Jewish Journal

“We” Judaism

by Marlene Adler Marks

Posted on Oct. 4, 2001 at 8:00 pm

NOW THAT THE HIGH HOLY days are over, we can begin to appreciate how the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington may alter American Jewish life.

Like the rest of America we are stunned. Grieving. Angry. Afraid.

The enormity of loss cast a dark spiritual shadow across the holiest days of our calendar. History may record that in this catastrophe, American Jews are finding a new solace in community, bending the wounded self into the arms of the whole. We have come to a juncture; the end of "Me" Judaism and the return, however temporarily, to the Judaism of "We."

The synagogue crowds were large as always, solemn as always, on the days of reflection. But the way we crowded in, huddling together, grasping each others' hands for psychic comfort and hope, was distinct, abiding, old-fashioned yet new.

You could see it in the extended hugs, and the extended tears, and the extended silence. We were like survivors of a shipwreck, clinging to each other. In my synagogue in Malibu, Rabbi Judith HaLevy brought us to a full 10 minutes in silence at each prayer service. Being together in stillness calmed the beast of revenge, and gave shape to grief, a name to fear.

I kept thinking of my grandfather and what it might have been like to worship with him at the turbulent turn of the last century. Like the immigrants who grasped hard to community to steady them after the rocky Atlantic crossing, we too are finding in the group, and in each other, a firming grip against hard times.

Grandpa had something I rarely experienced before last week: "Kahal," community, not a pool and a basketball court, but a common purpose. My prayer book constantly reminded me, we pray for Jews and for "all who live in the world." Kahal gives direction to individual efforts. It transforms "Me" into "We."

Baby Boomers have been notoriously anti-community, challenging its voracious appeals for money, its bureaucracy and cliquishness. Yet as Baby Boomers and their children came back to Judaism, we had our own rapacious needs. We regarded the synagogue and the Jewish community as service providers for our own private demands. We needed daycare, yoga classes, spiritual uplift. And we got them.

These programs, and I for one participated in them all, made the community a much livelier, contemporary place. But there's little doubt that they reversed the order of the Jewish universe.

The community revolved around the individual, rather than vice versa, which is, as Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch would put it, how God intended Jewish life to be.

It's amazing how fast the roles reversed in these past weeks. My puny problems and desires disappeared when those planes filled with innocent civilians crashed into the New York skyline. Death does not discriminate between the mighty and the weak, the rich and the poor, listeners to NPR and Rush Limbaugh.

Last week, we kept telling ourselves how lucky we are.

Lucky to be together.

Lucky to be alive.

Lucky to be Americans. Lucky to be Jews, with a set of rituals that gave us a tangible job to do.

The nameless suicide bombers left 6,000 dead in mass graves. This fact alone -- the lack of bodies over which to mourn -- was tragically, obscenely familiar. It created in many of us a profound spiritual disturbance, what might be called the Holocaust effect.

We were there to say "Kaddish" for the 6,000, as we have mourned the 6 million. Lucky to feel useful.

I read the confessional prayers and noticed, as if for the first time, that they are written in the plural: "We have sinned. We have dealt falsely."

Not me. We.

The reliance on the group, which once felt so stultifying, denying of my very originality, now seemed in fine balance. I must start with myself to bring peace to the world. But it will be easier if we join together.

This week I could feel the shift, the turning of the axis.

I am not the center upon which the community revolves, as Copernicus would have it. I have a community, and at the very least, we revolve around each other.

How long will this other-directedness last? If aggression against our nation persists, perhaps indefinitely. We will rebuild, perhaps, our programs of social action and international response. We will move beyond anger into justice. Beyond "Me" into "We."

In hard times, spiritual needs get redefined. Community will be one of them.

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