Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins Wednesday, September 28 at sundown. Like most religious celebrations, the holiday is about many things, some better known than others, and many of them quite interesting for all people, Jewish or otherwise.
One of the lesser known themes of Rosh Hashanah is an issue over which Americans often argue – exceptionalism, the notion that a particular nation is unique and uniquely positioned to achieve a whole variety of accomplishments. The history of Rosh Hashanah shows us why exceptionalism is perfectly fine as long as we remain connected and committed to those who are different from us.
Rosh Hashanah begins what are called the "Ten Days of Repentance," a period which concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. So not surprisingly, themes of introspection, forgiveness, and hope for a year in which we do better than we did in the past all figure largely in the prayers and practices of the holiday.
The holiday is known for the custom of eating apples dipped in honey, symbolizing the sweetness which we hope the coming year brings. And of course, there is the blowing of the Shofar, a ram’s horn, as mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Numbers 29:1). That’s where things get really interesting, and we see the ancient roots of the exceptionalism debate, which is really an issue for any people or nation that sees itself as special.
The Bible describes the day observed as Rosh Hashanah, literally the head or first of the year, as being the first day of the seventh month, the Hebrew month of Tishrei. What kind of New Year’s celebration comes at the beginning of the seventh month instead of the first? In this case the Jewish kind.
How that came to be is actually a brilliant response to the challenge of exceptionalism − of simultaneously celebrating what is unique to a particular community while serving the larger world of which the exceptional community is also a part.
In biblical times, the Israelites measured the passage of time only by reference to the exodus from Egypt and the birth of their nation. That is why, according to the Bible, Passover falls in the first month. Over time however, the sages, who came to lead the Jewish people, decided that the turning of the calendar year, or Rosh Hashanah as we know it, would be celebrated on the day when, according to tradition, the first humans were created – the first day of the biblical seventh month.
The sages situated "Jewish time" within "human time," teaching that Jewish is a way of being human, and that we need not necessarily choose one over the other to fully celebrate both. In an increasingly polarized world which often mistakes purity and separateness for principle and commitment, that is an especially powerful realization.
When people celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world and of humanity, they proclaim their commitment to the world and they do so Jewishly. They choose integration over bifurcation and unity over false-dichotomy.
It’s a lesson I learned early on from my parents, people who were, and remain, fiercely proud of being Jewish, fiercely proud of being American and passionately committed to the larger world in which they live.
My parents taught us that no person lives "in general," that we were part of something called the Jewish people, a people with its own unique faith and practice. They also taught us that such particularity cannot become an excuse for disregarding or disconnecting from those who lay beyond it.
Contrary to what we often hear, issues of identity and community are not zero-sum unless the respective competing identities are so small and offer so little that all they can do is beg for allegiance. When they are rich resources for living more meaningful, ethical, creative and engaged lives, there is little or no fear of dilution or disappearance.
There is nothing wrong with exceptionalism. In fact, America is genuinely different from other nations, just as different faith communities are different from each other. Celebrating that fact is both good and necessary. Just as necessary is handling our exceptionalism, as did those who located the Jewish New Year with reference to the birth, not of the Jews, but of all human beings.
Ethical exceptionalism, whether Jewish or American, is all about celebrating what makes us uniquely us, while also celebrating that we are simultaneously part of other bigger “us’es.”
I am both a proud Exceptionalist and an equally proud Universalist. Rosh Hashanah celebrates that any nation can balance those two positions, and that when they do, both the nation and the world will be the better for it.
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.