Innovation in Jewish Tradition
I have yet to cave and get a Kindle, but I will be honest and say that it will probably be within a few weeks. From my years of schooling, I have gained an appreciation for, and on some level, a preference for the printed word—that is, a tangible, heavy, dusty, written word. I like holding a book, turning the pages, feeling the weight of the paper—and the Kindle just seems to fall flat. Nonetheless, the idea of browsing The New Republic and Commentary Magazine on one device seems almost a little bit too exciting to pass up.
As a generally early adopter of all things technological and a self-professed techie (I have a picture with David Pogue on my iPhone), I have found the growing intersection between technology and spirituality somewhat thrilling.
Launched before Rosh Hashanah this year, www.renewyear.com brought the idea of aseret ye’mei ha-teshuva—the ten days of return—to the web. In the Jewish calendar, these ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur have been dedicated to making amends between both God and humanity. The liturgical additions arouse repentance and rabbinic writings encourage each individual to take the time to do a heshbon ha-nefesh(accounting of the soul). For a modern spin, the website’s “10Q” provides a different question each day for this introspection and self-reflection. (I won’t give them away here as the organizers have done a wonderful job to entice people to visit the site. Go ahead—check out www.renewyear.com). It is the traditional model of the ten days, but in a digital form. Through the website, your answers to the guiding questions are saved and will be sent to you shortly before Rosh Hashanah 5771 so you can see how the year went. The site is renewing an old custom for the digital age and making a tradition relevant to modern Jews who spend much of their time focused on LCD screens.
It is no surprise that the concept of renewing tradition is not one that started with the development of digital media. A conversation begins in the Babylonian Talmud with a mishnah where Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai debate whether one can make use of an “old” sukkah. Their question is whether you can simply stumble upon a structure that happens to be like a sukkah and use it, or if the sukkah needs to be created specifically for the holiday. However, the commentary of the Tosafists on the argument suggests that what is needed is for there to be something new that is included in the structure, whether it be created from scratch or not (BT Sukkah 9a).
But how do we go about making something new each year? How many strands of flashing grape lights can you really have in a sukkah? The innovation the Tosafists are suggesting is more than decorative. It is one that calls on us to think differently about the holiday each year. The underlying message of the debate is that religion needs innovation. It needs to be renewed and refreshed each year so that we do not simply approach an old sukkah and walk in. However, thinking differently about Sukkot started way before Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.
We learn about the observance of the holiday of sukkot twice in the Torah. The first appearance is in Leviticus:
You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (23:42–43)
Here, the mitzvah is purely functional and directly related to the historic event. We dwell in booths because the children of Israel lived in booths while they were in the wilderness. However, when we learn about the mitzvah in Deuteronomy we read:
After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy. (16:13–15)
Although the holiday is still referred to as the Festival of Booths, there is no specific mention of reason for dwelling in one. The holiday directly relates to the harvest season and the observance focuses on being seen in God’s Presence at the Temple. We see that the Bible itself makes an innovation in the contextualization of the holiday of Sukkot. While the first reference defines its historic linkage, the second begins to offer relevance for a people living not in the wilderness but in the land.
In the Deuteronomic reading of Sukkot, a festival that commemorated the historical wandering becomes one for confronting the fragility of life by inviting all those who exist on the periphery of the community to join the family. The male and female slaves, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, the widow were all brought into the frail walls of the sukkah. Just as during their wandering in the wilderness the children of Israel were fragile and protected by God, in Deuteronomy, we offer shelter and protection.
What is significant about both renewyear.com and the two texts from the Torah is that all maintain essential elements of the past while innovating for the present. Personal, modern meaning is made not just by simply creating something from whole cloth, but by studying the essential elements of a tradition and bringing those elements forward.
Maybe next year you’ll be reading this commentary on a Kindle.
Shabbat shalom ve-hag sameah.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.