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JewishJournal.com

October 5, 2006

Faith and Season

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/faith_and_season_20061006

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Somali Muslim immigrants, who make up the majority of airport cab drivers, are refusing to take passengers carrying alcohol. In the gripping, must-see documentary "Jesus Camp," 9-year-old children are whipped into a glassy-eyed religious fervor against abortion and secular society.
 
In the run-up to the November elections, evangelical Christian pastors are using their pulpits to exhort believers to turn out in force against Democrats, in the name of Jesus.
 
Meanwhile, the pope -- who himself is not exactly at the vanguard of critical thinking -- has been furiously apologizing for comments he made during a speech on religious understanding that many Muslims took to be blasphemous.
 
For people who think that religion is not the cure but the cause of human misery, this month has provided plenty of proof.
 
It is easy to read the headlines and conclude that if religion would just go away, all would be well. But humans are hard-wired for belief. If it is suppressed, as in communist China, faith comes roaring back once the lid is off. If religion falls out of favor, as it did in the secular, God-Is-Dead 1960s, the pendulum eventually swings back until we end up with a president discussing, rather hopefully, the possibility of a Third Great Awakening of Christian fervor, as George W. Bush did with a group of journalists last month.
 
And say you really could sweep away religion. What then? The secular dogmas that have replaced it -- Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism, among the more recent examples -- have wreaked even worse havoc on humanity.
 
The problem, it seems to me, isn't religion, but belief itself. There are, after all, two types of people: those who think about everything they believe, and those who believe everything they think. If there is a human curse to be broken, it is the curse of dogma.
 
How to wrest people from the grip of their dogmatic beliefs is the problem of our century. It is religious dogma that seems to drive the president of Iran toward a nuclear confrontation with the West. He will sacrifice his nation's economy, and maybe Iran itself, to the idea of bringing about the incarnation of the Mahdi.
 
Scary as hell, yes. But just as scary is the huge swath of Americans, the kind who have made best-sellers of the apocalyptic "Left Behind" novels, who believe we are overdue for a confrontation between civilizations that will hasten the Second Coming. Those of us who find some comfort and some answers in religion can only wonder: How can you make moderate belief? How can you inject dogma with reason? There is no single answer, but I do have one small proposal: Sukkot. The holiday of Sukkot is coming up this week, and if you've never celebrated it, make this the first year you do.
 
To my mind, Sukkot comes each year to rescue us from the severity of faith. The High Holidays are so ... high. They are meant to be demanding and claustrophobic, as we fast and self-assess and go back and forth in our heads over where we've erred and how we can repair our souls.
 
Then comes Sukkot.
 
On Sukkot, we construct temporary booths -- the Hebrew word for huts is sukkot -- and sit and eat and drink and pass as much time as possible in them. The huts must have impermanent walls and roofs of leaves and branches that allow the rain to enter. The idea is to remind us of the time the Children of Israel wandered homeless in the desert, protected only by God.
 
The effect is to get us out of our heads and into our bodies, into nature. That is why, bar none, it's my favorite Jewish holiday, the one I would take with me on a desert isle (where I'd probably have to construct a bamboo hut, anyway). On Sukkot we read from the book of Ecclesiastes, the most existential of prophets. He looks at the darkness of the world and the brevity of our small lives, and comes up with this conclusion: "It is good, yea, it is beautiful, to eat and drink and to experience goodness with all his toil that he toils under the sun."
 
In short, you might as well enjoy it while you're here. It's true that Sukkot, like any other religious ritual, can be hijacked by extremism or the baser instincts. There's usually a scandal in Borough Park around unscrupulous sale of holiday items. To this day I'm still unclear why the etrog, a simple citrus fruit used as part of the Sukkot ritual, should cost several hundred times more than a lemon from Gelson's. But if you build a sukkah, or sit in a friend's, you will find that such concerns ultimately provoke laughter, not anger.
 
Sitting under the stars, it is hard to feel outraged, or even pessimistic. It is easier to realize that life -- including our beliefs and our dogmas -- is shaky, like the sukkah itself. It is easy to see our most deeply held beliefs as temporary shelters, something we erect to keep the darkness at bay, but hardly as lasting as the darkness that surrounds it, and the mysteries therein.
 
Author Sam Harris has been making the rounds lately promoting his newest screed against religion, "Letter to a Christian Nation." In this book and his first, "The End of Faith," Harris argues for people to abandon faith-based belief systems. Harris is a smart man, but how stupid is that? Thousands of years of evidence suggest it just won't happen. A better idea is to encourage beliefs, rituals, practices and leaders that lessen the harsh decree of dogma. Harris doesn't spend much time attacking Judaism, because Judaism, though it has its share of mindless extremists, has struggled to combine faith with critical thinking to together serve our souls, lift up our lives.
 
Perhaps Jews should take it upon themselves to find an empty piece of property and erect a huge, community sukkah, a place where people of all faiths, and the faithless, can sit, eat, enjoy, play music, hold classes, and talk about these issues, a shelter of moderation in a world gone extreme.
 
It's too late to do it this year, but maybe next? The City Sukkah could be a gift of the Jews, a small attempt to show how faith can be both grand and humble.
 
Or in the words of poet Philip Appleman:
 
"...before our world goes over the brink,
Teach the believers how to think."
 
Happy Sukkot.

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