Why I Love (Even Secular) New Year’s Celebrations

It is easy to be dismissive of any grand significance to New Year’s. Sure, it is fun–an excuse to gather together with family and friends, drink copious amounts of champagne, and watch others freeze outside of Times Square waiting for the ball to drop while you sit cozy and comfortable in your own home. But we all know that any deeper meaning in New Year’s, as epitomized by our resolution-making, is shallow to the point of insignificance. Every year, we channel our inner Sisyphus and lug our resolutions up the hill of aspirations only to watch them quickly plummet back down. A quick Google search for “new year’s resolutions fail” yielded 7,450,000 hits. Eighty percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week in February.

Why, then, do I still love New Year’s? The audacity so many show in continuing to make these resolutions even though we know so many are doomed to failure. And, by extension, in refusing to accept the status quo, the world as it is, and insisting that we can be better and do better.

Religion provides a great deal of strength to individuals and communities by serving as a source of tradition. In turbulent times, whether geo-politically or internally, we need religion as an anchor and a source of comfort from the familiarity of its rituals and laws. But this sense of institutional conservatism also has its downside, keeping religion from being as responsive, flexible, and resonant as it could be. A recent article in Jewniverse, I think, encapsulates this point: There is a ladder leaning against the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that has been there for over 250 years solely because the various parties that co-run the Church cannot agree to remove (or at least move) it.

Judaism, at its best, offers a blend of tradition and innovation.  Yes we have laws and rituals that connect us to our ancestors and thereby reinforce a sense of Jewish peoplehood.  I’m thinking particularly about mitzvot that may not have strong moral relevance, such as kashrut or circumcision.  Yet Judaism also encourages and even demands evolution and change.  The forefathers of rabbinic Judaism, after the destruction of the Second Temple, insisted that new rituals and laws could be adopted that were just as significant and meaningful as what Jews had done in the past. Nor was this a one-time event; the entire edifice of teshuvot, of rabbinic responsa to communal questions that have existed for millennia and continue today, is predicated on this notion of ongoing legal development.

January 1 resolutions, too, encourage us to innovate.  They offer an annual (or for Jews, a bi-annual if you have already fallen off the wagon of your Rosh Hashanah resolutions) occasion for dreaming about who we aspire to be and what kind of world we want to inhabit.  To that, I will heartily raise my glass of champagne and proclaim, “l’hayim!”  Happy 2016 to all.

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