Sorry New York Times, You Actually DO Have to Be Jewish to Celebrate Rosh Hashana
Bari Weiss is one of my favorite New York Times editorial staffers, which isn’t necessarily saying much, but does say something. I hope saying it publicly won’t damage her career there.
It was terrific to see a recent New York Times piece under her byline extolling the virtues of Rosh Hashana. The article, like many of Weiss’s philosemitic pieces for the Times, ran online only, not in the print paper.
But even the best writers sometimes misfire. The Weiss article, which appeared under the headline “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Celebrate Rosh Hashana,” seemed to me, notwithstanding all its fine qualities, to err in emphasizing the universal aspects of the Jewish New Year holiday at the expense of the particular ones.
Touting Rosh Hashana to gentiles, Weiss writes, “I am also convinced that you don’t need to be a member of the tribe to appreciate the existential message of this holy day. If you crave an anti-new year New Year, consider adopting Rosh Hashana as your own.”
She starts out by touting the food and the sound of the shofar. But Christmas and Easter have good food, too. Church bells ringing and the muezzin’s call to prayer from a mosque also resonate. Then Weiss moves on to how the holiday can lead to self-improvement and the repair of interpersonal relationships.
That’s all well and good. My complaint is that there are other aspects of the holiday — important aspects — that Weiss ignores. The Torah reading in synagogue for the first day of Rosh Hashana tells the story of Abraham circumcising his son Isaac. Ritual circumcision is by no means widely popular among non-Jews. The Torah reading for the second day tells the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, an act of faith in God that defies ready rational explanation but that, in the biblical telling, earns Abraham and his offspring a divine blessing.
The Rosh Hashana liturgy goes on after the Torah reading to appeal to God to remember the binding of Isaac. At one climactic moment, there is a blessing for God “who remembers the covenant.” Another blessing refers to God hearing the shofar sounds of “his people Israel.” The shofar is associated in the Talmud with the horn of the ram that was sacrificed in the place of Isaac.
There’s a long-running conflict between Jews and Christians over who are the rightful heirs to the Abrahamic covenant. Jews say we are. Christians say they are. The Albert List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, Jon D. Levenson, wrote an entire excellent book about this, titled Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It came out in 2012 from Princeton University Press as part of the Library of Jewish Ideas series cosponsored by the Tikvah Fund, and it was, predictably, not reviewed by the New York Times. It’s a complicated story, but the Christian Bible, in Galatians 3:29, puts it this way, quoting the apostle Paul: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
As Levenson explains this Christian contention in his book: “Conversion to Christianity (to use terminology that did not exist in Paul’s time), then, gives Gentiles the status that Jews claimed for themselves: it makes them descendants of Abraham and thus heirs to the promise given him. It does this, moreover, while bypassing the laws of Moses and even the law of circumcision.”
In claiming “you don’t need to be a member of the tribe to appreciate the existential message of this holy day,” Weiss in my view skates uncomfortably close to the view expressed by Paul in Galatians 3:29.
After all, a key part of the “existential message of the holy day,” is that the Jews are God’s people, the heirs of God’s covenant with Abraham. That’s why we’re blowing a ram’s horn and not a trumpet, why we are reading Torah portions about circumcision and the binding of Isaac, and why we’re praying to God who “remembers the covenant.” To “celebrate” that and “appreciate” it, being Jewish may not be an absolute requirement, but it sure helps an awful lot.
Without all those elements, one is left with good food, musical sound and ethical behavior. Those three things shouldn’t be underestimated. If gentiles can appreciate them as part of Rosh Hashana as Weiss suggests, great. But the holiday also has a covenantal core that the Times piece neglects. Without it, people may celebrate a Jewish new year, but risk missing an important part of the holiday’s Jewish message.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.