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Judaism as a conceptual art tradition: In the sukkah

Ecclesiastes says we don't remember previous generations, and the future won't remember us, but the experiential trappings of Sukkot help us overcome those lapses
Our conceptual art tradition sukkah. (eBenBrandeis.com)
Our conceptual art tradition sukkah. (eBenBrandeis.com)

Welcome all to the sukkah — the physical sukkah and the metaphorical sukkah. We welcome to our sukkah guests from different places in the world, different places in their lives, into the same place, at the same time. This is one of the central themes of the Festival of Sukkot —Ushpizin, hospitality, having guests.

Ushpizin is a kabbalistic concept. According to Kabbalah, among the guests we are to invite to our sukkah each night are characters from the Jewish past, such as the Odysseus-like patriarch Jacob, and the warrior shepherd singer dancer King David, and each brings with them special merits. In recent years, the feminist Jewish tradition has embraced this theme of Ushpizin, and invited famous Jewish women, such as the strong-minded matriarch Rebecca, or the Prophetess Deborah, to be special guests in our sukkah.

Judaism as a Living Conceptual Art Tradition

Our practice is rooted in the interpretative tradition of Judaism, of taking contemporary modes of thinking, and applying them in creative cross-matrix with Jewish tradition. On our festivals, Judaism encourages us to be multidisciplinary performance artists, who use live action, installation, and multimedia materials to explore our relationship to time, past and present, and to place, real and imagined, connecting with their physical, as well as symbolic, cultural, and metaphysical dimensions.

As a living conceptual art tradition, Judaism uses live action, such as shaking the lulav, or smelling the etrog, as well as site-specific installations — such as a sukkah — to explore our relationship with deep strands of tradition, connecting with their physical, as well as symbolic, cultural, or metaphysical dimensions.

The sukkah is a reminder that we live in nature, exposed to the universe and the elements; if it is cold or rains, we can get cold and wet. Our human body in which we “dwell” here on earth, during our brief lifetime, is like the sukkah: a non-permanent structure, open to the stars. We are urged to share what we harvest, and to spread upon all a sukkah of peace.

Time: Directional, Cyclical

As with many Jewish holidays, Sukkot has dual origins — being both an historical and an agricultural festival.

Historically, it recalls to present mind the journey of the people of Israel through the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, when the people lived in structures of an impermanent nature.

Agriculturally, the holiday celebrates the final gathering of fruit and produce of the year, and the booths built in the fields. Sukkot is the harvest festival, like Thanksgiving, and we eat fruits and vegetables of the season.

This historical/agricultural duality beautifully expresses the duality of time in the Jewish tradition. On one hand, we have the central Jewish conception of time being an arrow — time having a direction — of history being a story in which there is progress. We move from bondage to freedom, from Egypt to the Land of Israel, from our present day to an ultimate messianic time of universal peace. That is historical time with a direction.

On the other hand, we have agricultural time, which is cyclical and natural. In the words of Ecclesiastes, which we traditionally read on the Shabbat of Sukkot, “The sun also rises, the sun also sets…” (Hemingway stole that line for a title). Every month the moon waxes and wanes, and then we have next month’s new moon. Nothing conveys this as much as the Hebrew calendar (copied from the Babylonians), which corresponds, beautifully and mathematically, to both a complete lunar calendar and the solar calendar. Sukkot, the Harvest Festival, always takes place in September or October. But the first day of Sukkot — the 15th day of Tishrei — is always a full moon, and has been for thousands of years.

So the walls of our symbolic sukkah are built of two rows — arrows, representing historical time, and the infinity loop, representing the cycle of seasons and of the moon.

The Particular and the Universal

Another tension that Judaism, as a living conceptual art tradition, allows us to explore through our sukkah is between the particularist — the family, and the national — on one hand, and the universalistic — the guest, and the whole world — on the other. Sukkot is a universalistic holiday, not only because of the tradition of inviting others to join you in your sukkah, but because of the tradition that all 70 nations (which to the ancients meant the whole world) are to participate. It is tied up to one of the central metaphors of messianic times, that just as we gather our fruits together into the sukkah, in the fullness of time, God will gather all his fruits — all the people of the world — into one all-embracing sukkah of peace. This is a central phrase of the prayer u-fros aleynu sukkat shlomecha — spread over us the sukkah of Your peace.

Making a Lulav Shake

Each day of Sukkot, we shake the lulav, the arba minim – the four species. The “lulav” is the bundle of three branches — palm, willow and myrtle — that we hold, together with the etrog (citron), and wave in the six directions (south, east, west, north, up and down) as part of our conceptual art practice during the festival.

According to the kabbalistic explanation taught by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, while holding the lulav and etrog, we do not turn in each direction. Instead, we hold the four species in both hands, face eastward, and extend the species: southward, northward, eastward, upward, downward, and westward. And then, after each movement, the lulav and etrog are brought towards the heart.

The Arizal explains that the six directions represent the six emotions or sefirot (loosely translated here from the Hebrew): south: kindness (chesed); north: discipline (gevurah); east: harmony (tiferet); up: perseverance (netzach); down: submission (hod); west: connection (yesod); and finally, bringing the four species toward the heart: communication (malchut).

Zman Simchatenu – Joy and Shaking

Sukkot is called Zman Simchatenu, the time of our rejoicing. After the seriousness of the High Holidays, with their themes of introspection and judgment, you may not be feeling the joy. And if you read Kohelet — Ecclesiastes — you also may not feel joyful.

Yet the Hasidic master, the Sefat Emet, had a teaching regarding the lulav about being joyful at Sukkot.

The Sefat Emet begins by citing Psalm 16, Verse 11: “Help me know the way to live, to be sated with joy in Your presence.” Commenting on this verse, he writes: “Lulav” is numerically equivalent to “hayim” (the Hebrew word for “life”).  Therefore, according to the Sefat Emet, when we take hold of the lulav, we are taking hold of life itself — we are expressing our desire for the true life of our innermost selves. So the meaning of the phrase “to be sated with joy” is you should take life so deeply into your heart that you are called “sated.”

In light of this teaching, the gesture of bringing the lulav close to your heart is, to paraphrase: “Grab life with both of your hands and take it as deeply as you can into your own heart.”  When we do this, there will probably be some shaking involved, but there will also be real joy.

Practice as Performance of Memory

Our conceptual art practice of Judaism has engaged with Ushpizin, directional time vs. cyclical time, historic past events vs. a messianic future, the national vs. the universalistic, and making a lulav shake. A final important strand is the philosophical way of looking at the whole enterprise.

On the Shabbat of Sukkot, we read the great biblical wisdom literature, Kohelet — known in English as Ecclesiastes. Though written well over 2,000 years ago, Kohelet is modern in its analysis and world-weary: notwithstanding the beautiful tune by Pete Seeger and the 1965 #1 hit recording by the Byrds (“To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn…”), Kohelet says: There is nothing new under the sun. But it also says: Whatever we do now will be forgotten. Do we remember what our great-great-great-grandparents were doing, 200 years ago? And (if humanity lives that long), 200 years from now, will anyone remember what we did? Kohelet, though written thousands of years ago, states that exact thought: “There is no remembrance of former generations, nor will later generations have any remembrance among those that will be afterwards.”

And this is troubling.

The sukkah is a beautiful metaphorical antidote. Our tradition does not say: Build a massive edifice of stone and steel that will last forever; rather, it says, every year, when the moon is full in Tishrei, build a flimsy, temporary dwelling, open to the sky.  Invite guests. Share with them food of the harvest, remembrance of historical past, reminder of the agricultural cycle.  Do this conceptual art piece, with its physical, as well as symbolic, cultural, and metaphysical dimensions.

And so, in response to our question about our ancestors two centuries ago: Do we remember what our great-great-great grandparents were doing, 200 years ago? I looked up in my Hebrew calendar 15 Tishrei, but not 5783; rather, 5583. That corresponds to Monday, September 30, 1822.  And I know with certainty what my ancestors were doing. In a different epoch, in a different place, also under a full harvest moon, they were in some kind of a sukkah, as we are now, sharing with guests the living conceptual art tradition of Judaism.

About the Author
Benjamin Rubin, a Toronto lawyer, was Chair of Limmud Toronto 2018, elected to Zionist Congress, and VP of Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Under his pen name eBenBrandeis, he composes YouTube poems, translated from Hebrew a pre-war Pinsk biography, edited and published a book of contemporary Jewish humour, and created NewHouseOfIsrael.net, a Zionist conceptual art project. Lived in Israel four years. Loves Israeli music and Spain’s Golden Age Hebrew poets. Writer, producer and director of the Zoom teleplay series, "Golden Age Travel" about the 12th century Hebrew poet and Jewish philosopher, Yehuda HaLevi, travelling through time. GAT episode VI, "Berlin 28, Paris 38, Jerusalem 61" was premiered at Limmud Toronto November 2021. www.ebenbrandeis.com
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