In the new Conservative Movement Prayer Book Lev Shalem, there is a section devoted to the Sukkot ritual of Ushpizin.
Ushpizin is an Aramaic word meaning guests. Each night while eating in the Sukkah, we have traditionally invited one of the biblical patriarchs to symbolically join us; connecting past and present. In Lev Shalem, the Ushpizin paragraph for Sukkot day #1 includes Abraham and Sarah. Day #2 includes Isaac and Rebecca. Day #6 includes Aaron and Deborah; while day #7 includes David and Ruth. For each night, we recognize the role of biblical men and biblical women in the evolution of Jewish history and experience. Rather than praise the editors for inclusive language long overdue, we should be saying what took you so long? Nevertheless, the inclusive, egalitarian language reflected in the Siddur calls attention to a Judaism which constantly evolves. We can actually review ancient sacred texts (like the Talmud) and discover that some of the ‘changes’ made in antiquity were as unprecedented as the changes instituted in contemporary times (contemporary changes include aliyot for women and including women in a minyan). The key to Jewish survival has been our resilience; but I refer not only to the physical resilience of withstanding anti-Semitism and hate. We have displayed remarkable resilience in withstanding the temptation to maintain the status quo. Even when change required tremendous effort, our sages did not stand still. When Israel was destroyed, we created new forms of worship to compensate for no Temple. When Jews in medieval days were forced into business with non Jewish neighbors, we found ways to modify existing laws about industry and commerce. When Jews lost the ability to read and write Hebrew, our scholars wrote in Arabic to best reach their Jewish audience. Throughout the centuries, insightful Jewish leaders enacted significant changes to adjust the Jewish communities to the realities of their day. All of this was accomplished without Judaism fading away.
In our own age, we confront similar challenges when it comes to being resistant to change. Consistent with our forbears, our collective resilience must include an openness to new practices and rituals which-in the long term-address the realities of our age. Some of us will always remain resistant to change; both out of principle and habit. Nevertheless, the Jewish community needs the courage to effect change when change will address a critical need.
As an example: Several decades ago the Rabbinate of Conservative Judaism-by majority decision- voted to align our Jewish holidays with the practice of Israel. This meant, for example, that the yontif part of Sukkot would be one day at the beginning (instead of two days) and one day at the end (with Shimini Atzeret and Simhat Torah combined). For decades, synagogues in small communities have struggled with attendance for even one day of Sukkot. As people work; taking even one day off for Sukkot often entails using a personal day. Taking a second day at the beginning and a second day at the end of Sukkot, is just practically too much to expect. Eliminating the second day of yontif is nothing heretical; since such is the standard practice of Israel! In our age, the Conservative Rabbinate reasoned, it makes sense to unite the calendars of Israel and the Diaspora. Nevertheless, congregations have muddled through each Jewish holiday; refusing to eliminate the second day even if the second day attracted less than a minyan of people. I admit that some of the motivation lies in honoring our past. However, I believe that a primary reason for keeping the status quo is that we are intimidated by change. We believe change signifies resignation and defeat; with change we jeopardize the future of Judaism. I would submit that not embracing change jeopardizes our future; for we make ritual Judaism too demanding for the average Jew.
Consistent with past decisions of the Conservative Rabbinate; we at Lake Success have recognized that-as with modest sized congregations- we have a better opportunity for a meaningful, spiritual experience if we focus on celebrating Sukkot yontif one day at the beginning (as we did) and one day at the end (as we will do with Shmnini Atzeret and Simhat Torah combined). Therefore, aligning ourselves with the ritual practice in Israel, we are celebrating Simhat Torah this Sunday night; the night which also begins Shmini Atzeret. On Monday, we will observe Shmini Atzeret as is the practice throughout the Jewish world; but we will also celebrate Simhat Torah on Monday-as they do in Israel. When we celebrated Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah on separate days, our attendance on Simhat Torah day could be counted on one hand. Last year, as we combined the two holidays into one day, we took comfort and joy in celebrating Simhat Torah daytime with a spirited congregation. By singing joyously for Simhat Torah and also observing Yizkor; we reminded ourselves how Judaism is a tradition where joy and sadness co-exist. We somberly remember our loved ones; but also rejoice in the continuity of our Torah.
This Monday, as we combine Shmini Atzeret and SImhat Torah we will express our resilience by honoring the evolutionary history of our tradition. We will express our support to continuously address the realities of our age: Remaining ever faithful to our forbears who had both the courage and the insight to make innovations which sustained Am Yisrael in all challenging times.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,