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This year our sukkah is unkosher. It has no walls.
According to traditional Jewish law, a sukkah is supposed to have walls – four of them, actually, though one of them can be the side of a house if it’s been built up against a house. The walls can be made out of any material, but they have to be strong enough to withstand some wind without falling down.
Our sukkah has no walls because, in the midst of many challenges, we didn’t get around to putting them up. But that’s not the only reason. I confess that my wife and I also kind of like the way the sukkah looks and feels inside this way. A sukkah without walls is an appropriate religious symbol for our family.
Our nuclear family consists of four people and two dogs. It’s me, a liberal rabbi; Melissa, my spouse, who was my intermarried partner for part of the time I was a rabbinical student, before she converted; and Clarice and Hunter, neither of whom was born Jewish, and both of whom were old enough at the time of the adoption to have the right to decide whether or not to become Jewish. So far, they haven’t, at least not formally. On a day to day basis they alternate between identifying Jewishly and not. So, while neither of our kids identify with another religion, because, at least halakhically (according to Jewish law), they’re not Jewish, we are what gets referred to as an interfaith family.
For me, our sukkah without walls symbolizes Melissa’s and my core value of openness to welcoming the stranger deeply into our home and life. There’s a framework, a structure to our sukkah, as well as a roof made of foliage, and a lulav and an etrog too. Anyone who knows what a sukkah is who saw ours would know that it is a sukkah, or someone’s good try at erecting a proper sukkah. But our sukkah, perhaps inspired by Abraham and Sarah’s tent, is literally open on all sides. Like a sukkah with the traditionally prescribed walls that won’t fall down in a gust of wind, our “open architecture” sukkah also can withstand a gust of wind, but it accomplishes that feat not by resisting the movement of the air with sturdy barriers; rather, the changing winds blow right on through. (Metaphor now fully expressed, and possibly even overdone…)
Our sukkah without walls also speaks to me because our extended families consist of a really wide assortment of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living on different continents, practicing different religions, and speaking different languages.Our open sukkah reminds me of the huppah at our wedding, where Melissa’s down home conservative evangelical country relatives mixed with my loud and effusive Moroccan-Israeli clan. Everyone was welcome. Jewish traditions, practiced with some creative deviation from traditional Jewish law (Melissa wasn’t Jewish at the time, after all), defined the space, but with very open access to people of many faiths and identities.
Our sukkah also represents, for me, what I call our local family of choice. Our dear friend, Ariel,* was the single mother of four kids when we first met her and began helping each other parent our collective half dozen children with different challenges. Because of what our kids went through to end up in the foster care system, we needed the strength and support of others to parent them without falling apart. And because Ariel, who was accepted to law school and is the hardest working person we know, grew up in foster care herself, she’s a great model of resilience to our kids, and she really gets them in ways that we don’t. We’ve been able to help each other out in countless ways, and our daughter practically thinks of Ariel as another parent.
Ariel, by the way, is Baha’i. A little over a year ago I officiated at her wedding to Nathan,* who is Christian, and he and his son from a previous marriage are now part of this growing hybridized nuclear fusion Brady Bunch. (Full disclosure: One of our two dogs is actually their dog, staying with us for the time being.)
The boundaries between our two families are kind of like, well, our sukkah without walls. There are structures there between our families that are real and that operate every day. And yet, there’s also a very easy flow between our families and our homes, even our vehicles. (You can tell this because the empty cups and food wrappers on the floors of our cars are a mixed multitude of representatives of our various bad food choice preferences.)
I’m not seeking pity with what I’m about to say, but one of the painful things in my life, as a rabbi and even just as a Jew, is that I’m all too aware that for a part of the Jewish community, it’s not just my sukkah that’s unkosher, but our family is kind of unkosher too. A previously intermarried rabbinical student? That’s not kosher! A spouse of a rabbi who converted but not in an Orthodox way? For some, that means I’m still an intermarried rabbi. Totally unkosher (well, maybe not anymore). A rabbi’s family and their kids aren’t Jewish?! It’s like it’s raining pork and shellfish. On Shabbos.
There are some Jewish thought leaders who argue that it’s families like ours that are putting the future of the Jewish people at risk. There are too many different identities in the household, they say, and the boundaries aren’t strong enough to promote Jewish children, and aren’t rabbis supposed to be exemplars of Jewish lives that are more emphatically and unambiguously Jewish? Well, I suppose I can’t prove that these critics are wrong, though the truth is that they don’t know for a certainty what will or won’t make for a vibrant and meaningful Jewish future. I think their claims tell us more about their values and preferences than about how the future is or isn’t going to unfold.
The same can be said about my values and preferences, I admit. My values and preferences favor a Judaism of open and welcoming structures, of joyful and sincere practices shared with people of any background freely, and of flexibility and trusting the unknown. Perhaps my marriage will not produce any children who become Jewish adults raising Jewish children, and perhaps, therefore, we’ll be judged by some as a failed Jewish family, a Jewish continuity dead end.
But here’s the thing. Because of our life choices, it’s not just our two kids who know what a sukkah is and have helped build and decorate a sukkah and have heard Melissa and me talk about the themes of trust and welcoming guests and vulnerability. It’s not just our kids who have, again, broken the pitom (the stem) off ouretrog halfway through the holiday, thus rendering the etrog unkosher like our sukkah, and who have had to hear me discover this and yell, “Dammit! Who the hell broke off the pitom!? That’s the first thing you learn you’re not supposed to do! And it cost, like, forty dollars!” It’s also Ariel’s kids, who’ve had great fun in our sukkah over the years, as have Nathan, and his son, and some of our neighbors. And because the rabbinical seminary I attended didn’t turn me away, despite my way of doing Jewish, and neither did the synagogue I served for 8 years, I’ve taught and worked with well over a hundred kids in helping them to develop a Jewish identity of warmth, pride, and ethics. And sorry to be all bragging on myself, but I’ve also had two Jewish non-fiction books published, both of which strive to open access to Judaism to people of all faiths.
So maybe our unkosher family and our unkosher sukkah is a symbol of the demise of liberal Judaism. Could be. Or maybe it’s something else, maybe even something wonderful.
* names have been changed
Years ago, a colleague of mine told me that as a rabbi, I should try to make Judaism, “cool,” At the time, I knew I was put off by this comment, but only years later do I fully understand why. What I love about Judaism is that it is generally “uncool.” In fact, it is wonderfully weird. Sometimes it is edgy. Even counter-cultural. I am part of religious life because it is meaningful, not because it’s the hip thing to do on a Friday night.
An article caught my eye recently, entitled, Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’ The writer, Rachel Held Evans, criticizes flashy, trend-setting techniques to get millennials into churches. “The trick isn’t to make church cool,” she writes, “it’s to keep worship weird.” She goes on to share what most attracts her and other young bloggers to religious life. “I do not want to be entertained…I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.” She is intrigued by “those strange rituals and traditions” that have been practiced in her tradition for thousands of years.
Sometimes as a Jewish leader, I feel pressure to make Judaism seem cool. But the fact is—I want to keep Judaism wonderfully weird. Take this season of the High Holidays. My favorite parts of the liturgy and practice at this sacred time of year often appear the strangest, and take some time to get used to. One of the rarest is the practice of kneeling and then putting my face to the ground during a certain prayer during Rosh Hashanah; prostrating myself like a child’s pose in yoga, feeling the ground beneath me and my vulnerability as a human being. I relish this because I want, at that moment, to feel a bit small with a sense of the grandeur of the world outside of me. My family loves the ritual of tashlich. We throw breadcrumbs into a creek to symbolize our shortcomings over the past year—with full knowledge that this ritual was borne out of a desire to appease water demons.
When sukkot begins, I shake the lulav: that strange collection of four natural species we bring together inside our little autumn hut (sukkah). Who doesn’t feel a little awkward shaking it in all directions? I love this ancient, agricultural ritual for all of its quirkiness. It connects me to the earth. It reminds me how interdependent we are with the natural world, and I become cognizant that the livelihood of others is tied to the whims of the weather more than mine will ever be.
It is not, actually, the endurance of the rituals alone that propels me to keep practicing them. They are relevant to me because they contain kernels of wisdom, and I bring my contemporary consciousness to them as Jews always have. They are not flashy or slick, hip or even always fun. Some are even difficult. But they are authentic.
The famous Rav Kook wrote that, “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.” That is what an “ancient-future” community looks like; always looking back to discover the sources of our wisdom while we discern how that tradition continues to inform us in the present day. That doesn’t mean that we should keep doing exactly what we always did, or in exactly the same way. Our job is to renew and reconstruct where necessary, and make the ancient come alive in a new generation with contemporary relevance.
Whether Jewish practice is new to you or familiar, whether this is your first High Holiday season or your fiftieth, embrace the quirkiness. Try something new. Don’t worry if it’s not all flashy, or if you find that you need to slow down your mind to take it in. Hopefully, the experience will bring introspection, meaning and depth to your life. Above all, find out why we practice the way we do. Ask questions. Most people probably have the same questions you do. Reshape rituals and add your own flavor. As Evans puts it, “[Rituals] don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”
This blog post was reprinted with permission from j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.
I recently visited a San Francisco synagogue for the first time. I rang the bell and a teenage girl came to let me in. She wasn’t working there; she was just doing her homework. She welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she could help me. We chatted about her schoolwork and life at the synagogue, and then the rabbi came running out to meet me. He was in the middle of Bar Mitzvah lessons and apologized for his delay in welcoming me. He didn’t know I was a rabbi or what I was doing there; it appeared that this is how he welcomed anyone walking in the door. I explained that I was fine—just a bit early for a meeting. The night went on in this fashion. I have to admit that I was a bit flabbergasted. I had to wonder, why shouldn’t every encounter be this way?
What came to my mind that night is that this synagogue clearly practices and teaches what some have recently been calling audacious or radical hospitality. They went out of their way to make sure I was treated like an honored guest. This spirit of embrace is ingrained in their culture to the extent that even a teenager is among the initiated! We all know people who seem to go far above and beyond what might be considered polite or inclusive. And we know how encountering such an individual has the power to change our outlook. Those of us who work for Jewish organizations struggle to figure out how our institutions can reflect this value. We may have the best programs, the most beautiful services, the best school. But at the end of the day, what supersedes everything else is whether or not people feel in each and every personal encounter that they matter.
Sukkot is the Jewish season for nurturing this quality of openness in ourselves and our institutions. We move out of our homes into huts, and we invite people to join us in these temporary, yet holy spaces. The holiday goes by many names: the Feast of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, and He-Chag (the holiday). But if we stress the injunction to welcome those in need into our sukkahs, we could also name it the Festival of Hospitality.
In a few weeks, we will read in the Torah about Abraham and Sarah in another kind of shelter, their tent in Mamre [Gen.18]. Three strangers passed through, and amidst a culture in which a stranger could be a major threat, they invited them in. They rushed to greet them, washed their feet, and fed them. The strangers turned out to be angels telling Sarah of her pregnancy. But the beauty of the story is that Sarah and Abraham had no idea that their visitors were divine guests. This is how they treated everyone they met. A midrash on the apocryphal book of Jubilees makes this connection between the holiday of Sukkot and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality clear. It tells us that part of their preparations for their holy guests was, in fact, building the first sukkah to shelter them.
What would the world look like if we treated everyone we encountered as worthy of our attention? What would our Jewish communities look like if every person who walked through a door were greeted like Abraham and Sarah’s guests? What would the world look like if we treated even people we don’t know across the globe with that degree of humanity?
Sukkot is the holiday of the open tent. It seems it should be the most accessible holiday, but unfortunately it is also one of the harder holidays to celebrate. Not everyone has the space or strength to build a sukkah. If you are fortunate enough to have one, imitate Abraham and Sarah during the remaining days of the holiday and welcome someone who has never been to a sukkah or doesn’t think he knows enough about Judaism to partake. There is a kabbalistic custom to invite ushpizin, ancestral, transcendent guests, into the sukkah. But even more important is filling your sukkah with real, flesh-and-blood visitors. This Sukkot, may we go above and beyond to make people feel like the divine guests that they are—when they enter our institutions, our work, our homes and our tents.
I love the holiday of Sukkot! As a congregational rabbi, Sukkot—which comes just five days after Yom Kippur—offers me a welcome break after the pressure of High Holy Day sermons. Plus, Sukkot is a lot of fun. I always have a great time putting up our Sukkah in our backyard in the days following Yom Kippur and then decorating it with my kids.
And I love inviting guests to our Sukkah—both real guests as well as ushpizin. Ushpizin (Aramaic for “guests”) are Biblical guests that are symbolically “invited” into a Sukkah, a different one each night of the festival. The traditional list of ushpizin includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. (Other lists include the four matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah—and other Biblical heroines.) There is a ritual formula for “welcoming” the ushpizin and it is traditional to learn about and discuss the Biblical guest of the evening.
Many people expand on the custom of welcoming ushpizin and use Sukkot as a time to discuss who they would like to welcome as guests: people who have been part of their own lives or people they have never met, living or deceased.
This year as I prepare for Sukkot I have been thinking about who I would want to invite as ushpizin—that is, who I would want to invite for dinner in my Sukkah. As the Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, I have been thinking in particular about people in interfaith relationships and people with relatives in interfaith relationships (individuals from Biblical times as well as groups of people from modern times) that I would like to have as ushpizin. Here is my list:
1. Tziporah: Tziporah, who we read about in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, was a daughter of a Midianite priest. Tziporah married Moses and was the mother of his two sons. I would ask Tziporah what it was like, as a non-Israelite, being married to a man who went on to become the leader of the Israelites. When she first met Moses she thought he was Egyptian since he had come to Midian from Egypt, where he had been raised in the Pharaoh’s palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter and from where he had fled when it was discovered that he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster. What did she think of this man, quite possibly the first person she had ever met who was not from her own people? Was she concerned when she married him that he was not a Midianite? What was it like in her day to be married to someone from a different culture and who worshipped a different god? Did they ever discuss their different backgrounds and beliefs?
2. Ruth: Ruth, whose story we read in the Biblical Book of Ruth, is often viewed as the first Jew-by-choice since she accepted the God of the Israelites as her God and the Israelite people as her people. In the Book of Ruth, Ruth said to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16)
I would ask Ruth why she, a Moabite woman, married an Israelite man in the first place. Then, after her husband (Naomi’s son) had died, why did she choose to leave her homeland of Moab to go to Israel with Naomi? What did it feel like for Ruth to leave behind everything that was familiar to her and did she miss her family when she left? What was it like to give up the beliefs and ways of her people? What was it about the people of Israel and the God of Israel that drew her to them? When she raised the twin sons that she had with Boaz (a relative of her deceased husband, as was instructed by the laws of levirate marriage), even though they were Israelite, did she teach them anything about Moabite culture or tell them about her Moabite family?
3. Parents who did not grow up Jewish who are actively involved in raising Jewish children (whether or not they have chosen to become Jewish themselves): I know many parents who grew up practicing other religions (some of whom still practice them, others who do not) who are raising their children as Jews. If I had such a group in my Sukkah, I would ask them to discuss the sacrifices they have made by committing to raise their children in a faith tradition different from the one in which they grew up. How did they come to the conclusion that they wanted to raise their children as Jews? What are the challenges they have faced, as well as the rewards? I would thank them for their commitment to the future of Judaism.
4. Jewish parents whose children are in interfaith relationships: I would like these Jewish parents to be able to have an honest conversation about how they feel about their children being seriously involved with someone who is not Jewish. Surely some would feel disappointed—perhaps even hurt or rejected—and their feelings should not be ignored. Hopefully, though, they would understand that it is their adult child’s choice who they are going to date and/or marry and they would respect their child’s decision. I would encourage all of them to accept their children’s partners and welcome them into their family.
5. Rabbis and cantors who officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies: I would ask each clergy person to share his or her own reasons for officiating at interfaith weddings. There are many clergy, like myself, who did not officiate at interfaith weddings immediately following ordination, but rather began to do so after some time for a variety of reasons. (Read why I now officiate at interfaith weddings.) I think it would be fascinating to hear about my colleagues’ personal journeys and to hear from each of them the most rewarding, as well as the most challenging experiences they have had in working with interfaith couples.
6. Children growing up in interfaith households: I would love to invite a group of children of all different ages who are currently growing up in interfaith households. I would ask them what they find to be the most rewarding and what they find to be the most challenging about growing up as part of an interfaith family. In what ways, if any, do they find that having a parent who is not Jewish impacts their Jewish identity?
7. Dating, engaged and newly married interfaith couples: I would begin by asking them to share their experiences as interfaith couples. What are the rewards and what are the challenges? Have they discussed how they are going to raise children if they have them? How can they make Jewish choices while honoring the traditions of both partners? Can they discuss these issues with their parents?
Okay, I’ll admit it: While it is true that I would love to have a group of interfaith couples in my Sukkah, I’m also plugging InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s upcoming Love and Religion workshop that starts in October. If you and your partner or a couple you know may be interested in discussing questions such as these, then you should find out about Love and Religion here.
Chag Sameach (happy holiday)! May this Sukkot be one in which we can all be welcoming and one in which we all feel welcomed!
What about you? Who are your dream ushpizin? If you could spend an evening with any person or group of people (real or fictional, living or deceased), who would you choose? What would you want to talk about?