Just How Do We Define Faith? Connect the Dots



I make you a promise. After you read this, you will never look at a computer the same way again, you will never invest in a tech stock the same way, you will never surf the Internet the same way.

First, we need to learn a Hebrew word, and it is "Dot." Dot is the Hebrew word for religion. "Com," of course, is shorthand — at least, it is my shorthand — for community. "Now," as radio commentator Paul Harvey would say, "the rest of the story."

In his Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah describes the self-defined religion of one of his interviewees, a nurse by the name of Sheila Larson. At the end of the day, religion to her was an intensely personal and intimate feeling. Larson articulated the supreme religious doctrine of this religion as "to love yourself." When Bellah asked what name she would give to her religion, she answered, "Sheilaism."

(Can you imagine if her name had been Judy? Now there's a name for a religion!)

There is a phenomenon in the United States that scholars and commentators have dubbed the "American religion."

In fact, Yale University professor Harold Bloom wrote a book using this title. This American religion is personal, intimate and a solitary experience. It is essentially "the feelings of individual men in their solitude," to borrow from William James.

Judaism presents a radically different claim — and the claim is Dot.Com. And let me explain.

Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:43) explains why the Jewish people journeyed three times a year to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and our holiday of Sukkot. It is because it afforded the opportunity to eat, socialize and study together. In a word, the underlying reason was to promote a sense of Jews coming together to create community. Jewish expression of the sacred — Jewish religion, or "dot" — was primarily a communal enterprise. It was and is Dot.Com.

Perhaps Sukkot is the holiday that best speaks to this notion. Listen to how the Torah commands our participation and involvement in the holiday: "You shall dwell in booths for a seven-day period; every citizen of Israel shall dwell in booths for seven days."

From this verse, the sages comment, we learn that "it is appropriate for the entire Jewish people to sit in one Sukkah." Logistics aside, the notion of an entire people sitting, eating and learning together is a powerful and provocative one.

Jews, the world's first global people, are meant to almost literally — certainly, metaphorically — sit in the same booth, because we are part of the same experience and journey. We are inextricably bound by a shared "covenant of fate" and a "covenant of faith" to recall Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's penetrating terminology. In a word, what affects one Jew affects all Jews — directly. To be "in the same booth" means we share the journeys, experiences and ultimately the hopes and aspirations of our people.

When we enter the sukkah, we have a sweet custom. On each of the seven nights, we invite to dinner one of the seven special and honored guests. The first invitee is Abraham, and the last is King David. Were you to ask me, I would suggest that this is not accidental or coincidental but, rather, planned and purposeful.

How so?

The Jewish people were ushered in by Abraham, and will reach its glorious and hopeful zenith with a descendant of King David. Is this not magnificent?

Sukkot is truly the holiday of community writ large. We're part of a group that transcends time and space, and is larger than any one of us. We're part of a community of those who came before, and of those who will come after.

As for our part, it's really very simple. All we have to do is connect the dots.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.


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