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Exploring the eternal relevance of Sukkot and mitzvot in general.
In 2002, David Gottlieb, a secular Jew and practicing Zen Buddhist priest, began a correspondence with Rabbi Akiva Tatz, a well-known author and lecturer and internationally recognized medical ethicist. Gottlieb had a problem. His wife was a practicing Conservative Jew and he was becoming increasingly involved in Buddhism and distant from the Jewish tradition.
What followed after Gottlieb's initial query to Rabbi Tatz was a correspondence that lasted more than a year and resulted, in 2004, in the publication of "Letters to a Buddhist Jew." An intensely personal exploration of life and faith, the book presents an extended conversation between a rabbi rooted in traditional Judaism and a Jew searching for meaning within its boundaries. Following is an excerpt from the book that examines the relevance of Sukkot, and ancient practices generally in today's world.
Shaking the lulav and etrog, dwelling in booths; the dedicated reading of Torah portions about brutal savagery in war, sacrifice, plagues and torment visited upon enemies; some aspects of Jewish life and observance, and the stories by which we guide ourselves, seem to modern sensibilities arrogant, bizarre, war-like. Although it is beyond argument that the Jewish people endowed the Western world with much, if not all, of its normal code, it is nonetheless strange that we adhere to the customs and tell the stories of an ancient agrarian conglomerate of nomadic tribes when the world has changed so much.
Much of Judaism appears impenetrable and archaic, so that it becomes the last place many Jews would look for a vital connection to the Divine. A book that recently received a lot of attention here in the States ["Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism," by Douglas Rushkoff] makes the claim that Judaism is dying because rituals have frozen the spiritual truth of the religion in inaccessible amber, and what's left has been expropriated by Jewish agencies using the Israeli/Palestinian crisis as an excuse to raise money to perpetuate themselves. This view is not entirely unrepresentative of much of my generation's take on contemporary Judaism.
You raise two points: first, time renders certain "traditions" meaningless, and second, barbaric and terrible things are inappropriate to perpetuate; and you make an assumption: we were once an "agrarian conglomerate of nomadic tribes" and our traditions descend from there.
What you call "traditions" are mitzvoth, commandments -- you cite sukkah, lulav and etrog; these are biblical commandments. There are two classes of mitzvot: those between man and God, and those between man and man. Those between man and man I presume give you no problem; you do not single out any of them -- kindness, charity, lending to one who needs a loan, and so on. (These are all commandments of the Torah, exactly as are sukkah and lulav.) So I assume the problem is the man-God mitzvot. But why should these be any less relevant now than they were when they were given? You choose the example of sukkah; let us look at the mitzvah briefly and see if it has lost any relevance with the passage of time.
I am going to suggest to you that quite contrary to your assumption, this mitzvah is more relevant in modern times than it ever was. What lies behind this commandment? What is its meaning and what is the meditation that should accompany its performance?
Dwelling in booths is at root an exercise in ego negation.
Dwelling in booths is at root an exercise in ego negation; it works to build faith in the spiritual Source and not in the material domain of man's control. The sukkah requires a roof that is very insubstantial, as I am sure you know -- it must be flimsy enough to allow the rain through; it is good if you can see the stars through it too.
In fact, one of the root meanings of the Hebrew word sukkah is "to see through." When you leave your permanent home (the proverbial "roof over your head") and move into a booth that has hardly a roof at all, you are developing the ability to see through the material and perceive the higher. The tempting illusion is that our security derives from the material; the sukkah teaches that if there is security, it comes from elsewhere.
The kabbalistic texts call the sukkah the "shelter of faith." The festival of Sukkot occurs at the harvest season; the message is that exactly as you bring your harvest into your home, just at the time when you may feel most independent, most self-secure, most independently wealthy, the Torah is saying: "Careful; do not detach from the real Source of all that you have." On Sukkot we read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) -- "All is vanity"; do not invest too much in this world. This is the constant theme of all the commentaries.
So dwelling in booths serves to sensitize you to the higher world, to draw your gaze up metaphorically, through the sukkah's thin cover and not to your mansion's concrete roof for security. This is a tangible experience of leaving the material and going out into a different kind of existence.
Is this any less relevant today than it ever was? It could just be that it is more relevant now. With the development of technology, with the conquest of ever more of the material environment comes the temptation to assume that we are in control, that we are approaching mastery of our world. As we subdue more areas of the physical we amplify this danger. The ultimate danger here is not only the false assumption of competence and control, the dangerous illusion that we can take care of anything at all in our world, but at root we are amplifying ego and that is the real source of all disaster.
When you live in a solid house with technology that apparently guarantees your safety, you are more likely to forget from where your real protection comes. Modern culture fosters a sense of self-sufficiency and human power, a "we are in control" mindset. We need at least as much effort to control that as in ancient ages.
You chose the example of the sukkah, but we could show the relevance of all the mitzvot. The reasons and benefits that we grasp are not the ultimate reasons for the mitzvot; they are only the elements that we can relate to. The ultimate reasons lie beyond us; since the mitzvot are given from the ultimate Source of reality, of course they are relevant today. But even at the limited level that we can grasp we can show their timeless relevance.
Which other festivals are irrelevant in the modern age? Passover, that teaches the message of freedom? Shavuot, the giving of the Torah? Purim -- learning to see the hidden Hand behind the natural? Chanukah -- the war against the Greek anti-spiritual ideology that seeks to destroy our spiritual identity? Tisha B'Av -- mourning and repentance occasioned by all the holocausts and destructions, distant and recent?
Which mitzvot? Do not tell me that kosher food is health-related, and now that our food is safe and healthy it is irrelevant. Kosher food has nothing to do with health (all Torah has fringe benefits that accompany its observance, but they are only the fringes.) Unkosher food is spiritual desensitizing, not unhealthy. The Torah is primarily a spiritual path, not a social and medical guide.
A popular distortion of Torah suggests that the Shabbat laws are for the sake of "rest," and all things that no longer require the exertion they once did are now permitted. But Shabbat has nothing to do with rest in the physical sense; what is prohibited on Shabbat is creative activity, not work. The degree of exertion is irrelevant, and it always has been. Shabbat is a day of desisting from creation, a day of consolidating the week's achievement, an anticipation of the next world where all creation ceases, an experience of the destination that gives the journey its meaning.
That is as relevant as ever. As for the fringe benefits, the simple joy of family togetherness on Shabbat, with no media interruption, none of the flying from one activity to the next that defines the week, is invaluable. The high-quality time that marriage and family need, completely undisturbed, that Shabbat brings; people who have not built this into their experience can have no idea what they are missing.
Of those mitzvot of the 613 that we are able to fulfill today, what has time annulled? Kindness, charity, visiting the sick, providing medical treatment, giving interest-free loans, returning lost objects, building-safety regulations (an explicit command of the Torah)...?
And which prohibitions are not relevant now? Cruelty to animals, laws of scrupulous business honesty (the Torah prohibits even owning inaccurate weights and measures) -- what no longer applies to us? Adultery? Murder? Theft? Jealousy? Perjury?
Every aspect of medicine requires spiritual knowledge; the Torah guides the process at every step.
The menstrual separation laws? The Talmud indicates that one of the reasons for which we separate from our wives for some days of each month is to maintain a spark of excitement in the sensual area of marriages that otherwise all too often descend into boredom, tired echoes of the appetite they once aroused. Is marriage now no longer a challenge?
The laws prohibiting intimate seclusion of man and woman who are not married to each other (yichud) are designed to prevent the unintended development of extramarital relationships; which society has transcended that problem?
Are you thinking of the specific laws that apply to Cohanim, the laws that define their particular spiritual status? But why should modernity change that? If you have trouble understanding why Cohanim should be the focus of unique laws in the first place, that is certainly worth discussion, but it has nothing to do with mitzvot that time has changed.
Perhaps you mean women's mitzvot. But again, the unique mitzvot that apply to women apply now as they always have -- time has not changed the essential nature of woman. And again, if you struggle with the difference between men's and women's unique roles in Torah, that too is a subject for further analysis, but time has not changed its fundamentals.
Of course, there are those who claim that certain mitzvot were never relevant -- but that has nothing to do with changes that time has wrought; that is a problem of plain and simple denial of Torah altogether. For one who denies mitzvot as such, time is not his problem.
Scientific and technological advance do not diminish the importance of spiritual wisdom. Do you think I could function in medicine today without Torah direction because modern medicine renders it unnecessary? How could I function without it? Abortion was practiced two thousand years ago and it is practiced now; our problem is not the technical, our problem is the moral and spiritual, and modern technology has not changed that. Every aspect of medicine requires spiritual knowledge; the Torah guides the process at every step.
Which details are unnecessary? For example, the Code of Jewish law states explicitly that no doctor is allowed to treat a patient if a more qualified doctor is available. There is an overriding Torah obligation to give the patient the best possible treatment. This is not the place to examine that law's details and exceptions, but I can assure you that it applies today as it always has, and is just as necessary. As a Jewish doctor I need to know what is allowed and what is forbidden as much now as my ancestors who were doctors did in their day.
So modernity as a reason for the demise of mitzvot? I think not, David.
There is no such thing as ritual in Judaism.
As for frozen spirituality and rituals: it is not ritual that is killing Jewish spirituality; there is no such thing as ritual in Judaism, and no such thing as symbolism, if those terms refer to empty practices and images. Every action, even the simplest custom in Torah practice is only a body that contains a living soul. We have no rite, no ritual and no symbol that is not the physical expression of an unfathomable depth as surely as the living body is the least aspect of a cosmic soul, only the physical expression of that soul.
We have no sentimentality either; in Judaism all sentiment serves infinite spirit. There is nothing more basic in Torah than this; all of the world is an expression of the duality of form and matter, soul and body, Torah and mitzvah, thought and action, meaning and expression. Of course you know that that duality is both dual and single -- soul and body, Torah and mitzvah, spiritual essence and the "ritual" or symbol that expresses that essence are all examples of a duality that resolves into unity in depth, the unity of Creator and Creation.