Elul, the last month of the traditional Jewish calendar, began this past week, straddling as usual the end of August and the beginning of September. It is a harsh season, when the first joys of summer have worn off and the comfort of fall is still far ahead. It is a time of searing heat and sudden storms. And, increasingly, it is a season of disasters, both natural and unnatural.
In some parts of America, the heat of August is called the “dog days” and is a time for escape. Cities empty out, business comes to a near halt and anyone who can do so heads for the mountains or the beach. Those who cannot leave sit in the city and simmer in irritable discomfort.
Jewish tradition takes the opposite approach. Elul is a time of hope and reflection, a month of preparation for the High Holy Days. At the next new moon, a new year will be welcomed with prayerful anticipation and Days of Awe. Now, during Elul, stock is taken of the past year’s deeds. It is a time for numbering our errors, making amends and planning improvements. Elul is not a time for escape, but for acceptance and humility.
This year, sadly, acceptance and humility seem to be in short supply within the Jewish community. As the season of repentance opened, the chattering classes were consumed by an ill-tempered attack on Modern Orthodoxy, published in The New York Times, by a lapsed Orthodox man who is now one of the nation’s leading legal scholars, Noah Feldman. His complaint began by recalling a day-school reunion where he and his non-Jewish girlfriend (now his wife) were left out of the class picture. As it turned out, he failed to acknowledge that the omission was not ideological, but no matter: He was making a larger point about the movement’s shortcomings. Orthodox leaders responded by asking him for understanding, and then calling on The Times to fire him. The responses since have gone back and forth in an endless exchange of fire, making clear, if nothing else, how high the walls of mutual suspicion have grown.
Likewise in Israel, where police and 3,000 troops carried out a court-ordered eviction of a handful of settlers in Hebron, resulting in a pitched battle with two dozen injured. The incident led to 28 soldiers jailed for refusing orders to participate in the conviction, prompting calls in the secular press for re-examination of the army’s relationship with Modern Orthodox yeshivas, and Orthodox calls for re-examination of the government’s legitimacy. The walls, real and metaphorical, seem insurmountable.
There are no easy answers. All sides are convinced of their rightness. But it’s Elul, a time for humility and uncertainty.