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ESSAY I’m taking my soul’s accounting; are our leaders doing it, too?

NEW YORK, Sept. 29 (JTA) – I’ve been trying to integrate the practices of approaching the New Year into my life over the past few years, and feel particularly connected to two: Cheshbon HaNefesh, taking an account of my own soul, and Mechilah, which is about asking forgiveness from those whom I think I may have hurt. It’s good Jewish exercise, this account taking. And in the twisted calculus I manage to fashion inside my head, it somehow seems to make up for the fact that I haven’t schlepped myself to the health club in far too long. So on the subway on the way home from work, or as I walk my son to nursery school in the morning, I think about it: In what ways have I failed, this past year, to be the kind of person I want to be? When have I cut corners on the truth, been less than 100 percent ethical? When have I been insensitive to others’ feelings? How often have I been too quick to spend $75 on a pair of shoes I want, but don’t really need, even as I’ve given less to tzedakah than I should because I felt like I couldn’t really afford to add a few more multiples of $18 to the check? The partner practice of this internal accounting is trying to right wrongs before Yom Kippur. And God and I both know that I have plenty of wrongs to right. Asking forgiveness for the hurt I have caused is hardest, of course, with the people I love most of all – the people whose buttons I seem to inadvertently push and who for sure know how to push mine. Trying to get someone who is defended with full emotional armor to open up about their feelings isn’t easy, and even when we are able to talk and acknowledge that we’ve caused each other pain, it doesn’t solve the underlying problems. But it does allow us to show that we deeply care about one another – an awareness that seems so quick to fly out the window in anger’s heat – and that there are chinks in the armor where we’re both vulnerable and, most importantly, accessible. When approaching someone I love to ask their forgiveness, I know going in that it’s not the time to start telling them how they’ve hurt me. No matter how tempting it is to come back with my own list of their most painful hits after they tell me that I’ve been awful, I try to keep my mouth shut. Anything I’d say would surely cause them to close up to me just when I most of all want them to stay open. And it would end the promise that we might be able to heal the relationship in the future. Beyond repairing relationships, part of what I hope to achieve from this asking of forgiveness is progress in my own spiritual and emotional development. To be open, to empathize when I’m full of hurt and anger is no easy thing for me. But when I’m able to do it I know that I’ve accomplished something important – showing this person whom I love that they are more important to me than my own pain and learning to keep my mouth shut when I feel powerfully moved to talk. This being a time of year particularly popular for organizational poppycock, I wasn’t surprised when a particular news release crossed my desk a few days ago. It was a joint statement from the country’s four major Orthodox organizations – Agudath Israel of America, the National Council of Young Israel, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union – titled “A heartfelt message to our fellow Jews.” I anticipated that it would be a message of sadness, perhaps, at the painful in-fighting that has gone on recently over religious pluralism, but that it would set a tone of reconciliation and, at the least, one of hope that things would improve in the year ahead. Was I wrong. Instead, it was a strongly worded condemnation of those Reform and Conservative Jews who have challenged the Orthodox monopoly over all matters of religious and personal status in Israel – among them conversion, marriage and divorce – along with the right to pray in egalitarian fashion at the Western Wall. It accused them of being “divisive and wrong,” of creating “a climate of ill-will and anger.” Not exactly the language of reconciliation. From where I sit, responsibility for the attenuating relationship belongs to every party involved, but taking responsibility was not in the cards either. When I called the top national leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements for their response, I hoped that I might hear, in addition to the predictable condemnation of the statement, some measure of responsibility taken for the depressing situation we are in, as a people. I wonder about these religious leaders who speak for all of our movements: Have they done a Cheshbon HaNefesh when it comes to this most painful of issues, the question of whether we are witnessing the end of Jewish peoplehood? Have any considered taking responsibility, even a little bit, for some of the recent developments that trouble all of us so? I’m hoping soon to hear the head of one of the national Jewish religious organizations give credit to another denomination for something his own has claimed or re-claimed. I fantasize that one day the head of the Reform movement will credit the Orthodox for maintaining the passionate Torah study that makes it possible for him today to call on his own constituents to make Torah the center of their lives and know that there is a model for them to look to. One day, maybe, a leading rabbi in centrist Orthodoxy will stand up and speak proudly of the contribution to his entire community that women’s Torah learning is making, and perhaps acknowledge that it would not be happening without the liberal movements’ focus on egalitarian access to our holy texts. It’s not likely that 5758 will see either of these scenarios become reality. But some small part of me holds on to hope. Maybe that’s just my foolish optimism for the New Year. But then what kind of New Year would it be without hope for better times ahead?