Rabbi Charley Baginsky – 30th September 2020
Rabbinic students in their final year of Leo Baeck College spend much time writing their rabbinic theses. Some students like my wonderful colleague, and now Rabbi of the LJS, Rabbi Igor Zinkov use their thesis to write about topics that almost predict the Zeitgeist, indeed who could have known his thesis on the ethics of the internet would become even more relevant than it was on the moment of his writing it.
On the other hand, some of us become some caught up in a particular topic or even piece of text. It dominates our thinking and we have to wait for a particular moment of time to come when its relevance becomes apparent. I have to say that my thesis comes in this latter category. My thesis entitled: ‘PENNED AND PENNED’: The Language and Imagery of Land and Identity in the Construction of ‘Woman’ in Tractate Yevamot (“As a creation ‘penned’ by man… woman has been ‘penned up’ or ‘penned in’ as a sort of ‘sentence’ man has spoken, she herself has been ‘sentenced’, fated, jailed, for he has both ‘indited’ her and ‘indicted’ her.” Gilbert and Gubar) has waited over a decade for its inclusion in a Thought for the Week!
But this Sukkot its time has come. In the history of literature, one finds that exilic authors take their inspiration from their exile, their desire to construct a new world order in order to compensate for their loss of their old reality plays itself out between the lines and this is no less true of the Babylonian Talmud!
In my thesis I explored the possibility that exile had played a role in constructing the way in which ‘woman’ was constructed and whether the construction of ‘woman’ could be seen as contributing to the restructuring of national identity. I will save you reading thousands of words to bring you the conclusion that when the sense of self is threatened there becomes a need to reassert our own sense of distinction and otherness. The impact that this had on the laws pertaining to women is too complex to detail here and you must be wondering what this has to do with us and this Sukkot….
In the Torah and indeed in the Talmud we come across stories of women exiled to the outside, left to hear news from the doors of tents – think Sarah hearing the news she was to bear a child at the age of 90 odd for one! The legislation that women too were exempt from the positive time bound command of sukkah could be a recognition that they needed to be inside with a screaming child or a the product of men needing their own time and space. Either way through this lens we can see the tent/ sukkah as an exclusionary place rather than an inclusionary place and ignoring this focus we can ignore the impact that this can have on the formation of the identity of a practice or a festival.
Inclusion and exclusion through religious practice has possibly never been more on our minds than this Sukkot as we have exited a season of Chuggim that were predominantly online. Whether online or in person we have included and excluded, we have people listening at the doors and wishing they were inside and people controlling the screen and deciding the identity portrayed. We have made the choices and decisions we felt were best and that included the most and excluded the least. Depending on where you stand, your perspective is shaped.
But this year as you stand in your Sukkah, as you watch sukkot online, as you remember from your imagination, watch over the fence or watch others over the fence -pay attention to who is in and who is out, who is included and who is excluded. For the decisions that you make and the language you use to describe those decisions have the potential to shape the nature of identity for generations to come. I am not suggesting any of these decisions are easy. Indeed, like the rabbis of the Talmud we are too navigating an unknown landscape and trying to give it meaning. But this sukkot let us open the walls of our sukkah as wide as we possibly can and try to re-envision the secure foundations upon which we are erecting it.
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