The High Holydays are a time of t'shuvah, of repentance and return. Jewish prayer is full of hopes of return: that we will return to Jerusalem, that the Jewish people will return to God's ways, that God will return to us. The New Year is thus naturally enough considered a time of reflection on the past, the wrongs we have committed. But there is no sensible way of thinking hard about return, with its apparent longing for a lost past, without thinking about the future, about what we want to have happen. You cannot seriously repent without having something to aim at, to look for. There is an in-built idealism on Rosh Hashanah.
The most obvious form of idealism for Jews is the hope for Moshiach, that a perfect world will be inaugurated by the arrival of a redeemer, the Messiah. Some Jews rather downplay this messianism, and historically it has caused some troubles for us, whether you think of Christianity or Sabbatai Zvi, the seventeenth-century false messiah who found many Jewish followers, before he converted to Islam, and ended his life in lonely penury, an uncovered fraud. But it isn't possible to do without some form of such hopefulness. To make the world a better place, to strive for tikkun olam, the healing of things, is one profound underlying agenda of the Yomim Noraim. In simplest form, you start on Rosh Hashanah by acknowledging the kingship of God, and thereby recognize the system within which your own hopes and errors make sense; you atone for your failures to live up to such ideals on Yom Kippur; and on Sukkot, if you will allow the image, you start again in a temporary house, on a journey, trying to build something better. But you have to have something to aim for in the building process, an ideal to strive for.
For some of the failures of everyday life, the process of atonement is familiar enough, alas, in its insufficiency. For the sin (al-chet...) of overeating, it is all too easy to fit any remorse into a contemporary secular concern with weight and dieting and health; maybe add a touch of ecological concern with green vegetables; and go back to the table of sukkot refreshed for the next meal. There are plenty of sins like that. But, even more worryingly, the list of individual sins can encourage us not to think too hard about the bigger picture. But people come together as a community on the Yomim Noraim not just because of tradition or a commitment, however feeble, to a religious or ethnic identity, but because at this time there is also a sense of the community going forward as a community. It is a time for a community to reflect on its own ideals and failures.
Sometimes it helps to look at oneself in the mirror of another community. This year, I have just come back from America where I spent some time with my wife's grandmother. Bubi is 97, and has vivid and articulate memories of First World War Polish village life (where she was born), including pogrom-fired bullets hitting the tree behind which she was hiding, through her first immigrant years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, with its intense communal life and individual struggles, through marriage and the vicissitudes of life in America through the Second World War, with its terror at the events for the remaining family in Europe, to her current life in Riverdale, one of the most prosperous and religiously committed areas in New York. Her life epitomizes the history of the American community - from immigrant poverty and hope to social acceptance, material prosperity, and increased religious opportunity. Her great-grandchildren have been born into a world unrecognisable from the Polish shtetl in terms of physical security, physical comfort, and ability to fulfil aspirations. Yet for her it is the continuities that have mattered even more than the improvements: family life and love, education for children, putting those physical concerns in a broader picture of a decent life.
Yet Bubi too would agree that there have been costs to the improvements. With physical comfort, comes a materialism that distorts the striving for a full and fulfilled life - and this is stridently on show in the American Jewish community. Alongside social acceptance there have developed two extremes: an assimilation that forgets; and an aggressive proclamation of difference and uniqueness that has lost its ability to deal decently with other people. With religious opportunity, has come also a competitive frumkeit, where young people encourage each other to continually increased stringencies (and astringencies) of observance, all too often without the strength of thought or of decency to ground piety when faced by real moral difficulty or hard ethical decisions. Knowing the minutiae of Pesach laws matters only when you can hear - and hear properly, which also means understanding and obeying - how often the Torah narrative of Exodus enjoins you to be kind, receptive and decent to the Ger, the stranger or foreigner.
Looking at the mirror of another community helps you see what you value about your own, and what you can hope for in your own. The community of CTJC in Cambridge needs to think about this big picture now more than ever. For we are now at something of a turning point, where we need to go forward with as clear and as hopeful an idea as possible of what we care about. For the first time, CTJC has appointed a Rabbi and Rebitzin, Reuven and Rochel Leigh. Unlike many communities, we are in the lucky position of appointing someone whom we have known already for some years, and have seen him (and her) in action. They share with us many of the ideals that I think are foundational for this community - including a recognition of and delight in the pluralism and diversity of the Jewish people. For a Cambridge community to thrive it has to embrace the fact that its Judaism cannot be solely a matter of the synagogue, but must grow - in learning, social experience and a fully lived Jewish life. It has to understand that its Judaism will be taking place in that particular English society which is Cambridge (with its own meshugas and glory). It has to recognize how much of the Cambridge Jewish community depends on the empowerment that comes from engaging more fully in Jewish life rather than being Jewish by osmosis, memory, or census return. It has to trust that Cambridge's version of relaxation is not a sign of a lack of seriousness.
I am looking forward to the next years of working together in a growing rather than a shrinking community, and I expect everyone else shares at least this idealism. I hope that in this year's prayers you spare a long and considered thought not just about your own hopes and errors, but also about the aims and needs of the community, and your part in it. Because that's where a Jewish life is lived. I wish you and your family a happy and healthy New Year and well over the Fast.
Professor Simon Goldhill, Chairman, CTJC.