israel. It also could reverse Palestinian economic progress by triggering a cutoff of the annual $400 million that the Palestinian Authority gets in American aid and possibly lead to violence in the West Bank when the Palestinians realize that an empty U.N. declaration makes not an iota of difference to the situation on the ground.

In their quest for unilateral statehood, the Palestinians themselves are deeply divided in the vision of their future state. The Fatah faction sees itself as part of a secular Arab world, whereas Hamas envisions an Islamic Palestinian state. The U.N. vote could well create a Palestinian crisis resulting in a destructive civil conflict — a conflict that could spread into Israel, Jordan and other neighboring Middle East states.

While it is tempting to imagine that the United Nations can magically create a Palestinian state, only a return to the peace table and negotiations with Israel can do that. While it may take a little longer, a settlement reached that way is the only kind that can last, preparing the groundwork for an agreement whereby a new Palestinian state and the existing Jewish state agree to an end of the conflict. Once such a deal is reached, Israel should be the first to propose U.N. membership for the democratic and peace-loving Republic of Palestine.

(Mervyn Danker is the regional director of the American Jewish Committee’s Northern California office.)

China announces support for Palestinian UN statehood bid

China says it supports a Palestinian plan to seek full membership in the United Nations next month.

Negotiations with Israel on the terms of Palestinian statehood have been frozen since 2008. As an alternative, the Palestinians have decided to seek UN recognition of an independent “Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

The Netanyahu government adamantly opposes the Palestinian efforts to seek UN membership without a negotiated peace agreement with Israel, but many countries around the world have already promised Palestinian leaders diplomatic support for the venture.

China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday that Wu Sike, its special envoy on the Middle East, told Palestinian leaders in a meeting in Ramallah that Beijing and the Chinese people have always supported the Palestinian cause.


Events Calendar: September 2011


Based on a true story, this heartwarming (and tear-jerking) play follows six women who gather at Truvy’s beauty salon in Chinquapin, La., to gossip, tease, laugh, fight, cajole and comfort each other through life’s joys and challenges. Starring Bonnie Franklin, Clarinda Ross and Stephanie Zimbalist. Runs through Sept. 18. 8 p.m. $39-$59. Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. (805) 667-2900. ” title=””>


Remember the victims of Sept. 11 and honor the troops through this program that will include patriotic music; keynote remarks by Lt. John McCole, a New York firefighter; tributes to the military, law enforcement and fire department; a flyover; and the sixth annual Simi Valley Freedom Walk (free shuttles will return participants to their cars). 4:30 p.m. (musical performances), 5 p.m. (program), 5:45 p.m. (freedom walk). Free (registration recommended). Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley. (805) 522-2977. ” title=””>


Get ready for the High Holy Days with this two-part Melton adult school class. Learn the “why to” rather than the “how to.” The first class (Sept. 13) focuses on Rosh Hashanah;  the second class (Sept. 20) looks at Yom Kippur. Sponsored by the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. 9:30-11 a.m. $10 (per class). Temple Aliyah, 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 346-0811. ” title=””>

The compelling and moving 2010 musical documentary highlights the current resurgence of Jewish culture in Poland through the personal reflections and musical selections of a group of cantors and acclaimed composer Charles Fox (“Killing Me Softly,” “I Got a Name”), who made an important historical mission to the birthplace of cantorial music. After the film, stay for a panel discussion that includes the film’s producer. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800. ” title=””>


Check out more than 60 visual art exhibitors, interactive exhibits for children, live performances, refreshments and more. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and The Lakes, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. ” title=””>

The Los Angeles Jewish Home gala brings the community together for a special dinner honoring Eleanore and Harold Foonberg (Lifetime Achievement Award) and Barbara and Arnold Price (Humanitarian Award). Featuring entertainment by Frank Sinatra Jr. 5:30 p.m. (cocktails), 6:30 p.m. (dinner). Beverly Wilshire Hotel, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (818) 774-3332. ” title=””>


NBC 4’s Fritz Coleman entertains at Brandeis Conejo Valley Chapter’s annual membership luncheon and boutique. The organization raises funds for medical research for Brandeis University. 10 a.m. $70. North Ranch Country Club, 4761 Valley Spring Drive, Westlake Village. (805) 388-0579.

Netanyahu: Israel could support Palestinian state before September under right conditions

Israel could support a Palestinian state before September under the right conditions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Thursday.

Addressing a Palestinian plan to bring the issue of an independent Palestinian state forward at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Netanyahu said many things could be passed by the UN.

“They could say that Bin Laden is the hero of mankind and pass that too…” Netanyahu said. “But the leading countries, like the US, and now Britain and France all say they expect those who want peace with Israel need to recognize Israel. This is elementary.”


September is a struggle for interfaith families

Months before the High Holidays arrive, Patrick Patterson requests the days off for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from his job as a firefighter/paramedic with the Los Angeles City Fire Department. A few days before, he reviews the entire High Holiday machzor, or prayer book, so that he feels familiar with the services and, especially, with the Hebrew prayers, which he reads in transliteration.

During the worship services themselves, which he attends at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, he pays close attention, taking the prayers and the rabbis’ sermons to heart.

On Yom Kippur he fasts.

Patterson, 56 and living in Encino, is not Jewish and has no intention of converting. He can’t embrace Catholicism, the religion of his childhood, but he also can’t envision giving up saying prayers to Jesus. Nevertheless, he has openly and enthusiastically accepted the traditions of Judaism and has taken the Stephen S. Wise 10-week Holiday Workshop class.

“I have a strong sense of faith and a strong sense of family unity,” he said, referring to his Jewish wife, his three Jewish stepchildren and his own two children, whom he is raising Jewish.

But not all interfaith families incorporate the High Holidays into their lives so smoothly. For starters, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, unlike Chanukah and Passover, are not home-based holidays that can be celebrated creatively and confined within a family’s religious comfort zone.

“At Chanukah, you can delight in kindling the menorah, but the High Holidays are truly a full day of fixed liturgy that, the truth is, is a difficult one to follow even for many Jews,” said Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Culver City’s Temple Akiba, a Reform synagogue with a large percentage of interfaith families among their 300 or so family member units.

Plus, there are no equivalent holidays in Christianity, and the religious concepts of tefillah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteousness) are often foreign to the non-Jewish spouse. Additionally, a non-Jew is often uncomfortable asking for time off from work for the day for a holiday that is not his or her own, or unwilling to sit through a lengthy service, much of it in Hebrew. This is sometimes an even bigger issue when the Jewish partner rarely attends synagogue but is adamant about showing up to High Holiday services.

And sometimes the interfaith couple simply does not feel accepted.

Judi Brooks Johnson, 50, who identifies as a cultural Jew, would like to attend High Holiday services this year with her husband, an African American who was raised Christian, and their 10-year-old daughter. She has been visiting some synagogue open houses in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, but she is not optimistic.

“It’s difficult to find a place where we can worship when people are not welcoming of my husband,” the Burbank resident said.

For certain, she plans to join her extended family in Los Angeles for Rosh Hashanah dinner and Yom Kippur break-the-fast, and she and her husband will use those opportunities to talk about the holidays with their daughter and nieces. “My husband actually embraces the Old Testament, and he was taught well. We enjoy having wonderful discussions about values and teachings,” Brooks Johnson said.

Still, with intermarriage rates rising in the non-Orthodox Jewish community and with about 31 percent of all Jews who are currently married involved in interfaith marriages, according the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, Jewish synagogues and institutions are eagerly reaching out to interfaith families.

For the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship, the High Holidays often feel like the flip side of the December dilemma, according to Arlene Chernow, regional director of outreach and synagogue community for the Union of Reform Judaism’s Pacific Southwest and Northwest Councils.

“They feel like the whole world is participating in something that they don’t understand,” she said.

Chernow refers the non-Jewish person to two resources which, she pointed out, are helpful even to those born Jewish. One is “Celebrations! A Parent’s Guide,” a booklet put out by the Temple Israel of Hollywood Outreach Committee. It’s targeted for parents of preschoolers but serves as a basic primer on holiday themes, rituals, foods and activities for all parents. Additionally, Chernow recommends “The High Holy Days” brochure created by the Outreach Committee of Phoenix’s Temple Chai.

At the University of Judaism, Rabbi Neal Weinberg devotes one four-hour session of his Introduction to Judaism class to the High Holidays, explaining the liturgy and customs. In this year’s class on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, held in early September, he explained the difference between the Christian concept of unconditional love, which mandates that people be automatically forgiven, with the Jewish concept of justice, which insists that individuals be held accountable for their actions.

“Jews don’t have love and hate,” he explained to his class. “We have love and injustice.”

Grenda Guilfoil, 42, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, struggled with the idea that you cannot forgive someone who does not ask to be forgiven. Still, she felt that the session was helpful, especially in terms of dealing with religious concepts and rituals, such as blowing the shofar. She plans to attend High Holiday services at Sinai Temple in Westwood with her Jewish significant other, Richard David, 47, who is taking the Introduction to Judaism class with her.

“But it’s not only going to services themselves. It’s the family rituals also, like lunch at Richard’s mother’s house, that add a whole other level of newness that I’m being introduced to,” Guilfoil said.

Michael Hudson, 51, a Jew-by-choice, has no extended Jewish family.
“I frankly have to make that commitment on my own,” he said. An African American, Hudson was raised United Methodist and, after a lengthy spiritual search, converted to Judaism in 1994. His wife is a practicing Catholic, as are his two young adult children.

Hudson’s Jewish family consists of friends from his job at the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he serves as a labor relations representative, and from his synagogue, Temple Akiba, where he sings in the choir and serves as vice president of religious practices. Hudson will participate in all Temple Akiba services as a choir member. He has no plans for Rosh Hashanah lunch or dinner, but he will attend a Yom Kippur break-the-fast at a friend’s house, where his family will join him.

Uncommon Journeys

Excerpted from "Common Prayers: Faith, Family and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year" by Harvey Cox. (Houghton Mifflin, $24).

It is September. The trees are in full leaf, and here and there a splash of amber or scarlet presages the foliage feast to come. The air has a bite; the atmosphere crackles. Energy is high. Children have returned from camp suntanned and taller. Back-to-school sales are under way. It is a time of year fairly popping with new beginnings. But before they officially ring out the old and ring in the new, most people will have to wait until the end of December. And it will happen during the darkest days of winter, crammed into an already crowded "holiday season.

For those attuned to the Jewish calendar, however, which follows the lunar rather the solar cycles, early autumn is precisely when the new year does begin. It would be nice to think that the rabbis took all these seasonal and psychological elements into consideration when they set the date, but I doubt it. Predictably, there were centuries in which Jewish authorities differed over when the new year should begin. Their argument, recounted in the Talmud, goes back to a more basic dispute about when the world itself was created. Was it in the Jewish month of Nisan, the one in which Passover falls? Or was it in Tishrei, which comes in the fall? The debate was eventually settled that, in effect, both parties were right, and some different "new years" in the Jewish calendar. The first day of Nisan is used as a year marker for the length of a king’s reign (although admittedly there are not many kings — let alone Jewish kings — in business nowadays.) It is also the new year for months. The month of Elul is used for counting the age of animals. The fifteenth of Shuvat is the new year for trees. But Tishrei marks the creation of the world and is the new year for years, so that is when the Jewish New Year’s Rosh Hashana falls.

This may sound unnecessarily confusing to those of us who are used to taking up a new calendar, popping a bottle of champagne, singing "Auld Lang Syne," and putting the wrong date on checks during January. But I rather like the idea that for Jews, the matter of exactly when the new year begins — like so much else in their tradition — was never definitely settled. Not only does the coming of the "new year of years" in September cohere well with the way many people live their lives, but the implication that there are different kinds of new years for the flora and fauna also makes sense. It reminds us (though this may not have been the original intent) that poodles and ostriches, scrub oaks and long needle pines, may live in cycles that are different from those of human being. Why should they all be squeezed into our human calendar? But I have learned something even more elemental from Rosh Hashana, something that is at the same time both unnerving and heartening. I have learned that it is a holiday about life and death.

The truth is, I have always found something acutely unsatisfying about the way most Christians and nonreligious gentiles and non-observant Jews commemorate the New Year. As a child I looked forward to being allowed to stay up until midnight on December 31. The next morning, while my parents slept late, I found the silly hats and noisemakers they had brought home from their merry-making the night before. In my later youth I looked forward to the dancing and singing and — to a limited extent — the drinking.

But all along I felt there was something missing. It seemed to me there should be another dimension to the coming of a new year, something that was being overlooked or even avoided. As I got older, I came to recognize that what was being left out was the apprehensiveness, even trepidation, that gnaws at each of us with the realization that our time is limited, another year has passed, and a new one is beginning. If only to ourselves, we inevitably ask some difficult questions. What does the new year really hold for us? Will it be just another 12 months or could it be my last year?

New Year’s Day is simply not on the Christian calendar, and as far as I know, only a few Methodists still celebrate the custom of a Watch Night service on New Year’s Eve. I think this is a loss for us all. Human beings need rituals as punctuation marks. They signal changes in our lives and allow us to become more fully aware of them. Some are relatively minor changes, marked by commas and periods. Others like new paragraphs, demarcate new but still relatively minor changes. New chapters, however, cue us that something more significant is beginning. Maybe that is why the medieval monks illuminated the first letter of each chapter in the manuscripts they copied with elaborate curlicues and gold dust. The coming of a new year is definitely a new chapter. This is why clinking glasses and cheering the descending ball in Times Square does not speak to the powerful mixed feelings New Year’s Eve evokes.

Early in the twentieth century a German philosopher named Rudolf Otto published an influential book, later translated into English as The Idea of the Holy. In it he suggest that the original impetus for all religions comes from what he called — in a phrase that has become commonplace to theologians — the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The holy, he says, awakens in us both a trembling shudder at its uncanniness, and a sense of fascination with its beauty and seductiveness. For thousands of years the different religious traditions have grappled with ways to do justice to both these dimensions, and they have devised a variety of patterns. In the bible, the anxious shudder is evoked by "the wrath of God." Those familiar with Buddhist iconography will recognize it in the so-called dreadful and grotesque deities that are especially evident in Tibetan iconography, although this dark side of that tradition is not often mentioned in the gentle version purveyed by the Dalai Lama. In Hinduism, the malicious face of the divine can be seen in the figure of Kali, with her belt of dismembered arms and her necklaces of skulls.

Of course, no religion leaves it at that. Each also has its way of projecting the merciful, benevolent — even approachable and loving side of the holy. But one reason that so many people see contemporary American versions of Judaism and Christianity as shallow is that the fascinans side has completely overwhelmed the trememdum side. A few years ago Cheryl Bridges Johns, an American theologian and religious educator, took a year off to visit churches throughout the United States in order to appraise the health of religion at the grass-roots level. What she found discouraged her. She discovered what seemed almost to be a conspiracy across denominational and even interfaith lines to remold God into the most pleasant and obliging deity imaginable.

The Yahweh who thundered from Mount Sinai, drowned the Egyptian army, and who the prophet Amos says will bring destruction upon "who oppress the helpless and grind down the poor" has disappeared from altar and pulpit. Both churches and synagogues have tried to devise a "user-friendly" God. Indeed, some of the most successful "mega churches" now plan their services, music, and preaching on the basis of market surveys.

But this presents a problem. When tremendum is short-circuited, the fascinan also seems to fade away. It is hard to imagine anyone shuddering in the presence of the God of American cultural religion today. But this oh-so-nice God does not seem to evoke much passionate affection either.

Still, the shudder persists, if somewhat muted. For example, Jewish religious leaders often speculate on why, even though weekly synagogue attendance is usually low in America, their buildings are full to overflowing on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Indeed it comes as a surprise to anyone with a Jewish spouse to discover that one has to get tickets in advance for the high holiday services or no seat will be available. Why the crowds? Some observers point out that Judaism actually has two calendars. The first is the annual one, which includes all the holidays. The second one is based on the individual’s own life cycle, which encompasses birth (and circumcision), coming of age (bar and bat mitzvah) marriage, and death. In an individualistic society like our own, life-cycle rituals loom much larger than the prescribed annual holidays. Then why such a crowd at Rosh Hashana? I think it is because, for many people, the start of a new year is not just a collective event, it is also a pivotal road mark in their own lives. But I think there is something else in the picture as well: the Rosh Hashana ritual itself. It strikes exactly the right note to resonate with the mixed feelings that well up in most of us when an old year ends and a new one begins.

"Judaismis a religion of life against death," Rabbi Irving Greenberg says in "The Jewish Way." Even the most uninformed Gentiles often recognize this. However dimly, they know that Jews have survived more threats to their individual and corporate existence, and for more centuries, than any other people. Someone once referred to Jews as "the always dying out race." Their disappearance has been confidently predicted time after time, most often by their enemies, but sometimes even by Jews themselves. Yet, after thousands of years filled with perils and pogroms, and even after the Nazi’s attempt to murder them all, Jews are alive and well. It could even be argued that at the end of the century that treated them most harshly, most Jews are thriving today more vigorously than at any time since the halcyon days of David and Solomon. They still bury their would-be pallbearers and still stubbornly offer toasts to life, "l’chaim." As even the most casual observer has to admit with some degree of puzzlement, they must be doing something right.

An outsider participating in Jewish religious life soon learns that the way Jews affirm life is not by denying death but by facing it down. The Rosh Hashana ritual takes the form of dramatic confrontation with death and mortality. This happens in part through a carefully staged courtroom drama in which God is the judge, and everyone who comes before his presence is being tried for his or her life. In fact, to my astonishment, according to one Jewish prayer book, even the "hosts of heaven" are called to account at this time. Nobody, human or angel, escapes this sweeping indictment. In the end, life and mercy win out over death and judgment, but the Rosh Hashana liturgy is designed to elicit the same cold dread anyone would feel in a human courtroom under such formidable circumstances.

The trial actually goes on for days and ends only on Yom Kippur, a week and a half after Rosh Hashana, when the verdict is finally announced. But getting to that final acquittal is not easy. Between the two come what are called yamim noraim, the Days of Awe. During these 10 days the defendants must undergo the most intensive sort of self-scrutiny, reviewing a year’s deeds and misdeeds, both major and minor. They must ask forgiveness from anyone they have wronged and — when possible — make restitution. God, the tradition says, forgives only the sins we commit against him, not those committed against other people. The objective is to move the soul to teshuvah, "repentance." The symbolism states that throughout the trial, God is pondering whether to inscribe our names in the Book of Life or in the Book of Death. The hope is that, having undergone such a rigorous moral inventory, the new year can begin with a
clean slate.

The concept of taking a personal moral inventory has become familiar to millions of people who are not Jewish and may never have heard of Rosh Hashana. It is one of the first and most basic steps one is required to take in a "12-step program," like Alcoholics Anonymous or Alanon. Scholars estimate that one out of every four adult Americans is involved in a "support group," many of which use the moral inventory approach. Christians who were raised with some exposure to the traditions of pietism and revivalism will sense something familiar about the Days of Awe. None of it should be particularly surprising, since the Christian tradition of setting aside certain days and seasons for self-examination and penitence are adaptations of earlier Jewish traditions, and the 12-step programs evolved from the Oxford Group Movement, an evangelical Christian enterprise. The Days of Awe have shaped modern culture much more than most Jews realize.

As Rosh Hashana ebbs, everyone anticipates the unearthly blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is sounded several times during the Days of Awe. It emits a strange sound, like nothing one hears anywhere else in modern life. It seems to cut through the buzz and static to what must be a primitive part of the brain. But why does it pierce so deeply? The answer given by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, one of the last of the great Hasidic teachers (he died in 1905), makes sense to me.

"The shofar blasts," he said, "are sounds without speech. Speech represents the division of sound into varied and separate movements of the mouth. But sound itself is one, united, cleaving to its source. On Rosh Hashana the life force cleaves to its source, as it was before differentiation or division. And we, too, seek to attach ourselves to that inner flow of life." Commenting on this interpretation, Rabbi Arthur Green says, "The sound of the shofar takes us to that moment of outcry from deep within, to a place prior to the division of our heart’s cry into the many words of prayer."

But for me there is another reason that the shofar slices the air and stabs the soul. It signals, as nothing else does, the chasm between the past and the future. It splits time in two. As the old year fades and the new one begins, we realize that the old one is gone forever and that, try as we will, we can never know what lies ahead. The shofar, since it is wordless, can both scream in terror and shout for joy with the same breath. Nothing else is worthy of the beginning of a whole new year in the only life we will ever have.