Yiddish Kopf / Nefesh Yehudi

October 4th: High Holy Days
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
For our Torah Commentary at this season, we shall be publishing Rabbi Ostrich’s Yom Tov sermons. This is from Erev Rosh Hashanah: Yiddishe Kupf/Nefesh Yehudi

What are we doing here? What are we doing here? I suspect, at one time or another, each of us has asked that question—to our parents, our teachers, ourselves. When we go to High Holy Day services, what are we supposed to be doing?

I remember a delightful story by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in which he focuses on the wool pants he and his brother had to wear to Temple in the late 1950s. The story resonated with me because I remember the wool pants of that era and, like Rabbi Kushner, remember the fact that these standards of proper attire made little boys feel like thousands of needles were poking their legs. The result was squirming and flattened-out creases and irritable mothers and aunts.

The pants were important at the Kushner family’s temple in Detroit—in the sanctuary they called The Big Room—because, as he puts it, “Every year we would go to temple where my brother and I would be inspected by every Jew in Michigan, all of whom seemed to know my parents and cared that my wool pants were neatly creased.”

As an adolescent, young Larry felt cynical about the whole scene. “All anybody seems to care about here is how they’re dressed. This isn’t religion; it’s a fashion parade. Why does everyone only care how they look?”

Then, with a few more years’ observation, he began to see things a little differently. He writes, “There is a religious power of simply being seen and looking good in the ‘Big Room.’ It is a way of appearing before God who we suspect is not beneath looking through the eyes of the community. Being seen by the congregation is like being seen by God. All those souls, together in that sanctuary, make something religious happen.”

I would, this evening, to explore the religious something that happens when we enter the synagogue, and I want to think about it in terms of two Jewish expressions which describe the result we are seeking to produce: a Yiddishe Kopf, a Jewish Head, and a Nefesh Yehudi, a Jewish Soul. Yiddishe Kopf is Yiddish and is generally a compliment about a person who has mental agility—as some would put it, a head on his/her shoulders. Whether in regard to Jewish learning or practical things like business, the term Yiddishe Kopf reflects our hope and belief that Jews are good thinkers. Nefesh Yehudi is Hebrew and is familiar to many of us from the words of Hatikvah, Israel’s National Anthem. Based on a poem by Naftali Herz Imber, the idea is that,  “So long as still within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sings:“ there is an internal sensibility and spiritual truth present in Jewish people—a spiritual essence that yearns for fulfillment.

We are here, I submit, to develop and exercise our Yiddishe Kopfs and our N’fashot Yehudi. We are here, in this big room, to engage in Jewish tradition and to harvest the fruits of our ancient spiritual and ethical fields.

When anthropologists look at religious experience and try to identify the processes that make a ritual work, they have found two factors/steps in pretty much all religious rituals in all human cultures. The first is a separation from the regular. In order for the religious ritual to begin, the participants do something different from their regular activities. They might go to a different/special place, or wear different/special clothing, or use different/special terminology or language.

The second part of the process involves an aggregation of the individual into a greater community—what anthropologist Victor Turner calls communitas. The individual experiences a profound sense of union with something larger and more significant.

There are certainly more details in a ritual process—especially when we look at a tradition as old and vital and complex as our own, but these two factors seem to be present in all rituals, and I believe they are worthy of consideration. 

Think of how these steps work in Judaism. We come here, to a special place. We wear special clothing—yarmulkes, tallesim. Many of us make a point of wearing dress-up clothes—what some country folk used to call Sunday, Go-to-Meeting Clothes. We also use a special language. In our case, it is Hebrew—a language that is not only a language. Hebrew is, in the words of Rabbi Bahir Davis, a spirit language—expressing spiritual values above and beyond the actual meanings of the words.

Perhaps this is why so many of us feel the importance of praying in Hebrew even if we are not adept at it in vocabulary and grammar. There is something about using Hebrew in Jewish circles that makes us feel more Jewish, more connected to the God and Jewish Tradition.

Even in the most classical of Classical Reform Temples, where Hebrew was minimized dramatically, there was still some Hebrew—perhaps just the Bar’chu or Shema, or perhaps just Hebrew songs sung by a choir. Without some Hebrew, it just didn’t feel Jewish.

It is also interesting to me how, in the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel, their special prayer language is Ashkenazic Hebrew. These Israelis speak regular Sephardic Hebrew everyday—and in sermons and announcements, but they pray from the Siddur and chant from the Torah in the old-fashioned Hebrew of their Europeans ancestors. Separating from their regular, they are working for an extra measure of holiness.

The second ritual step, as we go through our rituals and prayers, is to find a sense of unity with something greater than ourselves. Spiritually, there is the sense of oneness with the One God, what the Kabbalah calls yichud. This yearning for communitas can be found in the second prayer after Bar’chu, the one right before Shema. There, on page 81 of the Machzor, you can read the passage at the bottom of the page: “You Who chose us, drawing us near to Your great Name in utter truth, so that we may give thanks to You and unite You in love.

There is also the sense of universal Jewish unity we can feel when we know that, all over the state, and nation, and world, Jews are going through these communal rituals, all approaching God in our sacred ways, on our sacred days.

And, don’t forget about the sense of historical unity many of us feel in synagogue, as we join with all the generations of our people, from Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah and Rachel to our more recent ancestors—and going on to our descendants. We are all part of a sacred chain in which the ancients are our past, and are we and our descendants are their Jewish future.

I studied this analysis of religious ritual—from anthropologist Victor Turner—back when I was in college, and, over the years, I have always been struck at the way these dynamics are indeed at play. Not only does it explain many of our Jewish approaches, but it also helps me understand the religious mores of our non-Jewish friends and neighbors. An example is the curious vocabulary used by certain Christians in their religious circles—where everyone is called either Brother or Sister, where the word stewardship means dues, and where the word fellowship, a noun, is used as a verb. (“After the service, we’ll all gather in the social hall and fellowship...”) It also explains the insistence among some Evangelical Christians that the only proper Bible is the King James translation with its Elizabethan English. In these various ways, people of religion are separating from the regular, a first step in their prayerful attempts to unite with God or Christendom or their ancestors or all three.

I also find this analysis helpful in understanding the spiritual infrastructure of our ritual processes and the ways we strive for a Yiddishe Kopf and a Nefesh Yehudi. Both concepts express a separation from the regular and a joining of ourselves with a greater presence. Each term indicates an essential difference between the way Jews think and feel and the way others see the world. Moreover, when we speak of a Jewish mind or a Jewish spirit, there is the image of an ideal, archetypal, heavenly Jewishness to which we are all invited to aspire.

Religion can be seen as transactional. God demands certain things, and we either do them or don’t. This is certainly the way much of the Torah and Bible are written. However, over the generations, there has also been a discussion of the ancient texts which is much more a dialogue between sacred aspirations and human realities. As much as our sacred texts may be inspired by God, there is the sense—for more than the last 2000 years—that we are partners with God in figuring out how best to bring holiness into the world.

Our voice in the discussion is evidenced in the continuing interpretation called Talmud and Midrash—much of which is devoted to our communal goal of having Yiddishe Kopfs and N’fashot Yehudi. Given our long-term experience and our Tradition’s observations about life, what is the best Yiddishe thinking we can muster on the big and small questions of life? And, what is the Jewish spiritual truth to consider when we look at our tradition and apply it to our modern souls?

This discussion is complex and ongoing, and it holds many enduring questions. While it is part of our essential truth to focus on our Jewishness, is it not also part of our Torah to focus on our humanity and that of all humans—both Jews and non-Jews? While part of our essential truth calls for us to focus on the spiritual, is it not also part of our Torah to be utterly practical—to figure out how to be holy in the real world?

What are we doing here? We are engaging in our ancient and continuing effort to think and feel and aspire to bring Heaven’s blessings to this world.

Let me conclude with a piece from the French thinker Edmond Fleg who ponders the many co-existing goals of Judaism and finds great meaning in our sacred mission.
“I am a Jew because born of Israel and having lost it, I feel it revive within me more alive than I am myself.

I am a Jew because born of Israel and having found it again, I would have it live after me even more alive that it is within me.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires no abdication of my mind.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul.

I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.

I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.

I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.

I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; we will complete it.

I am a Jew because for Israel humans are not yet fully completed; we are creating ourselves.

I am a Jew because Israel places Humanity and our unity above nations and above Israel itself.

I am a Jew because above the Human, the image of the Divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.”