Joel Moskowitz

Sukkot without a Sukkah

A journey, particularly a religious one does not begin when you start to express yourself in mid-life. It begins, frankly, at the genesis. My own is of course unique, subject to my own personal history but shared, particularly with members of my generation whose religious experience was similar in certain ways. I vividly remember that one of my father’s favorite sayings was that religion was not a cafeteria plan; you don’t get to select what you want from the buffet. Older now with the benefit of hindsight I realize that of course, it is very much a well-stocked smorgasbord. He chose the carving station and over time I chose, say, the sushi station.

It is not hypocrisy when you adjust religious practice for whatever reason you do; it is evolution. However, in the mind of a child hearing one thing from parents, teachers and community members, but seeing something inconsistent with their words and actions causes confusion. Later in life, that causes a rethinking of values and beliefs. I feel that I have to specify that I am not seeking to blame anyone or any particular action or episode. I am trying to explain why I have found myself on this journey and seeking understanding of just why I now choose to reassess my relationship with God.

I have to postulate that parenting and education are quite different today than when I was growing up. I have to further state that I believe that our parents, educators and community had the best of intentions for us in most cases. While not condoning, say, the rabbi who pulled my ear because my mind wandered in class, I can speculate that it was how he was taught to teach and that likely he had what he thought were my best interests in mind.

It is also important to reason that religious indoctrination did not begin with our parents or even grandparents, but has a long history, often violent, that caused millions over thousands of years to go to war on behalf of their all powerful deity, who conceivably could have smote his enemies without the help of mere mortals.

All of this has caused me to be turned off by absolutism. I am perfectly respectful if you choose to observe the Sabbath in the strictest form possible, I cannot countenance imposing it on others. It is not okay to say, I prefer you don’t travel to me for a Sabbath meal because A – that’s none of your business and B – you have now denied me a Sabbath meal, one which may in your own mind bring me closer to your way of practice. It is admirable if you wish to adhere to the strictest form of family purity laws; it is not okay to tell me that my choice of a queen-sized bed with one mattress will either lead to people not trusting the kashrut in my home, or that it will lead to problems conceiving, or, worse, birth defects when planning a family.

I concede that what I bring up is anecdotal and is not policy in most Orthodox settings. What I am saying is that strictness and indoctrination causes the ignorant or the overzealous to use such admonishment against those who choose not to follow a certain standard of practice.

I was young and newly married and invited after services one Shabbat to a gathering at a friend who lived on the top floor of his building. Some of the guests, myself included took the elevator, others chose to walk the 10 flights of stairs. Sometime afterward, when I was asked by the rabbi of our synagogue to lead services, one of the “walkers” felt it his obligation to point out that a person who desecrates the Sabbath in public is disqualified from leading services. To his credit, this rabbi reminded this overly devout person that embarrassing a fellow is punishable by denial of entry in the World-to-Come.

This Sukkot, now living in the city I do not have a sukkah of my own, for the first time in more than 25 years. How then do I compensate for discontinuing a beautiful tradition I practiced my whole life? I chose to have in my home the four species, the palm frond, the citron, the myrtle branch and the willow branch. I lift them in the order I was taught and make a blessing over them that I do not necessarily believe in. I pay homage to a greater power that may or may not be behind all the agricultural wonders of the world, the seasons and the abundance of food we are blessed to have. I guess I can choose a pagan ceremony or some other movements’ symbolic gestures toward the God of agriculture, but I don’t.

I am a Jew, in the eyes of many who are observant, a flawed Jew, but a Jew nonetheless. If I will show reverence to a greater being, it will be the being that I learned and was immersed in for all of my years. The cynics — and I encounter many — just want to know why I don’t make a clean break. They don’t get me, I have no problem with God whatever or whoever She is; it’s Her mostly Her ignorant followers I can often do without.

About the Author
Joel Moskowitz is a businessman and writer who finally made it to Jerusalem. He is currently chronicling this move in an Aliyah Journal posted on this site.