Is Lone-Wolf Judaism a Thing?

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My new blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Howard Roark wasn’t Jewish, but his creator was.

Roark was the protagonist of Ayn Rand‘s 1949 novel The Fountainhead. An architect who wouldn’t compromise his ideals or his integrity, he declared that independence from other people was the hallmark of personal worth:

“Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself; not what he has or hasn’t done for others. There is no substitute for personal dignity. There is no standard of personal dignity except independence.”1

Born in Russia in 1905, Rand and her family were persecuted by the Communist government after the 1917 revolution. When she got a chance in 1926 to emigrate to the United States, she took it. Reacting against the Soviet Union’s collectivism, she went to the opposite extreme. She argued that individualism and personal self-interest were the basis of morality. She denied any individual responsibility for the good of others or the welfare of the community.

Where does Judaism sit on the spectrum between individualism and collectivism? Can you be a faithful Jew as a “lone wolf,” or do you need to be part of a Jewish community?

It seems to me that the answers are: yes, and yes.

It’s possible to be a faithful Jew all by yourself. However, if you’re part of a community, it’s easier and you can do a better job of it.

Alone, you can say most of the prayers. You can do your best to live morally and to respect God. But if you do only that, you neglect the duties and miss the benefits of participation.

The Talmud says that “all Jews are responsible for one another.”2 Traditionally, that means each of us is responsible not only for our own behavior, but for that of all other Jews.

There are also benefits that we can’t get if we remain alone. Participation in communal worship helps to strengthen our ability to live by our ideals. Psychologists call it “sensory pageantry:” music, sound, ritual, repeated physical actions, and repeated spoken declarations reinforce our moral commitment.

Likewise, interaction with other members of the community gives us feedback about our own ideas and behavior. It’s easy – too easy — for us to rationalize doing things we want that are morally dubious. Other people can provide us with checks on our own thoughts and behavior:

  • Moral accountability: Are we doing the right things, not just according to us, but according to other people? We are never unbiased about our own actions and motivations. Neither are other people, but they can often be less biased about our actions than we are.
  • Intellectual accountability: Do our ideas make sense? Naturally, they make sense to us, but do they make sense to anyone else? We seldom see the flaws in our own arguments and opinions.
  • Social accountability: Are we fulfilling our responsibilities to other people and to the community as a whole? Or are we too easily letting ourselves off the hook?

As members of a community, we also naturally care about what other people think of us. Very few of us, if any, can be totally indifferent to the respect or disapproval of others. That doesn’t seem very strong or individualistic. However, contrary to what you might think, it’s a good thing. As they say in the computer business, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

Suppose that you’re tempted to cheat on your spouse. Ideally, you’ll choose not to do it because you know that it’s morally wrong; but we’re not ideal people. We have an impulse to evil along with our impulse to good. If all you can depend on are your own conscience and will power, then you can be defeated by rationalization and the desire to do what you want. In a community, you have a backup team to strengthen your conscience: “What if someone sees me? What would they think? Would they tell my spouse? What if it got back to the other members of the synagogue?”

Of course, it’s best if we do the right thing for the right reasons. However, doing the right thing for less admirable reasons is better than doing the wrong thing. Just as you are responsible for other Jews, they are responsible for you. They’re your backup and you are theirs. Alexander Pope identified the issue very clearly:

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

So if you want, or if you must, you can be a lone wolf. But you’ll be missing a lot.

Footnotes


  1. Rand, A. ( ), The Fountainhead. New York: Penguin Group LLC. Kindle edition, loc. 15429. 
  2. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b. 
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Chaos and Creation, from Genesis to Today

galaxy-nasa-photo

My new blog post for The Jewish Journal:

You might not expect it, but the very first words of the Torah explain how social change works.

The most familiar English rendering is “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

That’s a literal translation of Genesis 1:1: Be reshit bara Elohim et ha shamayim ve et ha aretz. The Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 English-language edition of the Tanakh used it. It suggests that God created the universe “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. It’s the traditional understanding of the text.

Zev Farber, editor of TheTorah.com, shows in a recent article that alternative translations make a lot of difference.

He first points out Rashi’s argument that “be reishit” is better translated as “In the beginning of …”. In that case, Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth.” That doesn’t imply creation out of nothing.

Similarly, the Targum Yerushalmi notes that the root of “reishit” is “rosh,” which means head or mind. That yields an informative gloss on God’s act of creation: “With wisdom, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Neither interpretation assumes that God created the world out of nothing. And the strongest evidence for both interpretations is not textual, but contextual.

First, Genesis describes the primordial world as unformed and void, as containing “darkness” and “the deep.” An alternative translation of “unformed and void” (tohu ve bohu) is “welter and waste,” which connotes emptiness and futility. All of those things symbolized evil to cultures in the time and place of the ancient Israelites. God removed that evil with His creative acts.

Second, the idea of pre-existing chaos on which God imposed order is found in other creation stories from that time and place, such as the Enuma Elish, of which the Biblical writers knew. To the ancients, imposing order meant both to separate things from each other (for example, “God separated the light from the darkness”) and to name them (“God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night”). Naming things was also an aspect of creating them: “In the ancient world, something came into existence when it was separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name.”

If God created the world by imposing order on chaos, then what can it tell us about social change?

In 1955, Rosa Parks lived in a Montgomery, Alabama social order that systematically discriminated against African-Americans. That order had existed for a long time, and even people who thought it was wrong didn’t believe they had any way to change it.

Order in itself is not a bad thing: it is, as Simone Weil wrote, “the first need of all.” But as long as order remains undisturbed and in place, it’s very hard to change.

To change an existing order, you need chaos. Small changes require only a little chaos. Big changes require a lot.

Riding a bus home from her job at a local department store, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. By that act, she became an agent of chaos.

She wasn’t alone in her struggle, but her courage helped spark the chaos that led to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As a result, African-Americans were granted equal legal rights and were freed of many gratuitous humiliations and disadvantages.

Whether the chaos was good or bad, inspiring or ugly, depended on your viewpoint.

Many ordinary people felt that they benefited from the old order. They saw marches, protests, and occasional riots as leading to nothing but more chaos and destruction. African-Americans who were disadvantaged by the old order naturally saw the chaos as a good thing, as leading to the creation of a fairer and more just society. A few far-sighted people, including many Jews, shared the vision of a new order that would arise from the chaos. Some even gave their lives in support of it.

The pattern is plain. When an old order prevents needed changes, a little chaos can shake it loose. That opens up the possibility of change.

Not all change is good change. That’s what makes chaos scary, apart from the fact that it’s inherently destructive. Will the destruction be followed by construction of something more positive? During the chaos, we don’t know.

In the best case, chaos is followed by constructive change that is – as Genesis 1:31 says – “very good.”

Today, we also face an unsettling amount of chaos. Will it be destructive or constructive? Whether he is a hero, a villain, or neither, Donald Trump is an agent of chaos. His victory against opposition by almost the entire governmental, political, and media establishment proves that democracy can still work in America.

And that means something very important: what happens now depends at least partly on us.

If we can accept our fellow Americans as legitimate partners in the democratic process, set aside bitterness, and care more about what’s good for the country than about making sure “our side” wins every dispute, then we can – “with wisdom” – help create a new order that is very good.

It’s not guaranteed. But if it’s going to happen, it’s up to us.

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Do You Want to Believe?

graphic-01-newrepublic

My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

After a bitterly divisive election season, there’s one question on everyone’s mind:

“How can people possibly believe that?”

What “that” is depends on who’s doing the talking. It means one thing to Trump supporters, something else to Clinton supporters, and who knows what to third-party supporters.

We all have friends who believe things that seem crazy, but we don’t think our friends are crazy. So we’re completely baffled. Are the people who disagree with us ignorant? Stupid? Hyper-emotional? Or – this seems to be the favorite – are they just plain evil?

It’s usually none of those things. The true answer is simpler and more innocent.

People adopt beliefs based on several factors. If those factors are different, then the people tend to adopt different beliefs.

In 2016 America, those factors differ a lot – by region, economic class, ethnicity, social circles, information sources, and life experiences. Differences in those factors lead people to different beliefs.

Even biology gets into the act, since we now know that different political attitudes often go with minor differences in the structure and function of our brains. The differences show up mainly in emotion and intuition, which influence our political and moral judgments.

America’s dominant political and moral culture is WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). WEIRD people’s moral reasoning tends to be abstract, utilitarian, and universalist. As a result, writes psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “the WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.”

However, millions of people – perhaps half of Americans, to judge by the election – are less WEIRD. They accept utilitarian and universalist ideas, but also value loyalty, respect for authority, respect for the sacred, individual liberty, and support for the common good. Sometimes, for example, they might feel that loyalty is more important than preventing harm, or that the common good is more important than preventing unfairness. To WEIRD people, such feelings are often incomprehensible.

All of those factors – background, beliefs, social circles, biology, and basic moral intuitions – exert a powerful subconscious influence on what feels right or plausible to us. If a factual or moral claim feels right to us, fits our current beliefs and previous experiences, then we want to believe it. According to Haidt, that biases us more than we realize:

“When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe it?’ Then we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Must I believe it?’ Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.”

Thus, equally intelligent, educated, well-meaning people can have diametrically opposed beliefs. Some of us are careful about our biases, sometimes, but at other times we all slip.

Knowing that fact doesn’t make our social problems go away. Our disagreements still exist. There are still some real and legitimate conflicts of interest between different groups in society. Unfortunately, there are also a few genuine crazies and haters: in a population of over 300 million, that’s inevitable.

However, if we can just calm down and accept that most other people are trying as honestly as we are, it’s at least a start toward solving our problems. Nobody can or should compromise with “Hitler,” and if we think that’s who we’re dealing with, then we can’t do anything else but fight. However, it’s not necessary. Or true.

Don’t let a tiny minority of crazies and haters blind you to the fact that most people want to be good and to do the right thing – even if their idea of “the right thing” sometimes clashes with ours.

Screaming at people, calling them names, and dismissing their concerns as unworthy of consideration leads to on-going conflict and social disintegration. People want us to agree with them – just as we want them to agree with us — but they’ll often accept something less: knowing that we listened to them, tried to see their point of view, and did our best to accommodate them even if we still disagree.

That’s what a civilized democratic society is all about. Maybe it’s WEIRD, but it’s our best hope.

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Morality Needs Both Logic and Feeling

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My new blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

As a child, I was a big “Star Trek” fan. I never wanted to be like Captain Kirk. The world was full of Kirk wannabes. My hero was Mr. Spock: stoic, brilliant, and supremely logical.

But is logic enough? With all due respect to Mr. Spock, the answer is no. Feeling is an essential part of moral judgment and moral action.

Even our Jewish tradition, which focuses more on what we do than what we feel, answers that logic is not enough. As Hillel said:

“That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Logic by itself can’t reveal what is hateful to you or your neighbor. Only feeling can tell you that. And even if you know how your neighbor feels, why should you care? If you care, it’s probably because of empathy, the ability to feel your neighbor’s happiness or suffering as if it were your own.

The role of feeling and empathy are well known both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. Though best known for writing The Wealth of Nations (1776) that founded modern economics, Adam Smith was also famous for his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he wrote:

“However selfish man may be, there are principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others … That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it.”

Feeling helps us find the right things to do. Logic helps us understand and prioritize them. As A.J. Heschel wrote:

“Love offers an answer to the question of how to live. In Truth we find an answer to the question of how to think. … It is impossible to find Truth without being in love, and it is impossible to experience love without being truthful, without living Truth.”

Failure of empathy makes us indifferent to the suffering or happiness of others. We’re particularly vulnerable to such failure when we don’t see the people and events first-hand, with our own eyes. “Seeing is believing:” it’s easy to ignore what we don’t see. And it’s a short step from not seeing, to not wanting to see, and finally to closing our eyes so that we can’t see.

In the early 1940s, most Germans really didn’t know about the death camps. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to see. They didn’t want to believe. If they had, they would have been forced to make a terrifying choice. So they didn’t. Their great-grandchildren and their nation still bear the shame of that failure.

But just as logic is not enough, feeling is not enough. Feeling pushes us to solve the problem we see, but it doesn’t consider problems we don’t see. In real life, there are always trade-offs.

We can all feel empathy for the suffering of people in war-torn regions of the world. When confronted with images and news reports, our natural inclination is to help: to bring them to our countries, take them into our homes, and so forth.

That’s entirely laudable. But there are trade-offs. How would our actions affect our families and our societies? How would we know that the people we helped were refugees and not jihadists? Moreover, money we spend on helping refugees from other countries is money we cannot spend on helping the poor at home. We want to help both, but we can’t. Our resources are finite. We must make a choice. Our actions have opportunity costs.

Finite resources aren’t the only issue. Sometimes, as controversial Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner remarked, the best way to help people is not to help them. If we help them the wrong way or at the wrong time, then we deprive them of the personal strength and self-respect they’d get from solving their own problems. Of course, that can also become an excuse for not helping people when we should. By itself, feeling can’t tell us when to help or not help.

The upshot is that neither feeling alone nor logic alone should guide us. We need both of them to make sound moral decisions. There are no cookbook answers, even in Jewish law, which we must apply with honest intelligence and generous hearts.

How can we learn to use both logic and feeling in a balanced way?

  • Do engage in activities that remind you about the importance of all human beings. Such activities include study, religious observance, volunteer work, and morally inspiring entertainment.
  • Do consider both the benefits and potential costs of your actions.
  • Don’t make important decisions impulsively or when you’re in the grip of strong emotion.
  • Don’t forget that although everyone is equal in human dignity, your duties to everyone are not the same. Your first duties are to your family, to your community, and to your people. Make sure that your actions to help anyone else don’t conflict with your most important obligations.
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Ben Franklin’s Jewish Values

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

American founder Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) wasn’t Jewish, but he might as well have been. He shared many of Judaism’s key moral values.

One of our most central values is moral seriousness: the idea that doing the right thing is important, so we should pay attention to how we live. It’s an inevitable side effect of having 613 commandments that govern every aspect of life. Regardless of their content, they require us in any situation to stop and think: What kind of situation is this? What moral principles apply? What is the right thing to do? It inhibits impulsive, careless action. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarized it well:

“Every aspect of life … had its precisely calibrated laws, its choreography of holiness. The fundamental idea of Judaism was and is that we bring God into the world through daily acts and interactions …”

Franklin enthusiastically supported that kind of thinking. He wrote that:

“At the last day, we shall not be examined what we thought, but what we did; and our recommendation will not be that we said ‘lord, lord’, but that we did good to our fellow creatures.”

As a young man, he made a list of virtues that he wanted to practice in his life. It’s easy to imagine a Jewish sage coming up with a list similar to the one in Franklin’s autobiography:

  • Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  • Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself. Waste nothing.
  • Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothing, or habitation.
  • Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Chastity: Rarely use venery [sex] but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Each week, Franklin tried to improve his performance of a different virtue. The only one that gave him trouble was humility. He wrote that each time he became humbler, he was proud of himself for it. As a result, he had to start all over again.

In one of his most famous sayings, Franklin resolved to avoid evil gossip:

“I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of everybody.”

That is of course a Jewish value:

“The fact that something is true doesn’t mean it is anybody else’s business. The Hebrew term for forbidden speech about others, lashon hara (literally ‘bad tongue’), refers to any statement that is true, but that lowers the status of the person about whom it is said.”

Franklin emphasized using our time wisely, vowing to “lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

That’s also a Jewish value:

“A rabbinic head of a yeshiva once established a special five-minute study session. Even students who lived blocks away were expected to come back for this very short activity. As the rabbi explained, ‘I want you to learn that something can be accomplished in five minutes.’”

Jews for millennia have wrestled with the problem of how evil can exist in a world created by a perfectly just God. Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager sees it as a reason to believe in the world to come:

“To state this case as starkly as possible, if there is nothing after this life, then the Nazis and the children they threw alive into furnaces have identical fates. If I believed such a thing, I would either become an atheist or hate the God who had created such a cruel and absurd universe.”

Writing for The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1734, Franklin’s argument was almost identical to Prager’s:

“Many arguments, to prove a future state, have been drawn from the unequal lot of good and bad men upon earth … to see virtue languish and repine, to see vice prosperous and triumphant: such a view, I confess, raises in us a violent presumption that there is another state of retribution, where the just and the unjust will be equally punished or rewarded by an impartial judge.”

Like Maimonides, Franklin leaned toward Deism – the view that God set up the universe and its laws, then mostly left it alone. However, he reassured his Christian parents (whom he addressed as “Honored Father and Mother”) that he was open to hearing any argument:

“All that should be expected from me is to keep my mind open to conviction, to hear patiently and examine attentively whatever is offered me for that end; and if after all I continue in the same errors, I believe your usual charity will induce you rather to pity and excuse than blame me.”

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The UNESCO Vote Mystery

temple-mount-wikipedia

My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

There’s a mystery about UNESCO’s denial last week of Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The mystery is not that the resolution was proposed by some of the usual suspects (Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan). That’s expected.

Nor was it that the resolution passed, with 24 countries supporting, six opposing, and 26 abstaining. That’s also expected, from the perennial alliance between evil and cowardice.

No, the real mystery is this: Given that the Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and Western Wall are crystal clear, how could anyone believe otherwise?

The answer is the way in which people hold beliefs. All of us hold beliefs in three ways:

  • Hold and apply.
  • Hold and do not apply.
  • Hold if X.

Hold and apply

These are normal beliefs. In appropriate situations, we affirm them verbally or base our actions on them.

We weight all of our beliefs by credibility, importance, and other factors. Although the scale is arbitrary, such beliefs might be weighted from 1 to 10. In case of conflicts between beliefs, we apply the beliefs with higher individual or combined weights. If we do not reject them outright, we place the losing beliefs in the “Hold and do not apply” category.

Hold and do not apply

These are beliefs that we put aside because they conflict with other beliefs to which we give more weight. We do not deny them, but neither do we apply them.

For example, a central belief of the Pythagoreans was that everything could be explained by whole numbers and ratios of whole numbers. As a central belief, it was heavily weighted. They weren’t going to give it up. However, then they discovered that certain quantities couldn’t be explained that way, such as the hypotenuse of a right triangle whose shorter sides were both of length 1. They couldn’t deny it, but to apply it meant rejecting their central belief, so they didn’t.

Almost certainly, officials who voted for the UNESCO resolution know perfectly well that their resolution’s implication is false. However, they do not apply their knowledge because they know that they would be in serious trouble if they did.

Hold if X

These are beliefs that we hold only if a certain condition or conditions are true.

The most obvious case is when beliefs depend on matters of fact. Will I get wet if I go outside? I hold that belief if I look out the window and see that it is raining. If it is not raining, I do not hold the belief.

However, there are other cases of this type of belief-holding. Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam wrote about how he reconciled his religious and secular beliefs:

“As a practicing Jew, I am someone for whom the religious dimension of life has become increasingly important …Those who know my writings from that period may wonder how I reconciled my religious streak and my general scientific materialist worldview. The answer is that I didn’t reconcile them. I was a thoroughgoing atheist, and I was a believer. I simply kept these two parts of myself separate.”

Putnam weighted his religious and materialist beliefs differently in different situations. If he was in synagogue, he assigned weight 10 to his religious beliefs and weight zero (do not hold) to his materialist beliefs. If he was in his office at Harvard, he assigned weight zero to his religious beliefs and some non-zero weight to his materialist beliefs.

How We Weight Beliefs

We weight our beliefs by three main factors:

  • How much the beliefs fit our existing worldview.
  • How much we want to hold the beliefs.
  • How much evidence there is for the beliefs.

Notice that evidence comes last. Our assessment of evidence is heavily influenced by the first two factors.

Our worldview contains general beliefs by which we interpret new information and accept or reject new beliefs.

For example, if news reporters believe that the Temple Mount is a Muslim holy site with no connection to Judaism, then they interpret any Israeli attempt to secure the site as illegitimate. If a terrorist stabs four people and gets shot by the IDF, the news headline will be “Palestinian Man Killed by Israeli Soldiers.”

Likewise in the United States, if we believe that police routinely harass and murder black people, then we tend to interpret any contact between police and blacks as an instance of racism.

That’s why interest groups hammer away so relentlessly with propaganda memes. They want to bias your perception so that everything seems to confirm their narrative. It doesn’t matter if you later discover that their memes are based on lies. They’ve got control of your perceptual filters, so you’ll tend to see what they want you to see.

So even if you don’t work for UNESCO (thank goodness), carefully scrutinize memes and constantly-repeated political themes. If in the end you decide to believe something, then it’s fine; but don’t let anyone smuggle such beliefs into your mind. And be alert for your own biases. If you intentionally “hold but do not apply” some beliefs, at least be aware that you’re doing it.

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Twin Holidays of Creation

shofar-wikipedia

My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. They seem quite different.

But what if they’re not so different after all?

I’m not a rabbi and I don’t play one on television, but I can tell you what I think: Both holidays celebrate creation, but from different perspectives.

Multiple perspectives occur often in our tradition. The Book of Genesis first gives a cosmos-level view of the world’s creation in 1:1-2:3 and then retells the story from a more personal, ground-level view in 2:4-24. Similarly, Exodus 6:2-7:13 gives a high-level view of Moses’ appointment by God, and Exodus 3:1-6:1 gives a more detailed and personal view of the same events.

But how could Yom Kippur be “another view” of Rosh Hashanah? What’s the evidence?

Our first clue is the date: Yom Kippur is the 10th day of the new year. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna remarks that for our ancestors, “the tenth day of the month in which the New Year falls must carry special significance, though in what way currently eludes us.”

Here’s a thought: In Jewish and Gentile tradition, the number 10 signifies completeness and perfection.

It’s the sum of both the first four counting numbers (1, 2, 3, and 4) and of two sacred numbers (3 and 7). Exodus 20:2-14 gives 10 Commandments (Buddhism also has 10 commandments, five for monks and five for laypeople). The Kabbalah says that God created the world by 10 utterances, using 10 Sefirot as channels for the Divine energy. There are 10 generations from Adam and Noah, and then from Noah to Abraham. God says (Genesis 18:32) that He will spare Sodom if Abraham can find 10 innocent men in it. Ten men complete a minyan.

It suggests that Yom Kippur, the 10th day of the new year, might be about completing something. But what? Creation? And completion by whom?

Our second clue is the number of days (40) between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur. Forty indicates transition, change, renewal, and new beginning.

Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days; in the Biblical flood story, it rained 40 days to purify the earth; and in the Kabbalah, each of the four corners of the world contains all 10 Sefirot, totaling 40. It’s often similar in non-Jewish traditions. The Babylonians celebrated a new year’s feast when the Pleiades reappeared after being gone for 40 days. In England, the ancient site of Stonehenge has 40 giant stone pillars in a circle with diameter 40.

Our third clue is the Biblical text itself, in the light of the fact that 10 symbolizes completion and 40 symbolizes transition. Yom Kippur means a completion that causes a transition.

From Genesis 1:1-25 at each step of creation, God assesses his work and sees that it is “good.” But then He creates human beings in His image, as self-aware beings who can choose what they do and how they live. After that, what He has created is no longer merely good: it is “very good.” God no longer has to work alone. We become His junior partners in creation, adding a human moral dimension to physical reality.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the physical world, which is good. Yom Kippur reminds us that the physical world by itself is incomplete. It’s up to us to finish it by the choices we make. God gave us a world, but what we do with it is up to us. God gave us a choice, but what we choose is up to us. God will not stop us from choosing foolishly or destructively. The responsibility to choose wisely is ours.

Yom Kippur asks the most fundamental moral question of life: What kind of person do you want to be? Our answer determines the kind of world we will help God create.

In this new year, let’s make it a better one.

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