Liberal Judaism - Succot Piece

Building sukkot - Rabbi Danny Rich

As a practicing Liberal Jew, I rarely dabble in anything mystical, preferring to affirm the Liberal Jewish view that the highest capacity that humans possess is to act as rational beings with a moral imperative. And so Liberal Jews follow the teachings of Judaism not through coercion or fear - or simply in accord with tradition - but by the voluntary consent of our educated conscience.

It is therefore unusual that I should begin an article talking about ushpizin, the Aramaic word for ‘guests’. The Aramaic term is used because of an idea found in the Kabbalistic Zohar, a medieval work which is written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Near Middle East from Persian time until the Arab conquest of the region. The Zohar was probably rendered in Aramaic to give it ‘authenticity’ akin to the Gemara (the second part of the Talmud), which was actually written in Aramaic when it was still spoken!

Be that as it may, the medieval tradition of ushpizin is that during the seven days of Sukkot, an entourage of exclusively male guests will visit: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. Each will, according to Kabbalistic tradition, represent an aspect of God: kindness, restraint, beauty, endurance, humility, connection and leadership.

As we prepare to celebrate the joyous festival of Sukkot, I remain fearful that despite all of our Rosh Hashanah good intentions and our Yom Kippur confessions, the British Jewish community will - as it has proved this year - be unable to hold civilised conversations on the issues that matter to us: anti-Semitism (within, and outside of, the Labour Party), Islamophobia (of, and beyond, the followers of Boris Johnson) and the current state of the State of Israel (repetition intended!). This is perhaps, for me, the saddest low in the Jewish community as we head into 5779: our inability to tolerate difference within. I was brought up in a Jewish home where difference and debate were welcomed to sharpen the minds of the interlocutors and perhaps teach something to one or more participants.

Of course, returning to my main theme, guests are an important part of a Jewish home and indeed there were Jews whose tables felt incomplete without at least one guest around them. Guests, particularly on Shabbat and festivals, fulfill a number of mitzvot, including welcoming the stranger, providing for the needy and creating shalom bayit.

The fragility of the sukkah itself is a reminder that it is the fortunate who have a home in which to welcome guests, and inviting guests to our sukkot may enable conversations marked by kindness, restraint, beauty, endurance, humility, connection and leadership. But more importantly to remind all present that “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom, or the strong boast of their strength, or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Eternal, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Eternal. (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

Rabbi Danny Rich

Rabbi Danny Rich has been the Senior Rabbi & Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism since the middle of 2005 and was Rabbi to Kingston Liberal Synagogue for nearly two decades. Rabbi Rich is a Justice of the Peace and a hospital and prison chaplain.He is a President of the Council of Christians & Jews, Co-Chair of the National Refugees Welcome Board and a member of the Council of Imams and Rabbis. He received a Certificate of Continuing Education (Study of Islam, Judaism and Muslim-Jewish Relations) in June 2009.His publications include Liberal Judaism and Mixed Marriage (2004); Zionism: The Case for Fair-Mindedness On All Sides (2010); Muslim Perceptions Of ‘The Other’ (2011); Israel Mattuck: The inspirational voice of Liberal Judaism (2014); and Responding to the Call: A Life of Liberal Jewish Commitment [ed.] (2015). He has given both oral and written evidence to the Falconer Commission on Assisted Dying and the parliamentary Public Bill Committee on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill; and is a campaigner for the admission of Syrian refugees into the UK, the Living Wage and Caring for Carers.He is a Co-Chair of the National Refugee Welcome Board and a Trustee of Epsom Mental Health Week.

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