As Jews throughout the world celebrate the onset of yet another year, it is important to bear in mind that Rosh Hashanah marks not the beginning of the Jewish calendar – that occurs in the spring linked to the independence festival of Passover – but rather the start of a new year for humankind as a whole.
Over Rosh Hashanah, we recite, “Hayom harat olam” or today the world was born. This world includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and Hindus, as well as members of numerous other faith communities, agnostics and atheists.
Every night before he went to sleep, Rabbi Ephraim Fiszele Szapiro (or Shapiro) a Hasidic master who lived in the Polish town of Strykow during the first quarter of the 19th century, would pour himself a glass of vodka, say the blessing over the drink, take a sip from the glass, and say aloud, “L’Chaim, Reboyno shel Oylem, L’Chaim, master of the universe, a very good night to you.” When his disciples came to him for an explanation, he asked, “Is God afflicted by human suffering?”
“Yes,” his students answered, “We are taught that God suffers when humans suffer.”
“So,” the rabbi said, “if God is pained by our pain, it stands to reason that God rejoices in our joy. Now if this is true, then if the suffering of the world were to have a night of peace, this would bring God a good night as well, yes?”
“Yes,” said his disciples.
“So, when I wish God a good night, there is only one way He can bring this about. He must give a night’s rest to all the afflicted of the world!”
At the core of Reb Fiszele’s philosophy was a pure, abiding love for both God and not just the Jewish people but humankind as a whole. It reflects an understanding that all human beings are created by God, and that the “other” is more often than not our mirror image.
It is easy to view the world through a parochial prism. Mistrust and even antipathy can be understandable emotions precisely because they often exist against a backdrop of persecution, oppression, violence, suffering, and, in the case of contemporary Jewry, genocide. The challenge is not to allow the memory of horrors and present-day manifestations of hatred to undercut our common humanity.
Susan Eisenhower, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s granddaughter, warns persuasively against the “divisive rhetoric” those conservative U.S. politicians who advocate “a foreign policy that sees the contours of international crises through the narrow lens of ignorance (and perhaps arrogance) about people of other cultures.”
Adolf Hitler and the Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust embodied absolute evil. So do those responsible for the genocides in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur, and elsewhere. Adherents of Radical Islam, from the fanatical leaders and followers of al-Qaeda to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the frenzied mob that murdered U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, are beyond redemption.
In his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2009, President Obama specifically decried “the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint – no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it’s incompatible with the very purpose of faith – for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
At the same time, the president said that, “we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. . . . For if we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.”
While categorically condemning the “Islamic extremism” of al-Qaeda in his address to a joint session of Congress and the nation on Sept. 21, 2001, former President George W. Bush also recalled “the saying of prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic” following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and said that the American people would “not forget . . . the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque in Cairo.”
Pope John Paul II once spoke to an Italian journalist about the pre-Holocaust Poland of his youth. “I can vividly remember the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue behind our school,” he said. “Both religious groups, Catholics and Jews, were united, I presume, by the awareness that they prayed to the same God.”
We must never forget that there were Christians in World War II Europe, a small minority to be sure, who risked their lives to save Jews. And today there are Muslims who join forces with Jews and Christians to espouse and promote a spirit of tolerance.
At a recent meeting in Paris of some 70 Jewish and Muslim religious leaders from 18 countries organized by Rabbi Marc Schneier, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, the assembled rabbis and imams undertook to “institute a ‘zero tolerance’ policy against religious leaders of any faith who misuse their pulpits to incite religious bigotry. We vow to each other to speak out loudly and forcefully against any religious leader who defames those of other faiths, and, if such bigots emerge from within our own communities, to condemn them loudly and clearly.”
My twin grandchildren are almost four years old. Someday soon I will tell them the story of Reb Fiszele’s nightly toast to God because it encapsulates a basic universalist value I very much want them to absorb as they grow up, and also because Reb Fiszele was their great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.