President Eisenhower is said to have remarked, “Everyone should have a religion, and I don’t care which one.” The first half of the sentence sounds fine, but I’m not sure about the second.
To have a religion is code for having a spiritual outlook on life, recognizing forces and energies which are above and beyond the earthly and commonplace, acknowledging that we are answerable to history, destiny and a higher power.
But to add, “I don’t care which one” is to diminish both the uniqueness of who I am and the distinctiveness of where I come from.
Religions are not all the same, and neither are human beings.
Most religious people are molded by and in the faith into which they are born: others choose a particular religion because of their own life experiences and spiritual needs.
As far as Jews are concerned, the observance of Sukkot is a potent symbol of why Judaism is the right religion for us. Before attempting to validate this assertion, let me recall something which actually recurred many times in my rabbinic career.
Life in the Diaspora brings Jews into constant contact with members of other faiths and none. Rabbis find themselves acting as Jewish ambassadors, explaining Jews and Judaism to individuals and audiences in many places.
My own contacts ranged from sitting on the bus reading the local Jewish newspaper and finding the passenger next to me highly curious about what it is to be a Jew, to mixing with public figures who constantly wondered why Jews were different.
Audiences I addressed varied from seminaries and synods, media meetings and national commemorations to groups of school children who visited the synagogue and asked, “Why can’t you see that being Christian is the right religion?” My answers remained consistent, though I varied the packaging.
To the crucial question of whether Christianity was the right religion I always said, “It is the right religion – for Christians. For us the right religion is Judaism.” I would often add, “What makes us different is our history, our culture and our beliefs.”
Judaism is the Jewish response to the challenge of living on earth and reaching for heaven, writing ourselves in God’s book and writing Him in ours. Judaism is also a people, relying on each other and jointly creating a community of faith and fate.
Sometimes we feel fragile as Jews. We survived the ups and downs of history because we knew that One on High protected us like a sukka and supported our vision of the day when all the nations will come to Jerusalem to the mountain of the Lord of Hosts.
Sometimes we wonder about ourselves as Jews. We are such a small people and so divided. Some of us dream of a united people in which there are no divisions. I don’t share that dream. What a boring world it would be if we were all stamped out with cookie cutters. We have a blessing that praises God who “varies the forms of His creatures.”
An orchestra needs all its different instruments. Our world needs a spectrum of faces, personalities, professions and propensities. The Midrash uses the four plants that mark Sukkot to show there is room in every human community for individual difference.
We talk of waving the lulav, but the most interesting fruit is the etrog. This was always the most expensive, the most minutely scrutinized plant of the four. In far-off places Jews were never as happy as when they succeeded in importing an etrog. They even imposed a communal levy to pay for the community’s etrogim.
Ibn Ezra was convinced that “there exists no fruit more beautiful than the etrog.” The Midrash waxed lyrical about the etrog’s fragrance and edibility.
It comes as a surprise, then, to learn what Nachmanides tells us about etrogim. When we take the four plants on Sukkot we can bind three of them together – Lulav, Aravot and Hadassim – but the shape of the etrog defies any attempt to bind it with the others.
Nachmanides argues that the etrog is left out of the bundle and held separately because it needed to be shunned! He derives the name “etrog” from an Aramaic word which means passion and desire. He believes, as do others, that the etrog was the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden.
He adds, “The etrog was the source of lust, the cause of the sin of Adam and Eve. In it sin lurks, and the other three of the four species provide the atonement for it. The etrog is not bound with these three but is held separately, since it stands in opposition to them.”
Is there a lesson to derive from this rather negative view of the etrog? Surely this: that a community is not only divided ideologically and culturally, but ethically too. There are differences of view and also differences in character. Some are good people and some are not.
Sukkot and its etrog indicate after Yom Kippur that the waters of penitence do not succeed in eradicating every vestige of sin and sinfulness, but that we can always do better next year. Will there be a time when there is no longer a need for the etrog? Unlikely, since we need a stern reminder not to lapse again.
In any case, not everyone agrees with Nachmanides.The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.