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Reclaiming the prophetic voice at Rosh Hashana

This High Holy Day season, Jewish leaders need to address the issues of our day

Thousands of Israelis march to Jerusalem in protest of plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jerusalem, July 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

September 1, 2023

By Dov Linzer

(RNS) — The countdown is already underway to Rosh Hashana — New Year’s Day on the Jewish calendar, which, in 2023, falls on Sept. 15, ushering in the year 5784.

This countdown is a daunting one for congregational rabbis, who will be pressed over the next two weeks to compose soul-stirring sermons from the pulpit. As the leader of a rabbinical school, the approach of the High Holy Days is another kind of call to action. My yeshiva, a 24-year-old institution dedicated to training the next generation of Orthodox rabbis, is built on the belief that religious leaders have a duty both to their studies and to society. This Rosh Hashana, coming when the country seems to be on the verge of descending into tohu va’vohu — primordial chaos — it is incumbent on Jewish leaders to speak up about the issues of the day.

Never before have those issues been more urgent — a deeply polarized America, an Israel threatened with the loss of its democratic soul, the rapidly accelerating climate crisis, the rise of hatred and intolerance, antisemitism and poisonous sentiments given free expression on social media. For those in the pulpit of a synagogue and in other positions of religious leadership, passivity and silence are not options. Neglecting to speak out against this multitude of dangerous events and ideologies is a grave sin of omission.

Many Jews attending High Holy Days celebrations say that politics should be kept out of synagogues, and while I agree, I am also conscious that the Torah, its religious mandates and its moral imperatives have much to say about the urgent problems that face us. What does the Torah say about the values we should bring to bear? Our responsibility to the planet? To civil discourse and the honest search for truth? To minorities and marginalized groups?

If the Torah only guides our congregations in our ritual lives, if it only addresses our internal communal realities and no more, then we as religious leaders will fail. We will fail our communities and we will have failed the Torah. We will have made the Torah small and parochial when it is (and needs to be) expansive and global.

Jewish tradition speaks of two figures: the prophet and the sage. The prophet envisions a more perfect world and sees all too clearly the shortcomings of our current reality. He often fails because he lives too much in his own vision, in this idealized future world. He provides no practical guidance on how to move forward in the messy reality that is our lives, our lived world.

The sage, on the other hand, is focused on the present. He knows that often we are faced with competing values and competing moral mandates. The beauty of Torah and halakha (Jewish law) is that it embraces complexity, it provides us with a lens through which to see the world as well as a toolkit to build a better future.

What we need now are prophetic sages — leaders who will draw upon our profound and nuanced tradition to prod and inspire us; who will show us how to navigate through our contentious, conflictual world with a vision and passion that is grounded in reality. As Jews, as Americans, as human beings, we simply do not have the luxury of retreating from what we see happening around us.

To those preaching this month, I urge you to bring your Torah out of the study hall and into the town square. Find your prophetic voice. Bring your gift of sight to lend insight to the problem … which is the first step toward finding a solution.

After all, the Rosh Hashana prayer service reminds us, “HaYom harat Olam,” today the Earth was born. Whether one cleaves to this statement as literal truth or understands it metaphorically, what a profound notion it is that we have the power to make this Rosh Hashanah the birth of the renewal of our Earth, repaired, perfected, Godly.

(Rabbi Dov Linzer is president and the Norman and Tova Bulow Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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