Judaism (originally from Hebrew, יהודה Yehudah, “Judah” via Latin and Greek) is an ancient monotheistic Abrahamic religion with the Torah as its foundational text.
As an instructor of religion it is astounding to find how often the word is used but whose meaning defies clarity. Such was one of the major point by William James who titled his classic “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” While many like Rudolph Otto were content to reduce the idea of religion to the idea of the numinous which is to say a feeling of awe and wonder, James more or less threw up his arms and happily said it is too difficult to come up with an overarching definition.
The Oxford dictionary defined religion as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods: Etymologically, religion from the Latin “religare” means to bind fast, via the notion of “placing an obligation on,” or “a bond between humans and gods.” Such definitions are god centered ones. But they are not the only ones as some “religions” tend to focus more on ritual and mythological narratives. Often we hear contemporary critics say, “I am not religious, I am spiritual,” implying that religion can actually be from a organizational perspective counter to spirituality. The disappointments that religious structures and those who care for them have created a cynicism; that which is to house spirituality will do quite the opposite. I need not cite some of these multi-religious transgressions among clergy.
Another way of understanding religion is mythological. By this we mean that religion captures a way of looking at the world. One paradigm goes like this: Nature, Harmony, Liberation and History. The last of these find a home in the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism with its narrative that there is active God, who creates, rewards and punishes. Harmony faiths like Taoism focus on finding balance in life and achieving inner peace. Liberation faiths like Hinduism believe our souls are trapped in the illusion of being separate from the Ultimate God Brahman with the goal of finding freedom and oneness. Lastly, Nature faiths typically called Religions of Place emphasize the connection to the land in which humans are part and parcel of the same without being superior. It would not comport with Chapter Two of Genesis that puts Adam at the apex of creations.
In truth since life abhors a vacuum, elements of all four perspectives of these mythologies seep into one another. Taoists will entertain beliefs in so called Kitchen gods offering petitions to them. In our faith, harmony perspectives and nature perspectives find expression in our Sukkot rituals. Such perspectives are sorely needed in a world in which respect for creation is lagging and at times is neglected altogether. In the eastern view of Yin and Yang, there is a little of the opposite in the other: a little bit of male in the female and the female in the male.
So with Sukkot the emphasis on God being a deliverer of justice is replaced almost entirely by the views of Kohelet – Ecclesiastes. Radically, it asserts “the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong.” In short, “go figure!” But as its poem made famous by Pete Seeger and then the folk rock group The Byrds “To everything there is a season…” This bit of prose teaches us to be accepting or in harmony with our world, a vital and peaceful imperative that runs somewhat counter to the harsh demands of the ten days of Repentance. Talk about the opposites of Yin and Yang! But in truth they both serve to anchor our spirituality as we need both perspectives in our lives, the idea of the demanding tradition and the view that religion should provide an incentive to find harmony and peace.
At one time in our history, Yom Kippur was a minor celebration when Sukkot was for an agrarian culture dominant. In our plastic, grocery delivery system in which we are so removed from nature Sukkot is the holiday many of us need to recover.
Wishing you a grand year in which “you go with the flow!” 🙂
Yossi Liebowitz, Rabbi