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A Deeply Jewish Message for the New Year From a Christian Whom 18% of Us Still Think is Muslim

Whatever one thinks of President Obama, his Rosh Hashanah message is a deeply Jewish, biblically aware, liturgically sensitive statement which cannot help but move any spiritually inclined person. Without stepping away from his identity as a Christian, president Obama addresses the Jewish community Jewishly, using themes and language which emerge from the people to whom he addresses himself.

Here is the exact text, as transmitted by the office of the White House press secretary:

As Jews in America and around the world celebrate the first of the High Holy Days I want to extend my warmest wishes for the New Year. L’shana Tova Tikatevu – may you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the spiritual calendar and the birth of the world. It serves as a reminder of the special relationship between God and his children, now and always. And it calls us to look within ourselves – to repent for our sins; recommit ourselves to prayer; and remember the blessings that come from helping those in need.

Today, those lessons ring as true as they did thousands of years ago. And as we begin this New Year, it is more important than ever to believe in the power of humility and compassion to deepen our faith and repair our world.

At a time when too many of our friends and neighbors are struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, it is up to us to do what we can to help those less fortunate.

At a time when prejudice and oppression still exist in the shadows of our society, it is up to us to stand as a beacon of freedom and tolerance and embrace the diversity that has always made us stronger as a people.

And at a time when Israelis and Palestinians have returned to direct dialogue, it is up to us to encourage and support those who are willing to move beyond their differences and work towards security and peace in the Holy Land. Progress will not come easy, it will not come quick. But today we had an opportunity to move forward, toward the goal we share—two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

The scripture teaches us that there is “a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” In this season of repentance and renewal, let us commit ourselves to a more hopeful future.

Michelle and I wish all who celebrate Rosh Hashanah a sweet year full of health and prosperity.

Ironically, I expect that many of the same people who will appreciate the President’s comments the most, are also among those who have most sharply criticized him for using the same approach with the American Muslim community.

Jews who will delight in the President’s use of Hebrew, reference to the tradition of being sealed in the Book of Life, awareness of the rabbinic teaching that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, and his contemporary rendition of the traditional triad which carry us through hard times – repentance, prayer and charity – when he refers to our need to “repent for our sins; recommit ourselves to prayer; and remember the blessings that come from helping those in need, should appreciate that is the same approach he has taken with the Muslim community.

Like him or not, the president has been consistent in his efforts to reach people where they are – itself a biblical principle found in Genesis 21:17. Ultimately, it seems that any confusion about the President’s religious identity or sympathies flows from one and only one question: do you think that someone can truly empathize with those who do not share your particular beliefs? The president’s answer is that we can and that we must.

There is much that President Obama has done about which decent people can disagree, and sometimes I am one of them. When it comes to speaking in the language that people can hear however, at least on matters of faith, he has done a wonderful job of consistently applying the insight that one can speak in the language of another tradition without sacrificing one iota of one’s own religious integrity.

I can think of no message more appropriate for celebrating the birthday of the world – a world filled with diversity in which we must figure out how to create unity without imposing uniformity.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.