Roots of Our Faith: Judaism

Roots of Our Faith: Judaism


Judaism is the primary ancestor of Christianity, and Christianity is the primary ancestor of both Unitarianism and Universalism. This service delves into our Jewish inheritance, into the meaning of the High Holy Days, and the opportunity they offer us.


Unitarian Universalist congregations have long had a friendly relationship with Jewish congregations.  When I was a Unitarian schoolboy, our Fellowship shared Thanksgiving services with the only Synagogue in town.  It felt good to have new friends.  UUs and Jews were closer in outlook and liberality than to even the mildest Protestant Churches.  This is still largely true. 

In the years during and following Roosevelt and WWII, it was said by Jewish conservatives, in frustrated disbelief, that Jews earn like Episcopalians, and vote like Puerto Ricans.”  We hasten to add that one sign of liberal progress in our national discourse is that most people nowadays shy away from that kind of stereotyping.

Nearly half of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality, twice as many as cite support for Israel, and only 17% cite religious observance. A significant number are willing to be taxed more to provide for the poor. The Jews remain strongly liberal, with no change in sight.

They, and we liberal religious non-Jews, agree about a great deal, especially in our social values, and in the better world we seek.   

The other original great thing that we have been in agreement about since the birth of Unitarianism, is, of course, monotheism, and the related intuition or sense that not only God is One, but that there is an interconnected unity of everything.

But, despite our harmony, we are very different in our customs. UUs don’t have anything like the High Holy Days.  So, today, let’s try a small sample of their practice. 

The shofar, the ram’s horn, is the world’s oldest wind instrument.  

This morning marks the second day of the 10 Days of Awe, as the High Holy Days are also known, between the beginning of Rosh Hashanah this past Friday and the end of Yom Kippur at the end of Monday, a week from tomorrow.  For those observing Rosh Hashanah it is a time of considerable withdrawal from ordinary life.  They will do this even while cruel Covid continues to rage, our political turmoil increases, and we mourn the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of crowning losses in the plague year of 2020.   

Ruth Bader Ginsberg died on Rosh Hashanah, and dying just before the Jewish New Year signifies to Jewish people that the deceased, if a woman, is a Tsaddeket, a woman whom God has held back until the last moment, because she was most righteous, and was the most needed. 

The traditional saying is “may her memory be for a blessing,” which has been changed by some of her admirers to, “may her memory be a revolution.”

Jewish writers on the Rosh Hashanah say that it is a call to wake up, and align with reality. 

The first act of the new year’s Holy days, is to reflect on one’s life, and how one lives, and the standards by which one should live, and what actions one took, or failed to take.  And then each person continues this self-examination, and reflection on their life and character, for 9 days, until they reach Yom Kippur, and the great Atonement, and some believe, receive judgment by God, and, some believe, assignment of a fate for the next year!  Fasting is required for the 25 hours of the last day, Yom Kippur.  No food.  No water. 

When the fast is broken at sundown, the shofar is blown again, and there is much joy, and relief, and feasting. 

The pomegranate in the center there is used during Rosh Hashanah because it is thought to contain 613 seeds, which is the number of commandments a Jew is required to observe. 

Why are these people spending all this time reflecting on what they did wrong?  Is this negative, is this a depressing thing?  And then we stop and think, well, maybe this depth of examination, looking at self, and thinking about my behavior and asking, “How do I relate to the world? How do I relate to other people? How has what I’ve done been good for other people or not good for other people?” All of this is a watching of ourselves, and a look at, “What is the real me? Apart from these acts, how can I reach out to the world without damaging anything?”  

The writers on the purpose of High Holy Days speak of waking up, of harmonizing with reality. Nine days are to used to strip away self-deception and denial and replace them with righteousness. 

We will now show you on the screen the first of the three traditional Rosh Hashanah questions. When each appears, let us meditate on it, for a couple of minutes.

What is the most important thing in my life?

How can I reach out and encounter other people, guiding or helping them with love and adding to their lives, and not detracting from it, and this is a refreshing of oneself, a way to get to oneself and to experience oneself in the moment, because you have gone deeply into yourself and you have noticed and admitted the things that you got wrong while all the time you were thinking or pretending you were getting it right.  And so instead of having to build a false reality, so that you don’t have to face what you did wrong, or instead of just not paying attention so you can ignore what you did wrong, instead of that, you dive into it and face it, so that you can be cleansed of it, and then be in the moment with other people, to be there, without a safety net around you–to try to prevent others from finding out who you really are–or aren’t, or what you have done, or left undone.  Instead, you are fully transparent with other people, interacting with them, and absorbing energy from them, and giving energy to them, instead of living in a distracted, separated, dissociated way.

What are the most meaningful and important things I have achieved in the last year?

We have been locked up by the pandemic for almost 7 months, and for many of us, this has become a reflective time.  Right here now is a chance to go even deeper into ourselves, and consider:  what is the right way?  What is right?  And, what am I doing right?  And celebrate that.  And then switch, and ask:  what am I doing that is not helpful to other people, not as productive, am I straying from my plan?  How do I be more helpful, and more true to myself, my best self?  What is my best self? 

And when you have done some of that work, you can be a little happy, and feel a little bit loving toward yourself, for being capable of looking at yourself in relation to the world, instead of looking at yourself in relation to yourself.

What do I hope to achieve over the coming year?

The message of the Holy Days is a very positive one.  We don’t want to mope around, fixating on our flaws.  Fix it, don’t fixate.  Wake up.  Harmonize with reality, inside and outside. We have the power to go deep within and face ourselves.  We have the ability to learn all we can about the world, and its people, and their needs, and the planet, and try to address ourself to become and remain an active, vigorous part of a healthy, righteous interactive life that will bless the world. 

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