Sukkot Feature: from Tolerance to Pluralism; New Lessons from the 4 Species
Menu JTA Search

Sukkot Feature: from Tolerance to Pluralism; New Lessons from the 4 Species

Download PDF for this date

Says the Torah: “On the first day [of Sukkot], you shall take the fruit of the hadar tree [by tradition, the citron etrog], the branches of the palm tree [lulav], boughs of leafy trees [by tradition, myrtle branches] and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God [at the Temple].” (Leviticus 23:39-40)

In biblical times, the four species served as the thanksgiving and celebration offering of the harvest before God.

Centuries later, a Midrash homiletically transformed the cluster into a symbol of Clal Yisrael.

It is time for a new layer of meaning. The fruits of the Sukkot holiday can teach us the difference between tolerance and pluralism – and why tolerance is not enough for Clal Yisrael in our time.

The Midrash teaches: The citron is a fruit that has strong flavor and fragrance, which represents a section of the people Israel: Jews who learn Torah and perform good deeds.

The palm generates a fruit with flavor but no fragrance, which represents another section of Israelites: people who learn Torah but do not perform good deeds.

The myrtle is a plant that has fragrance but no flavor. This symbolizes yet other Jews: people who perform good deeds but are ignorant of Torah.

Finally, the willows have neither flavor nor fragrance, representing Jews with no Torah and no good deeds.

Concludes the Midrash: “What does God do to such Jews?” In other words, what good are people with no Torah and no good deeds?

The answer is that “to lose them [or destroy them] is impossible [morally/ theologically].”

“Instead, the Holy One, the Blessed, says: Bind them together as one bunch and they will each make up for each other. When you do this, I [God] rise up on high.” (Vayikra Raba, ch. 30, Paragraph 2)

The requirement that all four fruits must be waved together has remained a symbol of the unity of the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, the message is essentially one of tolerance. The “willow” Jews have no redeeming social value; they are included as a gracious gesture on the part of people who have everything – Torah and good deeds – who nevertheless reach out to hold on to those who have nothing.

No one should make light of tolerance. For thousands of years, religious tended to treat other faiths as the totally “other.”

Those who did not meet the inside group’s standards had no rights. Jews were frequently the victims of such violence and suppression.

But when Jews were in power, they did not necessarily respect the others, either. The establishment of the right to practice religion freely without interference was one of the breakthroughs of modern culture. As a minority, Jews benefited a great deal from the shift.

Nevertheless, tolerance, as shown weakness in contemporary society. In the tolerance ethic, the other faith may be all wrong, but one is expected to live and let live.

But when religious emotions run high, people find it hard to self-restrain in the face of wrong. In country after country, the bonds of tolerance have frayed under the impact of resurgent religious feelings.

In Judaism as in other faiths, the tolerant were thrown on the defensive; they retreated or yielded the decision making to fundamentalists, the “totally committed.”

The other weakness of the tolerance ethic grows out of the openness of modern society. As people experienced the neighbor’s faith, they often were struck by the power or inner coherence of the other. For many, the ethic of tolerance collapsed – because they felt that tolerance did not do justice to the impact and validity of the other.

In the new encounter between faiths, tolerance often sounds condescending rather than respectful. Often, people lost respect for their own religious position because it negated the other. To some, the breakdown of the standard even led to a new relativism.

But the four species can be interpreted anew – extending a viewpoint expressed in the Talmud. In Menachot 27A it says: Of the four species, “two are fruit- bearing (citron and date palm) and two are not. The fruit-bearing need the nonfruit bearing and the nonfruit bearing need the fruit-bearing [to be valid]. No one fulfills their obligation to God unless they bind them together in one bunch. Similarly, when [the people] Israel seeks reconciliation with God [it is achieved] only when they come together as one group.” (Rashi: When they fast [seeking forgiveness] they get no response until they come together in one group, the righteous and the wicked [my emphasis].)

In this interpretation, the fruit-bearing need the nonfruit bearing and vice versa.

The observant and learned realized that they need the other Jews – yes, even the wicked. Note well: Pluralism is not relativism. The learned do not yield their criticism that the others are nonobservant (or even wicked). But they admit that their goals cannot be accomplished without the other.

Pluralism is more than tolerance. Without saying that anything goes or that all are the same, without yielding its own standards, the pluralist group affirms that the others, despite their limits and even misdeeds, make a contribution to Clal Yisrael, which God wants and which the group alone cannot make.

Lubavitch and other right-wing Orthodox outreach groups that embraces all Jews can be described as Jews of tolerance. The individual sinners are embraced but they have little to contribute but their repentance and transformation. The tolerance does not include organized groups or the rabbis of liberal movements – for they offer their rejections or nonobservance as an alternative position.

Similarly, the liberal groups that claim to be pluralist often must be judged to be, at the most, tolerant – as when they delegitimate the ultra-Orthodox. Some years ago, the National Havurah Institute – officially dedicated to pluralism – ruled that all minyanim were valued at the institute except for the Orthodox mechitzah service, which violated the Havurah’s principle of egalitarianism.

Both sides offer limited tolerance for individuals who “deviate” from their standards but have no willingness to admit that organized groups with different views from their own have a real contribution to make to Clal Yisrael.

The four species of Sukkot offer us a deeper vision. As we bind and bring them together, we should remember that neither relativism nor tolerance is enough.

We can disagree sharply with other groups yet admit that they bring strength to Clal Yisrael that we cannot bring. And the great reward of binding is that when different elements are brought together, the fragrance and flavor rubs off from one to another.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund