Thought for the Year
by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-01-02
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Having been brought up in Britain I only became aware of the controversy surrounding the New Year when studying in Israel and I heard that the rabbinate was refusing to give kashrut certificates to hotels that held New Years Eve parties. Angry rabbis made typically hyperbolic statements about the profound disasters that celebrating something called Sylvester would wreak on the Jewish world.
I had never heard of Sylvester before. I looked it up and discovered that Pope Sylvester I, according to legend, was the man who baptized the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. He became St. Sylvester after he died in 335 and a commemorative feast was kept by some sects within the church on December 31. Nowadays it is kept as a religious occasion primarily by
German speaking communities to celebrate the change of the year.
The most that the New Year meant to me was that it was a time for resolutions (usually to do with losing weight), for self assessment and a new start, not unlike our own Rosh Hashanna. And if every New Month, Rosh Chodesh, was a sort of mini New Year, then what could be wrong with another occasion for self examination? Besides resolutions are no different to 'vows' Nedarim, which occupy a major part of Biblical and Talmudic discourse. And you can make a vow any time!
Then, as now, I believed that religion should focus on the positive and the creative and leave the negative to others. If parties were essentially opportunities to eat and drink and praise the Almighty, then what could be wrong? The Gemara is choc a bloc full of rabbis having parties.
But sadly as I grew older and wiser I discovered that parties were usually opportunities for other sorts of activities that had very little to do with study or praising the Lord. And so New Year's Eve faded in my scale of priorities. But still it was hardly a major threat to Jewish identity.
So now for me it is now no more than another landmark, another birthday. Its function is of importance only in so far as it makes me stop in the flow of normal activity and gets me to think for a moment and evaluate myself.
Another secular year has gone by in which some of you have been reading my weekly diatribes.
What have I been trying to achieve? My Yeshiva background has given me an overwhelming respect for Torah in its widest sense and the beauty and excitement of its mysticism. My secular education has added other dimensions. I have tried in my writing to bring in ideas from all over and add them to the riches of our own religious culture. I have tried to puncture humbug and hypocrisy and stimulate and amuse. Religion with no sense of humour is as colourless and as dangerous as religion that refuses to examine itself honestly. My New Year's resolution is simply to continue!
And to you all, I hope it is a fulfilling one.