When Sukkot begins this week, I’ll visit a sukkah. For many Jews, this is simply an ordinary part of the holiday every year. But for me, it will be the first time I’ve been in a sukkah in more than 20 years.
I’m not really much of a believer. I don’t know if I technically qualify as an agnostic or atheist or heretic; I like “skeptic.” Aside from the occasional last-minute trip to synagogue on a high holiday, I gave up strictly observing Jewish holidays many years ago. But a recent experience I had with one of the books of the Bible has me rethinking my lack of interest in them.
In fact, Sukkot seems like the perfect opportunity to reconnect with my past and find meaning in a Jewish holiday—because it’s the perfect holiday for skeptics.
I grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in Pikesville, Maryland, a heavily Jewish Baltimore suburb, with all of the trappings of a normal middle-class Jewish American life. My family kept a loose version of kosher at home, but, like most Baltimore Jews, we ate crabs outside the house. I fasted on Yom Kippur (and still do, out of solidarity and habit), had a bar mitzvah, and did Jewish-y things, frequently including visiting a sukkah when Sukkot came around.
But I was never able to will myself into believing. I’ve always appreciated the communal aspects of my membership in the tribe, but I never truly felt spiritually connected. The closest I came to an epiphany was when I visited the Western Wall as a teenager, though this fleeting bout of ecstasy was probably due more to standing in the presence of so many ancient civilizations—Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Arab—than God. Generally speaking, being Jewish for me has meant slow-cooked brisket, family gatherings, and Larry David.
The outcome of this is probably predictable: After going away to college, my attendance at shul became rarer and rarer. I rapidly became a “three-day-a-year Jew,” that insult I heard thrown around when I was a kid. Today, I guess I’m a once-a-year-Jew (if that), according to the premise that Jewishness should be quantified by one’s synagogue attendance record.
My spiritual lockbox seemed to creak open a smidge after I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, five years ago. Behind my house is a large hill that overlooks the compact city core, and other similarly spectacular vantage points are within easy walking distance. Unexpectedly, I found that daily walks, and longer excursions into the woods to hike or paddle, would always bring a strange feeling of peace. One late afternoon, as the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains, I remember thinking I’d be content if a long-range view of the mountains was the last thing I saw before I died. I’m definitely not the first person to point this out, but out in the woods, overlooking the mountains, concerns about dying and the news cycle were neutralized.
Still, as a guiding philosophy, I remained—and remain—a skeptic; not so much Sam Harris as doubting Thomas, with no ax to grind. In the end, I just don’t feel His or Her or Its presence, whether it’s there or not.
Two years ago, however, a project at work accidentally pushed me into rethinking my lack of interest in anything religious. As part of my job at an educational publisher, I was charged with assembling texts for an anthology of early world literature. To represent the Hebrew Bible, our academic advisory board suggested including the Book of Ecclesiastes. I was as unfamiliar with it as I was pretty much every other book of the Bible save for the ones they made movies about; I assumed it was another lecture with something to say only to the already-faithful.
As I read Ecclesiastes, however, my shield of cynicism gradually started to fail. Much to my secular surprise (and delight), I found a holy book that actually had something to say to me. This was a “wisdom” text for a reason. Ecclesiastes recounts the seen-it-all observations of an elderly philosopher-hater who refers to himself as Kohelet, or Teacher. In the Teacher’s view, life is largely an endless series of hollow triumphs and meaningless stimulation—and then you die. As the world turns, however, it certainly can’t hurt to be grateful for our short time on it and enjoy its simple pleasures.
Dubious, world-weary statements such as, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” were a far cry from the Bible as I had understood it—and generally every other unimpeachable, self-assured book of revelation. For the first time, I had begun to look at the Bible—at least this small part of it—as less a historic cultural artifact and more of a practical guide to living.
Ecclesiastes may be full of existential despair, but I found it affirming. For one, it seemed like the book’s narrator possessed more than a little self-awareness; at least, much more than any other biblical chronicler I had been exposed to. His skepticism is timeless, growing more relevant with every new political performance or Silicon Valley disruption. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of an unsolicited email marketing blast can surely relate to the Teacher’s exhausted dictum that “there is nothing new under the sun.” “I turned [to look] at all my deeds that my hands had wrought and upon the toil that I had toiled to do, and behold everything is vanity and frustration, and there is no profit under the sun” reads more like a mantra for slackers everywhere, including the great sage Homer Simpson.
Unsurprisingly given its perplexing—and arguably rebellious—message, Ecclesiastes, along with the erotic verse-filled Song of Songs, is considered the most contentious book in the Bible. Its very inclusion has long provoked fierce debate among religious leaders and biblical scholars. (To wit, Google will gladly autofill the phrase “Ecclesiastes canon debate.”) According to scholar Robert Vande Kappelle:
Because of its unorthodox views, the book of Ecclesiastes was controversial in ancient times. Early in the Common Era, when rabbinical authorities debated the books that should be included in the Writings (the third part of the Hebrew Scriptures), they disagreed about whether the book should be included in their Bible. The rabbinic school of Shammai rejected Ecclesiastes on what they regarded as its inconsistencies and possible heresy.
Ecclesiastes isn’t all hopelessness and (possible) heresy, however. Toward the end, it asserts the value of living for this life, and argues that doing so is a way to please God: “I knew that there is nothing better for them but to rejoice and to do good during his lifetime. / And also, every man who eats and drinks and enjoys what is good in all his toil, it is a gift of God.” If this is Judaism—or religion in general—I’ll take it, maybe.
As I dove deeper into my newfound interest in Ecclesiastes, I learned that it is customarily read every Sukkot. (Like I said, my ignorance of Jewish rituals is considerable.) I had always enjoyed the holiday as a kid; it was a welcome chance to make up for the deprivations of Yom Kippur by stuffing as much candy as possible down my maw. My grandparents lived in a neighborhood that had become heavily Orthodox, so almost every year my siblings and I went on an epic sukkah-hopping run that felt like a practice scrimmage for Halloween. As always, there had been no real spiritual appeal—just Tootsie Rolls.
Given the book’s brooding tone, it may seem to be a strange match with Sukkot, a joyous festival that celebrates the end of the harvest. In actuality, however, theirs couldn’t be a more perfect union. For one, like Ecclesiastes, Sukkot has its own subversive core. Very likely, the holiday actually descended from a pagan harvest festival by tribes living in the region of Babylonia. Its celebration of the Earth and its bounty isn’t much different from many native traditions all over the world—or Thanksgiving. And caressing a tree part, while outside in a tent, seems more than a little hippie-ish to me.
Also, the holiday’s tribute to autumn can be seen as both a literal celebration and a humbling metaphor, akin to Ecclesiastes’s commemoration of the autumn of a person’s existence. Taken together, Sukkot offers an appealing mix of self-awareness, gratitude, reality—all of the elements that make a skeptic’s heart rise in song. (Some of them, at least.)
As a result, I’ve increasingly come to see Sukkot as the perfect holiday for skeptical but spiritually available Jews like me. Saluting the natural world doesn’t require blind religious devotion, just an appreciation of the Earth’s beauty and an acknowledgment of our smallness in the universe—regardless of whether its source is divine or accidental. I’m convinced the Teacher, whether he was real or made-up, would agree.
Uncertainty is at the core of skepticism—and the Teacher’s message. He offers permission to be world-weary. This position is extremely inclusive, since it means you don’t need to be a full-throated believer (or anything close to this) to connect in some deeper way. By not connecting, I have been able to connect.
Candy or no, I plan on returning to the sukkah this year. It’s been a long time since I’ve stopped by, but I have faith I will find something there.
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