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Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Secret Message of Sukkot?

As a long-time subscriber to ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s weekly email about the Torah portion of the week or forthcoming festival, I usually marvel at how he always seemed to manage to promote the most benign face of Judaism, as if it was a holistic system with no flaws, no problems, no disturbing aspects to it. There is never a note of self-criticism about the religious tradition he is speaking about, not an iota of doubt about the unqualified goodness of Jewish teaching and Jewish life. It always reads and sounds beautiful and worthy – and it is always just slightly unreal, as idealised portraits often are.

My attention was caught this week by an innocent-looking sentence in his text for the current festival of Sukkot : “Sukkot is the only festival about which Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] says that it will one day be celebrated by the whole world (Zechariah 14: 16-19)”. And he goes on to talk about Sukkot as a festival of insecurity, which it is. And the hallmark of our era, of the 21st century, he suggests, is that individually, communally, internationally we live with more and more insecurity. Sukkot, he’s saying, is therefore relevant to everybody, Jew and non-Jew alike. There is nothing wrong with this - it is a familiar rabbinic theme, a homiletic theme, at Sukkot, emphasizing the symbol of the sukkah (and its intrinsic impermanence) as a powerful reminder of the fragility of life. It is easy to write this stuff, talk this stuff, I have done it myself, I will no doubt do it again - it is what the festival points towards from a psychological and spiritual perspective.
But what caught my attention was this bald statement that “Sukkot is the only festival about which Tanakh says that it will one day be celebrated by the whole world (Zechariah 14: 16-19)”. Maybe I had known this at some stage in my Jewish education, but it still came as a surprise. 
So I looked up the text he refers to and discovered that it comes from the traditional Haftarah [prophetic reading] for Sukkot, the one read in Orthodox synagogues but a text Reform synagogues don’t read. They have replaced it with a Biblical text describing Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple -  and when you look at the traditional passage you may get a sense of why they’ve abandoned it. 
Because the Zechariah text visualizes in uncompromising detail a future day when the nations of the world will gather together to destroy Jerusalem - “The city shall be captured, the houses plundered, the women violated...” (14:2) – and as a result of this (so the prophet  declares) God will smite Israel’s enemies with plagues so that “Their flesh will rot away while they stand on their feet, their eyes shall rot away in their sockets, and their tongues shall rot away in their mouths...” (14:12).
(We saw this, by the way,  at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so Israel’s undeclared threat of nuclear retaliation if they are attacked has a chilling pre-echo in the prophet’s words; but best perhaps not to venture too far in this direction in making links between texts and life, texts and history, and how prophetic texts might yet be enacted).
And there’s more like this in the chapter from Zechariah, including the same deadly fate for “the horses, the mules, the camels and the asses, the plague shall affect all the animals in those camps” (v.15). And then, the text goes on, if there any survivors amongst Israel’s enemies, “they shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King Lord of Hosts, and to observe the festival of Sukkot. Any of the earth’s communities that does not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low...shall receive no rain...” (vv. 16-17).
And these are the verses - a text filled with retribution, humiliation, and the threat of further revenge and punishment of the nations – that Jonathan Sacks has turned into the benign, life-affirming  statement “Sukkot is the only festival about which Tanakh says that it will one day be celebrated by the whole world (Zechariah 14: 16-19)”. This is a new definition of chutzpah. A curse has become a blessing. It’s breathtaking.
Of course it’s no different from what rabbis do all the time, taking texts and using them for their own purposes, homiletic/sermon purposes – you really shouldn’t trust them , you know, these rabbis  – and we never show you, just as no stage magician would, how the trick is done, we just create the effect and challenge your disbelief. And of course what Sacks is doing has the best intentions, to help us think about the universal message within Sukkot. But this is the most brazen example I have come across in a long time of the appropriation of a Biblical text - or the misappropriation - to generate a message at odds with its original context and meaning.
And this leads me to a final thought - though I hardly dare mention this in case it spoils things for regular synagogue goers – about the text we use at the end of the Alenu. The Alenu prayer consists of two paragraphs, the first about the place of Israel, the Jewish people,  within God’s creation; and the second paragraph is about what is optimistically called ‘the hope for humanity’, a paragraph about the end of the worship of material things when prejudice and superstition shall at last pass away. The prayer  is filled with prophetic and messianic ideas about all people recognizing the divine within the world, and then, inspired by this, fulfilling the duty of building God’s kingdom here on earth.
And these two paragraphs conclude with two Biblical texts, uplifting and hope-filled words. The first from the Exodus narrative: Adonai yimloch le’olam va’ed: ‘the power of the Eternal  One will go on forever and ever’. And then the last words of the Alenu: Ve’haya Adonai l’melech al-kol-ha’aretz, bayom hahu yihiyeh Adonai ethad u’shmo ethad – “So it is prophesized: The Eternal One shall have power over all the earth, on that day the Eternal shall be One, and known as One”. What could be more all-embracing and awe-inspiring than that vision? Except that the context it comes from – you will have already guessed – is precisely this Zechariah text that I have been talking about, that Reform Jews have abandoned at Sukkot because its sentiments and message is so problematic.
In the midst of the prophet’s apocalyptic vision about God’s rout of Israel’s enemies, when the very land itself will split asunder, and the heavens themselves will be in tumult so that “there shall be neither sunlight nor cold moonlight, but there shall be a continuous day...of neither day nor night...” (vv.6-7) and, bizarrely,  fresh water will flow from Jerusalem back to the Mediterranean (v.8) - in the midst of this evocation of God’s nature-defying activity, there it comes, our Alenu verse: “The Eternal One shall have power over all the earth, on that day the Eternal shall be One, and known as One” (Zechariah 14: 9).
In other words a verse rooted within a hallucinatory picture of Israel’s God wreaking havoc on the land, and on Israel’s foes, a picture of semi-crazed destructiveness and reversals – it’s precisely this verse that the rabbis later picked up, picked out, to put into every prayer service, three times a day, every day of the year, as the culmination of hopefulness for our living in a transformed world, the millennial wish for renewal and change and an end to human suffering in society. The word ‘paradox’ could have been coined for just this. This is rabbinic chutzpah,  writ large.
And in its way it is quite wonderful. The creativity of this. The dark genius of raiding the tradition for words that can inspire, even if they originated in a context that aimed to terrify and threaten.  This mash-up of death-dealing Biblical text and prayerful yearning shows Judaism to be far more daring and transgressive than Jonathan Sacks allows for. The Alenu is a text haunted by savagery.  Yes, our religious belief and hope is for a world stripped of prejudice and superstition and the worship of material things. But our Zechariah text, slipped into the Alenu by our subversive rabbis  a millenium and more ago, is the ghostly reminder that this is not some fluffy, liberal aspiration based on a belief in human goodness winning out in the long run.
It is precisely the opposite: whether they were conscious of this or not, those ancient sages who composed the liturgy were pointing towards an awareness that to have a world transformed away from its enslavement to the material world, and a world devoid of prejudice and superstition, may involve as much destructiveness as creativity. It may lie beyond our power to achieve, it may need something to come along and overturn all we hold dear.
Is this the secret universal message of Sukkot? Or is this too frightening to think about? What plagues, what upheavals, will this take, in the decades and centuries ahead, to achieve a world that isn’t subservient to materialism, prejudice and superstition? Maybe what will be forced upon us is the realization  that we are all unaccommodated  guests in this world, not permanent owners of it. If everything we build that we think is solid and lasting is actually as temporary as the sukkah, as open to the elemental forces of nature and man as that fragile edifice, if that really is the truth of things, that the tides of history (and climate) can sweep everything away in the blinking of an eye – if this is a key Jewish awareness, born out of our history – how do we bring this unbearable message into everyday life? Is this the secret challenge of Sukkot? Is this what the rabbis of old were daring us to contemplate? That we are our own enemies – and much of what we hold dear may need to be destroyed before real change can happen? I hope this isn’t the secret universal message of Sukkot. But I fear that it is.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue Sukkot morning, 19th September]

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