A Humanistic Sukkot

My new favorite Jewish holiday is over.

Sukkot, an ancient holiday celebrating the fall harvest that later became associated with the forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, is an eight-day celebration beginning after Yom Kippur and culminating with Simchat Torah. I didn’t build a sukkah this year, but I helped build one at my synagogue and visited another one at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine articulates a humanistic interpretation of the Sukkot in Judaism Beyond God:

From a humanistic point of view, Sukkot has special significance. Agriculture was the beginning of human civilization, a quantum jump in the human mastery of the environment. The emergence of farming some ten thousand years ago revolutionized human existence. Territorial settlements, cities, population growth, surplus wealth, and written language followed quite naturally from this technological success. It lay the foundation for the human self-confidence that led to the secular age.

To be sure, human ingenuity, economic growth, and literacy are all the kinds of developments that humanists can celebrate–yet we should not be overly sanguinic about the legacy of the agricultural revolution. Yuval Noah Harari, in his 2014 book Sapiens, argues that it probably represented a marked step backward in terms of standard of living for the average person compared with earlier hunter-gatherer communities:

Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate…. A much more representative viewpoint is that of a three-year-old girl dying from malnutrition in first-century China because her father’s crops have failed. Would she say ‘I am dying from malnutrition, but in 2,000 years, people will have plenty to eat and live in big air-conditioned houses, so my suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice’?

There’s an ancient midrash about Abraham that before he came to know Yahweh, he saw the sun shining upon the earth and said, “surely now this sun that shines upon the earth is God.” But evening came, the sun set, and he said, “surely this cannot be God.” He then saw the moon and stars and said, “surely this is the God who created the whole earth as well as man, and behold these his servants are gods around him.” But when morning came and he once again saw the sun, as well as plants, the animals, and human beings, and other things, he said, “surely these are not gods.”

It’s a lovely story that cautions us against worshiping objects from the natural world (including ourselves), while also seeming to acknowledge the polytheistic origins of the Jewish people. At the same time, perhaps there can be nothing wrong with celebrating the beauties of nature, the legacy of our agricultural history, and the power of the human imagination to create the world we live in today. And this is what Sukkot gives us an opportunity to do.

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