Will the real Judaism please stand up

On Succot, there's something for everyone as the austere commingles with the ostentatious.

October 12, 2008 10:46
etrog 88

etrog 88. (photo credit: )


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Over the last generation, a philosophical battle has been raging over the soul and spirit of Judaism: Is it a religion of love, tolerance and inclusivity or is it rather a religion of strict adherence to the letter of the law, unyielding in its demand upon the faithful to follow only the highest of standards? In the first camp are those who would open the doors wide to potential converts, seek halachic ways and means to broaden Jewish horizons and emphasize joy and celebration as the operative mood and mode of normative Jewish life. In this world view "it is a great mitzva to be happy," and the Talmudic dictum to "draw others close with the right hand while pushing away only with the left" is the correct approach vis a vis fellow Jews. The modern world, despite all its potential pitfalls, is neither to be feared nor shunned but is meant to be integrated into the scheme of righteous observance. Outreach, travel, laughter, exercise, entertainment, music, knowledge of the world and honest work in virtually every profession are to be proudly practiced and experienced through the prism of Torah values. Proof-texts for this approach are abundant: From the dictums of Pirkei Avot to "greet all people cheerfully" and "combine Torah with gainful employment" to the Hassidic world's emphasis on song in prayer (a la Carlebach) to the late German Jewish leader Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's famous announcement to his students that he was "off to the Alps for a few days to experience God's beauty on Earth," to Rav Kook's strong belief that the secular Zionists who pioneered the Jewish state were as much God's messengers as the greatest tzadikim because "they built this country with their blood, sweat and tears." On the other side of the divide are those who reckon that Judaism is a serious business and ought to be taken seriously. They perceive that the threat to the Jewish people is more from within than from without and that, in the face of an ever-more violent and immoral world, we need to redouble our devotion to mitzvot and Jewish values. That begins by creating insular societies that protect us from negative, outside influences; focusing on intensive, pervasive Torah study - which, by tradition, is Jewish man's most noble pursuit; and currying God's favor by avoiding halachic loopholes, instead adopting an uncompromising approach to mitzva observance. All of which takes up the slack for the large segment of the Jewish world that is detached from Judaism. As one proponent of this approach explained to me, "Jewish life is like a journey along a steep mountain road. In the bright sunlight, one can safely hug the side of the road. But when the fog rolls in and the road lines disappear, you need to compensate by moving away from the edge so you don't fall off the cliff. And as for those who propose more of a middle-of-the-road position? Well, you know what happens to someone who travels down the middle of the road - he's bound to get run over!" There are ample sources to support this position, too. The Talmud in Berachot 31 recounts numerous incidents in which great rabbis sought to moderate festivities and social celebrations so as to hold our wilder side in check and keep us focused on Godly behavior. In one such incident, Rabbi Ashi threw a glass down on the floor at a wedding when he perceived that the entertainment was getting out of hand (an act that some say is the source for the custom of breaking the glass at Jewish weddings). Are these two approaches absolute? Or is there a middle ground position that presents another alternative? I suggest that Succot - the last of the "big three" festivals of Tishrei - is just that alternative. The first holiday we experience, Rosh Hashana, is all about joy and love. We dress up in fine clothes (there is even a tradition for husbands to present their wives with new clothes on the second night of the holiday); we feast, we greet one another cheerfully with wishes for good fortune and prosperity. Though we have entered the 10 Days of Repentance, the prayers of Rosh Hashana are decidedly upbeat. Then comes Yom Kippur. Here, the mood is clearly more intense. The physical sensations that normally bring us pleasure - food, drink, marital relations, even baths and oils - are suspended. The prayers are weighty in their tone and implications -- from Kol Nidre through the Vidui confessionals to the Martyrology. We wear a white kittel that reminds us of burial shrouds; we try our best to literally cry, for the "gates of tears are never closed." While the outcome of the day is certainly exhilarating - this is our grand opportunity to lift the burden of sin from our shoulders - the process can be downright draining. And then comes Succot. No holiday is so filled with multiple mitzvot: Hallel each day; the Four Species; the succa; the beating of the willows. But the meaning is in the mixture. On the one hand, we are scrupulously, magnifying-glass careful about every nuance of our etrog and the exact dimensions of our little succa; and we know the dire implications if our solemn prayer for rain goes unanswered. But we also march joyfully around the synagogue with our lulav, gyrating in all directions, and dance with abandon on Simchat Torah and at the nightly Simchat Beit Hashoeva celebrations. The Talmud records the fanciful dances the Sages would perform at these parties, juggling fire and balancing bottles on their heads in an attempt to outdo one another. On Succot, Judaism's longest holiday, there is something for everyone as the austere commingles with the ostentatious. When Tishrei has finally drawn to a close, we can see - through the lens of Succot - that a full-bodied approach to our faith combines all the elements of the emotional and spiritual spectrum. The mitzvot that distinguish us as Jews are as diverse, one could say, as the Jewish people themselves. For the simple truth is that we are not monolithic nor, for that matter, is our Torah. God understands man's expectations as well as his excesses; at times he must be coddled, and at other times contained. In God's succa - compact as it may be - there is ample room for the intellectual, the pashete Jew, the jovial, slightly tipsy hassid and the musar-loving moralist. There is a time to cry and a time to laugh. Like the Four Species themselves, we Jews do not always grow the same way, look alike or smell the same. But we are all somehow bound together into one bundle. Jewish life is a lot like the lulav. Long may it wave.

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