Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the premier spiritual giants of our time, argues that modern Jews lead an amphibian existence. By this he means by way of metaphor, that like frogs for example, modern Jews ought to inhabit, and even master, two distinct ontological spheres. Frogs, as we know, are amphibian creatures – they can inhabit both the land and the sea.
Similarly, enlightened Jews ought to swim and dwell both in the sacred waters and profundity of Jewish spirituality, and at the same time – immerse themselves in all that is worthy in modern science and culture.
Famously, we are called upon by the Almighty, in the book of Isaiah, to be a “Light unto the nations” – to exemplify a dualistic mode of existence, in which we excel both in the mundane realm of the secular, and in the other-worldly and sublime horizon of the transcendent and the sublime.
Throughout history, many leading Jewish figures personified this twofold commitment to worldliness and tradition. These existential mentors include Philo, Maimonides, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rav Kook, and in our time – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
One way to interpret the Almighty’s promise to Abraham that his posterity will be as pervasive as the “Stars in the sky” and as the “Sand upon the shore,” is that the Jewish people is called upon and destined to achieve great things both in the heavenly sphere of the celestial and the transcendent (the “stars” representing the religious and spiritual dimension of life), and in the worldly realm of terrestrial pursuits (the “sand” symbolizing Jewish excellence in secular domains, and in the life of the mind of this world – in academia, science, art, and economics).
And as befitting amphibian creatures, we Jews embrace two complementary and distinct calendars. On the one hand, we lead our work and leisurely existence according to the temporal rhythms of the Gregorian calendar, by which the bulk of humanity also leads its affairs. On the other hand, we also inhabit the Hebrew Jewish calendar, by which we do spirituality and sanctity. We ponder our existence and engage in existential soul-searching according to the Hebrew calendar of the High Holy Days. We celebrate our political and spiritual freedoms on Passover and Shavuout. And every seventh day, we are invited to give ourselves the gift of a blissful reprieve from our secular culture’s pathological obsession with acquiring and “doing,” in order to grant ourselves the gift of sacred time, of soulfulness and being, on Shabbat.
To be a modern engaged Jew, is to constantly oscillate between the worldly exigencies and challenges of the Gregorian calendar, and the sublime and supernal spiritual fulfillment and existential satiation granted to us, once we also embrace the Hebrew Jewish calendar. For us modern Jews, to reject or to neglect either one of these calendars, would lead to a diminished and impoverished existence. To embrace both these calendars, intensely and wholeheartedly, would lead to a gratifying integration of the two paramount facets of the human condition – the practical and the spiritual, the ephemeral and the eternal, the holy and the mundane. To be an integrated Jew, thus entails wishing ourselves and those around us both “Shannah Tovah” during the commencement of the fall, and “Happy New Year,” at the conclusion of December.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Civil Year,