Exit Ramp: Jewish structuralism

Exit Ramp: Jewish structuralism

As part of its celebration of Sukkot, Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore, where I serve as executive director, is preparing for the seventh straight year to co-sponsor a harvest festival at Whitelock Community Farm in Reservoir Hill, the predominantly African-American neighborhood where the shul is located. The main event each year is a Greens and Kugel Cook-Off, in which contestants vie for prizes either for the most delicious vegetable or noodle puddings, or for the tastiest kale, spinach, or collard green concoctions. 

Because the festival will take place on the Sunday during Sukkot, the shul is also erecting a miniature sukkah at the farm. This is particularly significant this year, because we are running a capital campaign to build a major addition to our building, at a time when many non-Orthodox synagogues throughout the country are downsizing. Erecting the four-by-six-foot sukkah at the Harvest Fest is a way of showing the neighborhood how important the concept of sacred space is to the congregation. We are eager to share this space, and, by extension, our heritage, with our non-Jewish friends and neighbors.

Jewish tradition is built on a multiplicity of structures, both physical and conceptual. The Temple in Jerusalem, of course, which still inspires reverence despite being reduced to little more than a single retaining wall. Our Torah, with its five books that, as many scholars believe, have been cobbled together over the years with overlapping, often contradictory stories. Our Talmud, containing the Mishna with its six orders that cover so many areas of ancient Jewish life. Our prayer services, with their various liturgical elements stemming from different centuries, one laying the groundwork for the next. Our holidays, especially the springtime festival of Passover, during which we engage in a ritual whose very name, seder, refers to the notion of structure and order. Even our food — think of pastrami on rye, the iconic New York Jewish food and original skyscraper sandwich, built in a tower held together with toothpicks capped with frilly colorful cellophane tips.

As a scholar of culture, I think a lot about structure. The form of a work of art is often just as important, if not more so, than its content. We look, whether consciously or not, for intricate, repeating patterns in paintings, in plays, in pieces of music. When I listen to the Torah being chanted in synagogue, I think of the late African-American conductor James DePreist’s definition of music as “vanishing particles of sound that are made coherent through memory and expectation.” 

If any Jewish observance compels us to think about structure, it is Sukkot. And yet, the sukkah is highly paradoxical — provisional, makeshift, flimsy, with a leaky roof, yet a place for us to feel God’s presence in a more intimate way than we do throughout the rest of the year. It also brings us together with our families, friends, and neighbors in a different, more “natural” way; as we see the shadows from the schach (leafy covering) flit across their faces, it is almost like seeing different facets of them, as they, too, see us from a new angle.

This makes us think about structure in a wider sense. How do we build careers, our marriages, our relationships with our children and parents? Do we “defer maintenance” on these as much as we too often do with our homes and office buildings? What happens, as we ask on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, when they begin to fall apart? 

Our sojourn in the sukkah leads us, ultimately, closer to ourselves. The main task that all of us have is not just the rebuilding of a shattered world, but the renovation of ourselves. Sukkot comes to remind us that we are all engineers and carpenters not just of physical reality, but of the soul. That is our true task, not just at harvest time, when we seek new insights into our lives and into the beauty of our tradition, but every day throughout the year. For strive we must to create a dwelling for the better angels within us, angels that can find a “time to tear down and a time to build” (as the Book of Kohelet, read on Sukkot, proclaims), a “time to be silent and a time to speak,” a time for introspection and a time for exultation.

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