Speak English, But Think Jewish: A High Holiday Reflection

In his compelling book “Think Jewish”, author Zalman Posner presents the following premise:

We live in a world that constantly impinges on us, whose atmosphere is so permeated with its particular values and attitudes and presumptions, that we absorb them without effort, unknowingly, unaware that we are being influenced. American Jews are numerically a tiny 2% or 3% of America. Identifiably Jewish values, distinct and different from those of the other 98%, can be so submerged, so unfamiliar….

Culturally, we often identify as thoroughly—shall we say—Western, for that is a neutral sounding term. Actually, the culture, the values and the premises of Western culture are not “neutral.” They are to a tremendous degree Christian, and even if only in origin, nonetheless those roots are hardly obscure….There is nothing improper about this, nothing to criticize; awareness, however, of the origin can help us understand the orientation of our views. …When we examine Judaism, we should attempt to do so through a Jewish lens and with Jewish categories.

In this first segment of our occasional “Speak English but Think Jewish” series, we will explore one expression of this phenomenon, by examining the conventional definition of a concept, and then redefine it in Jewish terms.

One of the most powerful and stirring prayers in the High Holidays liturgy, Unetaneh Tokef, (“who by fire, who by water”) culminates with the thunderous declaration by the congregation: “U’Teshuva, U’Tefillah, U’Tzedakah Ma’avirin et Ro’ah HaGezeira” (But Teshuva, Tefilla, and Tzedaka avert the severe decree!)

Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedaka are commonly translated as Repentance, Prayer and Charity; and at first glance it would seem that these three concepts are indistinguishable parallels with some of the fundamental ideas incorporated into the fabric of the Western value system. Upon closer examination, however, we will discover that there is a profound and essential difference between the Western conception of these ideas and their unique (even contrary) Jewish counterparts.

Teshuva – תשובה

Teshuva is generally translated as “repentance”, but, at its core is a very different idea. Repentance, in Hebrew חרטה (Cha’ra’ta), is remorse or regret. It implies a transformation from one state of being to another. What I am is not good; I must therefore become something else, something new. I was a sinner, now I am a changed man. Repentance means to depart from the current state of being; to be “born again.”

Teshuva, however, means to return, to go back. To return means to once again live in harmony with your true self. To return to the original source of light from whence your soul was hewn. You may have wandered and strayed, but now you are back. Teshuva means to bring to the fore that which has always been; it means to return home.

To be sure, repentance is an important component of the Teshuva, it is not, however, its totality or even its primary identity.

Tefillah – תפילה

Tefillah is generally translated as “prayer” which indicates supplication and petitioning for one’s needs, but what Tefillah really means is “to connect”. If you think of it in terms of a relationship, “prayer” is appropriate when one needs or desires something they currently lack (“G-d, what have you done for me lately”), whereas “Tefillah” would be an opportunity to reconnect, reinvigorate and renew an ever-existing, albeit possibly under-nurtured, bond.

Thus Tefillah, unlike prayer, is fully relevant (even) for those who do not experience a lack. Since Tefillah is not merely the requesting of one’s needs—although this is certainly an important element of it—but it is primarily the medium with which Man and Maker commune.

Tzedakah – צדקה

Tzedakah is commonly translated as “charity” or gratuitous benefactions for the poor, which implies going beyond his call of duty and helping others, although one is not obligated to do so.

The giver of charity is a benevolent person, giving out of the goodness of their heart, even when they do not need to. They do not owe anything to the poor and destitute. They give, not out of obligation, but because of generosity; or, as one cynic put it: “charity is the opium of the wealthy.”

Tzedakah has a completely opposite connotation. Instead of implying benevolence, it conveys the idea of righteousness and justice—that it is only right and just that one give of themselves. The concept of Tezedaka flows from the understanding that wealth is not one’s own, but is merely given to him or her that they be worthy custodians of G-d’s blessing for those less fortunate than themselves.

By re-framing our perspective of Yom Kippur from a day of self-affliction and Divine judgment to one of return, connection and righteousness, we allow ourselves to tap into true meaning of the day.

May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a blessed, happy and sweet new year.