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    Analysis & appreciation – Sukkot

    September 26th, 2023

    Sukkot says a great deal about Judaism.

    Jews do not usually analyse their theology and treat it as an academic belief system. They prefer experience and appreciation. They do not try to apply reason to the nature of God, man and life, but use their senses to feel and apprehend what it is to live as a Jew.

    On Sukkot the agenda is not so much a credal theory of Providence but a pulsating feeling of joy – taking in the atmosphere, handling the etrog and sensing its splendour, breathing the aroma and saying, “It’s great to be Jewish!”

    This doesn’t circumvent the existence of Jewish doctrines (the most famous are Maimonides’ 13 Principles) but it says, “Where you find Jewish beliefs is not in books but in life, not in propositions but in pulsation”.

    The Sukkot commandments arouse the Jewish heart so that the festival is liturgically called Z’man Simchatenu, “Our time of joy”, a description deriving from Deut. 16:15, which says, “You shall be extremely joyful”.

    In ancient days Sukkot was “the festival”, considered more joyous than the other festivals because it marked the end of the year’s crops.

    Four kinds of plants – Sukkot

    September 26th, 2023

    Four plants – a lulav, an etrog, three hadassim and two aravot are waved during Sukkot services in all four directions and up and down, to mark God’s omnipresence. All are held together because of the saying, “Israel can only be redeemed when they are united” (Midrash).

    Symbolic of the diversity of a community, the etrog has taste and smell, the lulav has taste but no smell, the myrtle has smell but no taste, and the willow has neither taste or smell. Alternatively, the etrog symbolises the heart, the lulav the spine, the myrtle the eyes and the willows the lips.

    THE LULAV (PALM BRANCH): Tall and straight, the lulav stands for righteousness and courage as against egotism and pride. A stolen lulav is not kosher. The Torah says in Lev. 23:40, “Take lachem (for yourselves) the fruit of a goodly tree”; lachem = shelachem, “your own”.

    THE ETROG (CITRON): In ancient times the etrog was a Jewish badge, depicted on tombstones. In some places an etrog was so rare and expensive that one had to suffice for the whole community. The fruit which Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was probably an etrog. Nachmanides thought the name is from a verb that means to shun, which was why the etrog was not bound up with the rest of the Arba’ah Minim; even an unpopular person is counted in the community.

    HADASSIM (MYRTLE): Called in the Torah “boughs of thick-leaved trees”; the product of lush growth; standing for God’s bounty.

    ARAVOT (WILLOWS): Generally called “weeping willow” because of their drooping look; also known as Babylonian willows: see Psalm 137:2.

    Sitting in the sukkah

    September 26th, 2023

    Sukkah meal, by Bernard Picart, 1722

    Sukkah means “covering” (Lev. 23:42-43). It symbolises the portable dwellings of the Israelites in the wilderness. The walls may be of any substance but the covering must be something that grows from the earth.

    A sukkah may be of any shape but must be big enough to accommodate a person sitting at a small table. Maximum height is 20 cubits (about 30 feet); minimum is 10 handbreadths.

    Though a sukkah covering (s’chach) must be something that grows, it must be detached from its source. Therefore a sukkah should not be built under the overhanging branches of a tree. A removable rainproof covering may be placed above the s’chach but must be taken off when the sukkah benediction is said.

    The obligation of sitting in the sukkah can be fulfilled in someone else’s sukkah; one may borrow but not steal a sukkah (Deut. 16:13 says that a sukkah must be l’cha, “yours”; borrowing is regarded as “yours”).

    The sukkah is sometimes used as a metaphor. Examples are Sukkat David hanofelet – “David’s fallen tabernacle” (Amos 9:11), the royal dynasty or the Temple which will be restored in messianic times; and Sukkat Shalom – “Tent of peace”; the sukkah symbolises the prayer that the Divine protection of peace may cover all Israel and mankind.

    “Where faith leaps, philosophy moves slowly”: Is the God of Abraham also the God of Aristotle?

    September 22nd, 2023

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 22 September, 2023.

    Franz Rosenzweig

    The power of Yom Kippur is immense and compelling. As a traumatic religious experience, Judaism’s “Day of Atonement” has been a turning-point for many Jews — but for none more significantly than Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929).

    Yom Kippur in Berlin in 1913 brought Rosenzweig back from the brink of apostasy, and he decided he could never be anything other than a Jew. What happened to Rosenzweig that day, he never explicitly related. But it is significant that years later, in The Star of Redemption, he described what Yom Kippur means to the Jew:

    “On the Days of Awe … he confronts the eyes of his judge in utter loneliness, as if he were dead in the midst of life, a member of the community of man which, like himself, has placed itself beyond the grave in the very fullness of living.”

    Elsewhere, he said: “Anyone who has ever celebrated Yom Kippur knows that it is something more than a mere personal exaltation (although this may enter into it) or the symbolic recognition of a reality such as the Jewish people (although this also may be an element) — it is a testimony to the reality of God which cannot be controverted.”

    In these passages Rosenzweig not only hints at what one particular Yom Kippur meant to him; he provides a classical description of the nature of religious experience.

    Personal exaltation and participation in a worshipping community are part of it, but fundamentally religious experience is what William James calls a private faith-state, when, as Rosenzweig says so movingly, one confronts the eyes of God in utter loneliness.

    This is an intense, overwhelming, existential experience, almost beyond the realms of expression in words. It happens rarely, and it cannot always be maintained at such a peak. But this is religious experience, oblivious to time, place, context or company, and it is this which Rudolf Otto, moved by Yom Kippur in a simple North African Synagogue, called “the numinous”.

    The God whom one confronts in utter loneliness is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel would put it, the God of the prophet, not the God of the philosopher.

    For the prophet has an overwhelming, intuitive apprehension of God, while the God of the philosopher is the result of a long, careful process of reasoning. The one, says Heschel, uses “situational thinking”; the other “conceptual thinking”.

    Yet for Judaism both approaches — “the God of Abraham” and “the God of Aristotle”, as the medieval Jewish teachers expressed it — are not only acceptable but necessary. Each provides a corrective to the other.

    As Rosenzweig put it: “To have found God is not an end but in itself a beginning … The reasoning process comes afterwards. Afterwards, however, it must come.”

    The reasoning process prepares for, reinforces, and evaluates religious experience. It helps to protect the sensitive person from the excesses of his own imagination. It guides him to establish and maintain an on-going relationship which the God confronted in utter loneliness.

    But the reasoning process can, as William James argued, suffer from a “tendency to let religion evaporate in intellectual terms”. One can study God so coldly and clinically that one freezes out the warm, personal Father in Heaven.

    The pathway to God can be that of the prophet and it can be that of the philosopher. Each seeks the same truth.

    “The philosopher seeks at the end and what the prophet knows at the beginning”, writes Arthur Cohen. “Where faith leaps, philosophy moves slowly.”

    Judaism is adamant that faith and philosophy must finally come to the same truth.

    “The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is truth”, said the sages. The truth which the prophet sees in a moment of intuition is the same truth at which the patient reasoning of the philosopher must eventually arrive.

    As the classical Jewish thinkers put it, a man weighs several hundred identical coins and knows in a moment how many he has; but instead of weighing the coins he might count them one by one, and though this will take longer he will come to the same result in the end.

    The problem the religious teachers of the classical age faced is different in degree but not in kind from that which confronts the contemporary believer, who is adamantly informed by the agnostic and the atheist that the use of reason does not confirm, but denies, the truth of the religious claim.

    The believer suggests in reply that apparent contradictions are largely due to the limitations of human intelligence and reason.

    The fifteenth-century philosopher Yoseph ben Shem-Tov was right to remark that there is a distinction between that which is above human reason, and that which is counter to reason. Similarly, my teacher, Isidore Epstein, wrote:

    “Judaism, whilst having too much respect for human intelligence to subscribe to any proposition involving the total surrender of human reason, nevertheless rightly recognises the limitations of the human faculties and senses and may well proclaim as an act of revealed faith, Credible quia non intellectum est (“To be believed because it is beyond the understanding”) — quite a tenable and rational position which it would be unscientific to assail or deny a priori.”

    What Judaism could not do would be to assert Credo quia absurdum — “I believe because it is absurd” — Credible quia ineptum — “To be believed because it is foolish” — or Certum est quia impossibile est — “It is certain because it is impossible”.

    Saints who sin

    September 18th, 2023

    The word “sin” comes into basically every page of the Yom Kippur service. Its sparring-partner, “saint”, hardly figures at all.

    Nobody is expected to be perfect. Nobody is such a tzaddik that they do only good and never sin: Ki adam ayn tzaddik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov v’lo yecheta (Koh. 7:20). The only complete tzaddik is God.

    When my teacher, Rabbi Koppel Kahana, asked us to expound a Tosafot he gave members of the class 50%, 60 %, 70%… but no more, and he said, “Only God gets 100%”.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe says that anyone who sins is being stupid. He quotes a verse, “If anyone goes astray…” (Num. 5:12). That, he said, is what sin is – stupidly going astray. It is not only that the sages say that a person does not sin unless they have been overtaken by a spirit of stupidity. Rarely does a sinner act in defiance and rebellion against God; on the contrary, they let themselves go astray from the right path.

    Sin does occur, but usually it is not deliberate. It happens by mistake when we lose control and go astray.