Fun or Politics by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Succot is the most innovative and multifaceted of all our Festivals. Coming after the solemn Holy Days, it is the most fun too. And it concludes with a day of national unity, something that seems as unlikely and remote now, as it ever did in the past. Its origins lie in the pagan world, the final harvest of the year, the celebration of the natural world, its plants, water, and rains; the Ugaritic harvest rites and the festival of building huts for pagan gods to dwell amongst them; the fertility rites of the Gezer calendar. Judaism added its monotheistic character. And then added a lot of new features not mentioned in the Bible. In the Temple, there were the ceremonies of the Well-House, Simchat Beit HaSho’evah. The flute, an instrument barely mentioned in the Bible where trumpets and horns predominated, was played during the festival in the Temple, and beyond. However, some insisted on the human voice instead. There were public parties every night of the intermediate days with bonfires, dancing, performers, and even rabbinic gymnasts! “Whoever has not seen it has never seen real joy in their lives,” says the Talmud. Perhaps that’s why they introduced Hoshana Raba on the sixth day to atone once more for any overindulgence. The last day, Shmini Atzeret, in Israel, ended the festival with prayers for rain and a gathering of all the people, locals, and thousands of pilgrims to hear and recommit to the Torah.
Eventually, it merged (in Israel) with Simchat Torah to celebrate the end of the annual cycle of reading the Torah. Which itself was the subject of custom depending on whether you accepted an annual cycle or a triennial one. And all of this has been overlaid with the many refinements of the Kabbalists. What fun it must have been in Jerusalem in those days. Everyone coming together from Israel and the Diaspora and celebrating as one people. Very different to protest demonstrations in Tel Aviv today. There were conflicts then too. When the kingdoms split the North refused to allow its citizens to go south to join in the celebrations and posted guards on the borders. Later the Samaritans rejected mainstream traditions and instead of waving the Arba Minim (the Four Plants) they used them only for roofing the Sucah. Then came the differences between the Diaspora and Jerusalem and then the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Dead Sea Sects, and finally the huge disagreement politically and religiously over how to deal with the Romans. And let’s not forget the Ka’arites. We have always been arguing. And in Israel today both sides resort to violence as we have seen in Tel Aviv this week. Why, I wonder is Sucot in all its variations and varieties nowhere near as popular or observed with such devotion by the mass of Jews, as Yom Kippur? Is it because one day in a year is enough? Perhaps because guilt is more powerful? Is it just religious fatigue? Or simply that there are so many more readily available sources of entertainment and distraction now? Organized religion in general is just less attractive to the average person. Originally, Sucot was the festival of unity. But our modern emphasis on rights and individuality has both liberated us and emphasized our differences. Two thousand years ago the Jewish people were divided over how to respond to Rome. Bar Cochba although reputedly not particularly religious advocated force and strength. He was supported by R. Akiva. Most of the other rabbis followed R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai who sought accommodation and compromise. Bar Cochba lost and for two thousand years the Jews suffered exile and oppression. Then came political Zionism and this time the fighters succeeded. But the rupture emerged between messianism and militarism (not to mention religion and secularism). Within the religious world, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook sided with R. Akiva and sought to combine the religious, the messianic, and the secular. Whereas much (not all by any means) of the Charedi world sided with R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai and refused to engage militarily. And so, we come to the era in Israel of the six tribes, Secular and Religious, Nationalists and Pacificists, Left and Right, Europeans, and Orientals all battling for either political power or money, and all sides behaving like spoilt children. Can we ever be united? At the moment it seems not. I do not despair. Policies and ideas are important of course and we should assert our individual opinions. But life matters more. We Jews can and will survive as a people wherever we are. But if we want to survive as a nation, we have to find a way of coming together and compromise. Ideologies and politics always lead to conflict and violence when the sides try to impose their views on each other. But if we put humans first, we can try to get on with each other despite our differences. Happy Holiday. Chag/Hag. Sameach/Sameah. My Bible classes have started every Wednesday morning at 9:30 a.m. New York Time. The website: https://www.lockdownuniversity.org. Users should verify their email addresses to view the recorded lectures and access webinar details. Please click on this link to register your email address and begin using the website. You will only be required to do this once on each device.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.