Rabbi Aron Moss contributes regular Q&A commentaries to Gather the Jews. Rabbi Moss is the proprietor of Nefesh and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rabbi Moss.
Question of the Week:
Why do we eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah? I know it is supposed to symbolize a sweet new year, but there are plenty of other sweet foods we could eat. I imagine in times gone by that this was the only sweet food that was readily available. But these days we have much more choice, so why do we still dip apples in honey?
The biggest question Judaism faces today is how to respond to modernity. How can Judaism appeal to a new generation? What will ignite the Jewish soul in the 21st century? Does Judaism need an update, or should we try to go back in time and recreate the lost world of Jewish life that existed in times gone by?
There are two common answers, the traditionalist and the modernist.
The traditionalist says that whatever was done in the past is right, and anything new is evil. What was good for our great-grandparents is good for us too. We need to go back to the good old days. Modernity can go jump.
Then there is the modernist. The priests of progress say that whatever is old is out, and whatever is new is in. We are not our grandparents, and we are not living in their world. We need to update Judaism to fit into the latest fads, the newest of new-age ideas, the most recent cutting edge worldview. This view claims that Judaism needs to move with the times.
In truth, they are both wrong. Traditionalism won’t work, because it doesn’t deal with the unique challenges and blessings that we face today. Modernism won’t work either, because it has no roots, no eternal truths, it is fickle and flimsy, superficial and empty.
There is as third approach, one that I believe is the authentic Jewish approach. This is the apples dipped in honey approach. Not traditionalism, not modernism, but applehoneyism.
Both apples and honey are sweet foods. This they have in common. But where they differ is in their shelf life. An apple goes bad very quickly. Even after a few minutes left exposed, a slice of apple will go brown and soft, and soon be inedible. Leave an apple in a fruit basket for a few weeks, and it will shrivel up and become mushy and rotten. Apples need to be eaten fresh.
Not so with honey. Honey does not decompose. In fact, the ancients used it as a preservative. Jars of honey were found in the pyramids in Egypt, unspoiled after thousands of years. Honey never goes bad.
Apples represent the modern world, the here and now, that fleeting moment in time we call the present. It is fresh today, stale tomorrow. Honey on the other hand represents tradition, a force that is unchanging and constant, timeless and stable.
Jewish spirituality is a delicate marriage of these two forces. For our spiritual life to be dynamic and alive, it must change and keep up with the times. But to have substance and meaning, it has to present a truth that is above change, that is timeless.
The true way to achieve this balance is by not making up new traditions, but rather finding new depth in the old traditions. The laws and rituals of Judaism are as compelling and inspiring today as they ever were. But their message needs to be communicated in a way that speaks to today’s world. Maintain the beliefs and rituals of our grandparents, but bring to them a new vitality, by exploring deeper reasons and explanations that talk to our generation. You don’t need to change our traditions to make them relevant. All you need to do is dig deeper into their meaning. In the infinite well of Judaism you will find the message for today.
The apple alone will go rotten fast, as will every spiritual fad not based on truth. Dip your apple in the honey of our eternal tradition, and it will be preserved forever.
All the best,