Author Archives: Rabbi Alana Suskin

Rabbi Alana Suskin

About Rabbi Alana Suskin

Alana Suskin received her Rabbinic Ordination and Master of Rabbinic Studies from the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

The True, Smelly, Dirty, World of the Sukkah

Sukkot, which begins Sunday, is called by our sages, “The season of our rejoicing.” But why should we rejoice?

Just this week, we beat our chests, repented of our wrongs and begged for forgiveness. We reviewed the sins in which we wallowed for the last year, and promised to try to do better. On Yom Kippur, we read Isaiah and were reminded that although we “seek God daily,” what we are really doing is a pretense. God is not fooled when we ask, “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” and answers, “Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!” when what God wants of us is “to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him.”

On Yom Kippur, we fast, and perhaps some few of us leave the fast and go to do these things — but how many of us?

But then, we turn to Sukkot, the season of our rejoicing. How strange, that on Yom Kippur, we dress in fine white clothing, and don’t eat, to be as if we are angels. On Sukkot what do we do? We march around with fruit and plants. We live in a broken house, with a leaky roof and fragile walls that (at least mine) get blown over every time there’s a little wind. Yet we are to rejoice at our damp ceiling and flimsy walls.

Rabbi Shemuel Ben Meir, a French rabbi of the 12th century known as the Rashbam, explains:

Why do I command you to [live in a sukkah]? Do not say in your hearts, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me. Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth” (Deut. 8:17-18). Therefore, the people leave houses filled with good at the harvest season and they dwell in sukkot as a reminder that they had no property in the desert or homes to inhabit. This is why God designated Sukkot at the harvest season, so that a person’s heart should not grow haughty because of houses filled with everything good, lest they say: “Our hands made all of this wealth for us.”

Hitting Snooze in Elul

All the most contentious questions of modern Jewish life ultimately boil down to questions of continuity: intermarriage, who is a Jew, and so on.

But why should we care? What does it matter if I get something out of being a Jew, whether my children do as well? When I‘ve asked people from different backgrounds, one might think that I would get very different answers, but in fact, they seem to boil down to a rather similar idea.

In traditional circles, the answer tends to be a variety of “because God wants it,” but when pressed (why does God want it?), the responses seem to reduce to the idea that we as a people have a mission to fulfill, and without continuity, we won’t be able to fulfill that mission. In some less traditional circles, the response may be that Jews are under the obligation to do Tikkun Olam, which is another way of saying that we have the mission to perfect the world. And across orientations, even among many secular folks, many people answer that over centuries, as a people we have developed wisdom, and because that wisdom comes from a particular perspective, as a group, we can enrich the wisdoms of the world – but only if we are able to access that wisdom and continue to have a version of that perspective as our own.

It should be no great surprise to hear that what speaks to people, across denominations, is that Judaism represents meaning: Judaism offers us a way to structure our duties to others – God, the world, history –and whether that mission and meaning come from a divine source, or a human source, or a combination of the two, it offers us profundity over triviality, obligation over selfishness, and joy over frivolity.

As we begin the month of Elul, the time when we take account of our hearts, our actions and our responsibilities, it is worth considering that whatever we believe the source of meaning to be, it comes not through pursuing the desires of our hearts and eyes, but through seeking out what is larger than ourselves and contributing to it.

The Perfect Deal

An acquaintance of mine once told me bitterly that his father had once explained to him his theory of successful negotiation: It is when the negotiator  (meaning himself) walks away with everything he wanted, and the other party doesn’t.

My friend then turned to me and said that throughout his childhood, his father had made all kinds of deals with him that my friend walked away from feeling beaten down, unable to explain why he felt so badly afterwards. It wasn’t until his father had explained his “negotiating” tactics to him later, as a teen, that he had understood what had happened.

Of course, as adults, we all look at this and wonder how a father could do such a thing to a child, who hasn’t got the tools to fight back. Yet, many of us seem to believe that this is indeed how negotiation should go when we are speaking of nations, or organizations, or companies  — especially when it is our own interests at stake. Deep down, we believe that negotiation has to give us altogether and entirely what we want, or else we should take our marbles and go home. We think to ourselves that if there is any risk left at the conclusion of our back-and-forth, it must all be on the other side, because — of course — we know that our own motivations are right and good, but who knows the motivations of the other side?

The rabbis of the Talmud warn us against such one-sided wins. There are several stories that warn of the bad effects of winner-takes-all. One such is the famous story of The Oven of Achnai. Many of us are familiar with this rabbinic debate in which a group of  rabbis sat together and debated a point of law, all of them opposed to Rabbi Eliezer‘s position. Nothing sways the majority to change their opinion: not Rabbi Eliezer’s arguments, not miracles — not even a voice from heaven.

One of the rabbis, Rabbi Yehoshua finally asserts, “We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You wrote in Your Torah, ‘After the majority must one incline.’ (Exodus 23:2)” God reportedly laughs, but that isn’t the end of the story, or even its main point.

The Three People Touched by Death

In this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, Israel is given an interesting law. We are commanded to give a perfectly red cow, slaughter it in front of the kohen, or priest, who then does the usual blood sprinkling for offerings. Then, in front of him, the entire cow is burnt to bits. Then, another person who is tahor, gathers the ashes, sets them aside in a tahor place, and those ashes are used to make other people tahor.

Without getting too far into what tamei and tahor really mean (usually people define them respectively as impure and pure, but they really mean, unable to come before God in the precincts of the sanctuary, and is not a commentary on one’s cleanliness), here’s the curious thing. Everyone who touches this cow, these ashes – from the kohen, to the one who burns it, to the one who gathers the ashes (and who must start out as tahor), all of them, are made unfit for the Temple by what they do.

But why? Although this section is one that a large number of notable commentators express their puzzlement over, or simply say that the mitzvah here is simply to teach obedience, in the wake of this week’s racist murders in Charleston (and the wider wake of Baltimore, Ferguson, and so many more), I actually find myself somewhat less puzzled than I might have been at other times: It doesn’t matter whether it is our hand that has brought death about. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be our actions that have directly been involved. It’s enough that we are part of the system that brings us into contact with it: kohen, korban (sacrifice), collection of ashes. All of us are unfit to enter the Temple precincts. Not until there is no need for any further sin offering — not for the people of the community, not for those who have been directly involved, not for those who simply watch afterwards, in horror — until the community as a whole is fit, all of us are touched by the sin.

This motif will be repeated in about two months in the Torah portion Parshat Shoftim, with the ritual of the eglah arufah – the sacrifice made when a murder victim is found between two towns and the murderer is unknown. There, too, the communities are not exempt, and not innocent, and must make an atonement – they did not do what was necessary to protect not only their own, but also the stranger nearby.

We, too, are guilty. We are guilty that we have not curbed gun violence, even though we have good data about what it would take to do so. We are guilty of racism, and not speaking enough about it when it is not we who are threatened. We are guilty of allowing “us” and “them,” to exist as categories in our heads, and in the world.

And though our planet is so filled with ashes that by rights we should not be able to breathe, there is no red heifer to purify us.

Free-Range Judaism

I have to admit, as a parent of an elementary school-aged child, that I am a supporter of and practitioner of what has been called “free-range parenting.” I encourage my kid to strike out on his own – I offer him support and teach him how to manage certain kinds of situations; hand him a charged cell phone and a metro card, and give him a charge to go here or there at certain times.  I know the statistics about what is a danger to my kid, and I admit to always having been a bit of a data-hound – which means I probably worry less than some parents – and more than others. I worry mildly the first few times, and then once he’s handled an awkward situation or two well, I move on to finding something new for him to handle.

And in fact, I’ve noticed that my kid does fine in handling new situations – in fact, I have discovered to my great delight, that he has a fair amount of common sense. Possibly more than some adults I know of.

Recently, there have been a great many articles like this recent one in the New York Times which propose that college students looking for safe spaces on campus are a sign that we have infantilized our college students, and some of these articles have proposed that this is a result of our risk-averse parenting, sometimes described as “helicopter parenting.” Although I think that the authors of some of these pieces actually don’t understand what safe spaces are or how they work (a topic for another day, perhaps), I think that in the Jewish community, we might want to pay more attention to this discussion, because a more virulent version of it seems to be playing out on our campuses.

Oddly enough, though, it isn’t the students who seem to be wanting to protect themselves from dangerous ideas and dissent. In fact,  our students seem to be rather hardier than the straw students that have been described by these laments over the wimpiness of modern college students. To the contrary, Jewish college students across the country are demanding more dissent, more opinions, more information, more argument. The advent of Open Hillel is not because college students want protection from ideas, but rather because it is the “adults” surrounding them who want this protection.

Hillel, Comma, Open, and Beit Shammai

Once again HIllel has found itself in the news due to several recent events: Eric Fingerhut’s refusal to speak at J Street, and the response of the students there, as well as Hillel’s threat to sue its Swarthmore chapter over declaring itself an open Hillel, to which Swarthmore students responded by changing their name.

It is unfortunate that Hillel has decided to abandon its Jewish values in favor of making an idol of certain opinions that some of its donors have decided trump any other consideration. Hillel has always been a beacon of pluralism, welcoming students of all sorts – regardless of which movement they belong to, regardless of whether they believe in God, their Jewish status, and in fact, I believe that Hillel does not even have a policy regarding students who might believe in the messiahship of Jesus. Despite  a history of openness, Hillel has decided that on one particular topic, students are too naive to -in an academic environment, one which, presumably, is intended for them to be exposed to opinions of all kinds, some noxious and some valuable, some foolish and some brilliant- hear and decide for themselves what to think about the policies of Israel’s government.

The Babylonian Talmud, the enormous document which collects the thoughts, arguments, legal decisions and aggadic – narrative material describing the rabbis’ thoughts about all kinds of topics- discussions of the rabbis, is not a document that shies away from controversy. In it is found not merely the final decisions of what law wins out, but the arguments of not merely both, but often many more than two, parties to the debate on a particular topic.

The talmud in a number of places expresses its opinion on the results of suppressing opinions – both positively and negatively. In tractate Eruvin (13b) we learn read the famous passage regarding Beit Hillel – the school that follows the rulings of Hillel:

“For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’.Then a bat kol (a heavenly voice) spoke, announcing, ‘Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel’. Since, however, both are the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest and they taught both their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and not only that, but would teach Beit Shammai’s opinions before their own.”

The Torah of Vulcan

On Friday, Leonard Nimoy, an actor most famed for his role in a science-fiction television show, died.

Since then, my social media feeds have been jam-packed with tributes to him. This actor, who, although he also had some success in directing film, photography, writing of various sorts, and other television and film work, is likely to have his most enduring work be his portrayal of an alien in a science fiction series. And, despite the fact that television is not “serious” in the way that doctors saving lives are, or politicians when they can bring themselves to pass legislation can feed the hungry or bring justice to millions—Nimoy’s life’s work, being an alien—a role he first struggled against, and then came to accept—was also a form of greatness.

When I was very young, I used to watch reruns of the original
Star Trek
with my father, and I was lucky enough to also have caught the animated series on television. In that world, racial diversity was a matter of course, even while the series creators’ failed to pay Nichelle Nichols the same wage that the other actors received, and initially failing to include George Takei and Nichols in the animated show’s casting. Nimoy was the one who stood up for them in both cases, insisting on her salary being equivalent (in the 60’s!), and on including both her and Takei in the series, insisting on their importance as proof of diversity in the 23rd century.

Aside from the commitment Nimoy had to the values of the show in his life—values that he demonstrated in his Jewish commitments, including his work for peace in Israel, his feminism, and his commitment to diversity throughout his life—it was nevertheless his portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock that is behind the outpouring of love for his memory from those of us who never knew him as a person.

Plenty of people have written about how Spock’s outsider-ness gave them hope, allowed them to be okay with being a geek. Me, too. Spock was my hero. Not just because he was physically different, with his pointy ears and green blood, someone who looked at the other kids from the outside and longed to join them but didn’t really understand their interests or fit in—but he managed nevertheless to be buddies with the irascible McCoy and the very normal, sporty, Kirk.

What Happened to Dinah?

Although we’re a bit beyond the portion, there’s been a lot of social media chatter about Dinah – possibly because of the December airing of a television version of the novel by Anita Diamant. I mostly ignored it until a friend asked me about Dinah’s age (without going too far into it, if you follow the timeline laid out in the Torah plainly, she must have been VERY young, possibly a child. She probably isn’t, though) – at that point, I somehow found myself drawn into thinking about this very disturbing story.

There are many difficult passages in the Torah, and the rape of Dinah is among them. Nevertheless, I find the idea of turning what is clearly a forced sexual encounter into some kind of love story (as Diamant does in The Red Tent) – to be very difficult indeed.

Dinah’s role story turns around the first four verses of chapter 34 of Genesis. It is clear from the text that Dinah was violated. In verse two it says,

וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ:

“He saw her, Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land; and he took her; he lay with her; and he humbled her.”

What confuses the matter is that this verse is then seemingly followed a declaration of love:

וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת הַנַּעֲרָה וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לֵב הַנַּעֲרָה

“His soul cleaved to Dinah the daughter of Jacob and he loved the girl and spoke to the girl’s heart.”

The number of disturbing things about this story start multiplying rather quickly here:

A man kidnaps and rapes a young woman, possibly a very young teen; he then, after forcing her, tells her he loooves her and has his father make an offer for her. Her brothers are outraged. They come up with a plot, telling Hamor that they can’t give her to the uncircumcised and that they’ll let his son marry her only if everyone circumcises themselves. Hamor sells this to his fellow citizens by noting how rich they’ll all get if they intermarry with this wealthy clan. The brothers of Dinah wait until the men of the city are weak from their surgery and then slaughter them, taking their sister home. When Jacob complains that their actions make him look bad, they respond, “הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ” – Shall he make our sister like a whore?

Obsolete Values

Almost any article I’ve ever seen to do with Judaism, any religious critique of a political event, and even in promotional materials for Jewish spaces such as synagogues and JCCs, in fact, nearly everything we speak about in the Jewish community, makes some reference to Jewish values. Sometimes we speak of these values specifically: Jewish justice, tzedaka, “tikkun olam,” and so on – but more often we speak in vague generalities – as if Jewish values were a fixed and known set of items, like making a reference to the works of Shakespeare.

But I sometimes find myself troubled by these references. Not because I think it’s wrong to improve the world, or to seek justice – quite the contrary – I’ve dedicated my life to these values, and to doing them Jewishly.  But just as in all periods of Jewish history, the American Jewish community has adopted the outlook of the society in which we live, and with it, we have -just as in all periods of Jewish history- adopted many if not most of that society’s values as well.

And in many ways, we are the richer for it: the American secular values of autonomy and self-reliance, assertiveness, diversity, love of novelty and innovation, pluralism and more have been blessings to us and to many groups that have found refuge here – and we have also contributed to the lexicon of values that we share as well. Jews have made outsized contributions to American culture – we are home here, and we are blessed in a way that has probably never existed anywhere else at any time.

I wonder though: perhaps I spent too much time hanging out with the medieval re-creationists in college, but I often muse about the values that we have abandoned, and that we even often disparage:  constancy, duty, continence, honor. These are values that we rarely hear about, and are not, at least that I’ve seen, values that are held in high regard in our society.

I don’t know why our society has chosen to emphasize this set of values rather than that, but it would probably enrich us to think about whether we may have lost something when we set them aside. We often associate these “old-fashioned values” with the hierarchies and unequal power – and I don’t necessarily think that’s incorrect – but we live in a world where there are still imbalances of power, and these values were ways that societies chose to ameliorate them. They also contributed to maintaining long-term relationships, partnerships, and societal stability. Perhaps we might want to reconsider whether they have something to teach us.

A Holiday of Reconciliation

Just before Sukkot began, news came out of a prominent Conservative rabbi who came out to his congregation as gay. His dignified letter to his community spread far beyond: to the wider Jewish community, and even to the mainstream press. The responses variedsome musing on the historicity of such announcements, some dwelling on the difficulty and complexity of his situationand a few very ugly attacks (I decided not to link to any of themthey can be found if you wish to search for them).

This past week, with the advent of Sukkot, we turn away from dwelling solely on what we have done wrong, and hope that our amends have been accepted. Although we won’t know until Hoshana Rabbah (at the end of Sukkot) whether our apologies have been accepted, we still sit in joy in our sukkot. We invite in the ushpizinthe kabbalistic archetypes of Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness), gevurah (power), tiferet (beauty), nezah (endurance), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (majesty), symbolized by various Jewish ancestors who embodied those traits.

The very first of thoseAbraham and Sarahrepresent chesed, and we are reminded of the midrash of their tent, which stood open on four sides, so that all would feel welcome. We think of the midrash about the four minimthe myrtle, the willow, the palm and the etrog (citron), which we bind and hold together on sukkot because every part of the Jewish community is necessary for any of us to achieve redemption.

We still have not fully achieved that divine trait of chesed in the Jewish community. We have not yet fully been able to welcome allour tent is not yet open on four sides – but we are getting there, slowly. This past year has seen a seismic shift in American attitudes -and laws- towards marriage equality, and the Jewish community has been a part of that. It’s a small step towards a more comprehensive need to accept one another, not just in marriage, but that there should be no one who fears for their job if they come outregardless of what profession they are in; no one should fear to be who they are, ever.

The responses that we have seen last week show how far we have to go, and how much work is yet to do, but there is also hope. We are rolling up our sleeves to roll up the sides of our tent. We sit in our fragile huts , looking up at the stars.

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