The real issue facing world Jewry is the one no one talks about. It is not antisemitism. It is not the isolation and condemnation of Israel. It is not assimilation and out-marriage. These are all symptoms, not causes.
The real issue is that for a large proportion of the Jewish world, in Israel and the Diaspora, Judaism no longer makes sense. It does not move them, inspire them or transform them. It does not speak to them at the deepest levels of our being. The crisis facing Jewry is not social or economic or political. It is spiritual.
Religion, devotion, faith: these were the secret of Jewry’s almost unbelievable survival through centuries of hardship and persecution. Blaise Pascal knew this. So did Rousseau. So did Tolstoy. Jews were the people of eternity because they believed in the God of eternity with a passion that was awe-inspiring. They wrestled with God, argued with Him. Their faith was not naive: none less so. But they were the God-intoxicated people.
They were the children of Abraham who was willing to leave land, home and family and travel to an unknown destination in response to God’s call. They were the heirs of those who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and pledged their destiny to a covenant with God. They were the people who were different because they worshipped a God who was different from the gods of myth. That was their identity and strength.
British Jewry has undertaken to renew the life of prayer.
Wherever that faith was strong, Jews were strong, and wherever it was weak, Jews were weak. That remains true today. For two centuries Jews experimented with other forms of identity: social, cultural and political. These were honest, decent, impressive efforts, but in each case they lasted no more than three generations.
Without a spiritual dimension Jews become like every other small, scattered nation: no better, no worse, but no longer the people capable of transforming the world by the fire of their passion. Where Jewish faith is weak, Jewish life is weak. Assimilation, out-marriage and vulnerability to those who seek us harm are symptoms of that one transcending weakness.
The vehicle of Jewish faith always was the prayer book. Jews did not theologise; they prayed. They wrote no tractates about faith; they davened. They did not speak about God, they spoke to God. They used to call simple Jews siddur Yidden, meaning, they may not spend their time studying Talmud but they know how to pray. That is one thing our ancestors knew and many of us have forgotten.
It may seem absurd to predicate the survival of a people on so slender a base. But Zechariah was right: “Not by might or strength but by My spirit, says the Lord.” That remains the simplest, best summary of Jewish history.
Which is why we undertook, in British Jewry, to renew the life of prayer: first by new synagogue music, then with a new siddur. Now we have moved on to the machzor, starting this year with the first, for Rosh Hashanah, with a fresh translation, commentary and introduction, the first new machzor produced specifically for our community in over a century. The last was the Routledge edition in 1906.
We have tried, in translation, to let the poetry sing. The commentary seeks to capture the spirituality of the major prayers. The introduction tells the story of Rosh Hashanah in a way I have not seen before. Dayan Ivan Binstock took on the delicate task of preserving Minhag Anglia for the 21st century. Koren, the co-publishers, have produced a layout and typography that are both beautiful and unique.
The prayers of Rosh Hashanah draw their power from the way they combine themes that are cosmic and at the same time deeply personal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the great Unetaneh Tokef prayer with its scenes of angels trembling and a great shofar sounding. The world has become a courtroom. We are on trial for our lives. Just as we think fate is sealed comes the great and distinctively Jewish “but” – but penitence, prayer and charity can avert the evil of the decree. No verdict is final. To be a Jew is never to lose hope.
Torah is the word of God. Prayer is the answering word of the Jewish people, the collective voice of Jewry as it wrote its songs to God through a long wilderness of time and space. No longer able to offer sacrifices, they brought God their hearts and hopes, their guilt and shame, their better intentions, above all their passion for life: Remember us for life. Write us in the Book of Life. You are the God of life.
And in those prayers they discovered the secret of life, which is that a life is as great as the ideals for which you live. Renew those ideals and we will renew Jewish l
Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, the largest synagogue body in the UK. This article first appeared in London’s Jewish Chronicle.