When my late father, Rabbi David Hartman, took his first pulpit in the Bronx in 1955, he could not stop thinking about all the congregants who would come to him with questions about the intricacies of Jewish law. Finally, he thought, his many years of yeshiva study would be put to practical use.
There was just one problem: No one asked him anything. He had answers, but there were no questions.
He soon understood that his job as a pulpit rabbi was not so much to answer questions as to provoke them. He spent his professional and religious life addressing questions he believed were crucial to people’s lives and to Judaism: What does God want from us? What does it mean to be in a “covenantal” relationship? He regretted that so much of his rabbinic training had focused on the mixing of milk and meat and laws of the Sabbath. The titles of his books speak volumes: “A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism” (1998); “The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition” (2011). Such were the questions he saw needed his rabbinic attention.
As someone who spent many years studying with my father, I am disturbed by how modern Hebrew refers to a person who takes on an observant way of life:hozer betshuvah. Usually translated as “repentance,” teshuvah also means “answer” — as if the person who observes Jewish law has all the answers. Even more troubling is the term for someone who abandons traditional observance: hozer bish’elah — one who “returns to questioning.” The idea that an observant Jew has all the answers, and that someone who leaves observance has all the questions, goes against my whole understanding of what serious Jewish life means.
Judaism encourages questioning. Going back to Abraham (who in Genesis 18 questions God’s intention to destroy Sodom), continuing through the question-and-answer method of Talmudic discussion, and on through the long-standing tradition of questioning the reasons for the different laws, Jews have always been taught to ask questions. This tradition reaches its peak at the Passover Seder, whose raison d’être is not just to recount the story of the Exodus, but to provoke children to ask why the night is so special.
Our questions, however, often become rote; and our answers feel scripted, as with the Passover Haggadah. Sometimes we stop questioning because we are comfortable with the status quo in our community. Sometimes we are simply apathetic. And sometimes we are afraid that our questions don’t have easy answers. But when we stop questioning, we lose the ability to grow and to change.
That’s where Rosh Hashanah comes in. The shofar snaps us out of our complacency. Amid the scripted words of the machzor and the traditional melodies of the cantor, amid the comfort of our traditional seats at our traditional time, the shofar shakes us, destabilizes us. We are prodded to ask serious and frank questions about ourselves, our community and our religion.
How so? Jewish tradition teaches us that the sound of the shofar refers to two biblical moments — stories that force us to ask hard questions.
First, the Binding of Isaac. When God sends an angel to stop Abraham from following the divine command to slay his son Isaac (Genesis 22), Abraham sacrifices a ram instead. According to the ancient rabbis, the blowing of the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah reminds God of Abraham’s extreme dedication, a piety so great that its excess has flowed across the generations. But the rabbis offered a second meaning of the shofar as well: In its sounds they also heard the anguished cries of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, when she learns of Abraham’s near-execution of her beloved son.
The biblical text is silent about these cries; after the story, the text continues with the death of Sarah and with Abraham’s purchase of burial ground for her in Hebron. But the rabbis connected these two stories, imagining that Sarah dies from hearing about Abraham’s actions. Whether Isaac’s near-death was enough to cause her own, or whether Sarah only learned of Abraham’s original intention (some say this was whispered to her by Satan), the rabbis give voice to Sarah’s pain by citing it as a source for the sounds of the shofar.
In other words, the shofar symbolizes both extreme faith and extreme agony, to the point of death, with both of them flowing from the very same act. How does this make any sense?
The second story is more obscure. The Rabbis drew from an odd biblical source for both the number of shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah (100) and the shofar’s staccato teruah sounds: the story of the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite military commander who is killed by Yael in the book of Judges. Sisera’s mother, who is never named, is said to have sobbed one hundred times when her son did not return home, and the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah reminds us of this.
With this teaching, the Rabbis have totally undercut the biblical text, which shows little sympathy for the mother of a fallen enemy. After all, Sisera’s mother is mocked in the biblical Song of Deborah, where she is imagined as waiting for her son, chalking up his delay to the taking of spoils (Judges 5.28-30). The Rabbis, however, are exceptionally sensitive to her pain, regardless of her son’s sins—to the point of reminding us of her story at the most sensitive moment in our prayers of the new year, the blast of the shofar.
Of course, it is good to remember that our enemies are human and that our joy in victory should always be tempered in the face of their suffering. In Passover, too, we remember this we spill drops of wine during the recitation of the Ten Plagues. But this seems different. The sounds of the shofar, the central ritual obligation of Rosh Hashanah, are the cries of Sisera’s mother, which then become our cries. Honestly, we came to synagogue to pray, to listen to the shofar, to promise to be better people, and then to go home and eat. Why invite the mother of our enemy into Rosh Hashanah?
Harmony is very pleasant. Synthesis is comfortable. To question our ways is to invite disharmony and disruption. And yet, this is what we are urged to do on Rosh Hashanah. Amid the beautiful melodies of cantors and choirs, the shofar pierces our inner ear. We become dizzy. Amid traditional holiday routines, traditional foods and traditional meals, the shofar confronts us with questions that cannot be dipped in honey.
Last year, before I addressed my community on Rosh Hashanah, I spent hours trying to figure out why the Rabbis traced the shofar sounds to the Binding of Isaac and to Sisera’s mother. How could the very same sound be both a reminder of Abraham’s righteousness and of Sarah’s horror? Why choose the cries of the mother of an enemy general as the basis for the sounds of the shofar? I tried to tie it all up neatly. As a student of Jewish Studies, I had been trained to smooth over jaggedness, to find the middle way, to create a Hegelian synthesis. But the synthesis did not come, and I refused to offer easy answers.
At the end of my talk, all I could say was that I did not have answers. That instead, we have to learn to live with the unnerving contradictions of the shofar. That as a community, the only thing we can do is to support each other within the disharmony. We held hands during the blowing of the shofar.
Should we ask questions for which there are no simple answers? Can we embrace the jaggedness? Can we welcome into our communities people with wildly different religious needs? Can we hold the people of our community together as the walls of our sanctuary begin to shake? If it’s harmony we are looking for, then the answer is no.
The shofar teaches us that we really can leave things messy and jagged. We don’t have to always have answers. But we should never be afraid of hard questions. The shofar embraces both the piety of Abraham and the critique of that piety by Sarah. The harmony of our community is challenged by the presence of our enemy’s mother, telling us how to do teshuvah. It’s only when we allow this discord to puncture our spiritual inner ear, to touch our inner self, that we can truly bring our contradictory selves before God — which is the mitzvah of the day.
Tova Hartman is dean of humanities at Ono Academic College, Israel.