Booths festival renews awareness of roots, nature

The holiday of Sukkot embodies the deep Jewish ambivalence about non-Jews.

For centuries, these very mixed feelings have provided the cultural barrier that kept non-Jews out and kept Jews in.

Now as the barrier crumbles worldwide, a deeper understanding of Sukkot may help to devise a successful strategy for Jewish persistence in a free society.

At first glance, the Torah specifies that (only) the Israelite citizen should dwell in the sukkah. Yet Sukkot became a template for relations between Jews and non-Jews.

The prophet Zechariah predicted that the day would come when all nations would honor God.

"On that day God will be One and God's name will be One." (Zechariah 14:9). All the gentile nations would now turn to Jerusalem in friendship. The marker would be that they would "go up annually to worship God and to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot" (Zechariah 14:15).

The rabbis expanded this universal image. Seventy bulls were sacrificed on Sukkot. Why? The answer: One bull was to be sacrificed for the well-being of every one of the 70 nations that made up the civilized world.

Thus, Sukkot was the holiday in which Jews expressed their loving concern for the well-being of all non-Jews on the earth.

Over the centuries, Jews grew more distant from non-Jews. Non-Jews became Them — better known, as goyim. They were emotionally and spiritually different, culturally and morally inferior, almost genetically the Other.

The Talmud signaled this exclusion with a fanciful parable that all but reversed Zechariah's vision. When God finally redeemed and rewarded Israel, non-Jews would complain that if they had only known they would have lived like the Jews. Non-Jews would be given a second chance to observe the pleasantest and easiest of mitzvot — to sit in the sukkah. Yet when the weather turns hot, the sukkah offers only imperfect shade. The nations would walk out, forfeiting their last chance.

Thus, the holiday of Sukkot would confirm that non-Jews are religiously without salvation and temperamentally as well as spiritually unworthy of God's love and consideration!

This emotional gulf kept Jewish solidarity in the face of minority, persecuted status. Jews were hardly bothered by the divine rejection of non-Jews; in their view, the non-Jews deserved it.

Yet precisely this distance has disappeared as Jews have won increasing acceptance in modern life.

Non-Jews are now next-door neighbors, college roommates, business associates, best friends. They are encountered as fully human, kindred souls with shared values, attractive as potential mates and family friends. In addition, they are the majority that carries enormous emotional and moral positive values in a democracy.

Because these changes occurred over decades and centuries, Jewish culture did not adjust adequately for the new reality. Most Jews continued to run a mediocre Jewish lifestyle. This could only work if the emotional preference for Jewish friends and the feeling of comfort being among Jews rather than among non-Jews would be maintained.

But on the contrary, this preference disappeared as more and more Jews experienced that "some of my best friends are gentiles."

The central needed adjustment was clear. If Jews could not be defined by the negatives of the Other, then it was critical for Jews to experience and to love being Jewish for positive reasons — out of enriched living and strong values and knowledge.

By this logic, the rank and file of liberal Jews, who mixed more with non-Jews, should have gone to day schools to equip themselves with the needed knowledge, distinctive values and experience. Only thus could they participate comfortably and self-affirmingly in American life.

Instead, most liberal Jews insisted on public school education for their children — whatever the cost in Jewish ignorance or alienation. They failed to recognize that in the absence of a highly fulfilling Jewish life, assimilation and intermarriage would inevitably follow the breakdown of the emotional barrier.

Of course, the correct response now is not to despair. In the days of Nechemiah after the return from exile, the holiday of Sukkot became the occasion and the focus of a national revival.

What would be the message of the holiday of Sukkot to a Jewish people committed to participate fully in American life yet equally determined to remain distinctly Jewish?

With its symbolism of portable home and tale of a desert journey to freedom, the holiday of Sukkot represents the statement of a Jewish people still on the way toward a perfect world, tikkun olam. The Jews affirm that they have sunk roots in every country they have entered — most powerfully in America, this blessed land — but no country has yet reached the state of being the final perfection.

Thus Sukkot — with its urban "tents" — expresses the Jewish will to be different and to continue to be the avant- garde, goading this country on to greater heights of liberty and justice for all.

With its celebration of harvest and building of family huts, Sukkot represents the counterculture, the Jewish alternative, to excessively urbanized, rootless existence in anonymous metropolises.

Through Sukkot, Jews offer themselves — and other Americans — the model of renewed appreciation of roots, reaffirmation of nature and the rhythms of natural existence. Touching soil and handling the four biblical plants is the balance wheel for the exciting but one-sided urban culture and city streets.

Involving family and children in building Sukkot is a natural for suburbia; but even in the city, it speaks of renewed appreciation for the environment.

Sukkot embodies Jewish concern for the world in which we live and commitment to treasure and protect all living things. Already leaders in environmentalism, American Jews must play this role henceforth drawing on Jewish memory and ritual models. Thus, they can be Jewish and universal simultaneously.

I dream of the day when New York's Jewish community will organize a Sukkot festival in Central Park for dancing and water-drawing and rejoicing. Yet the festival would be open to the whole city. Such a Sukkot would represent a movement from ambivalence to a dialectic in which Jews immerse themselves in America fully as Jews.

Then, as Elie Wiesel once put it, "when I am most Jewish I am most universal."