A Sukkah for the White House

10.01.2015 – Sukkot Day 1

What the White House needs most right now is a sukkah. I know that the White House has celebrated Chanukah. And, that’s nice. And, I know that the White House has celebrated a Passover Seder. And, that’s very lovely, too. But, a sukkah is what Washington, D.C. needs most right now. And, that’s because the sukkah embodies a creative tension that is at the root of a core difference between Democrats and Republicans. And, that is the tension between inclusiveness and identity.

In the argument between inclusiveness and identity, Democrats tend to be better advocates for inclusiveness. And, Republicans tend to be better advocates for identity. But, let’s not misunderstand. This is not an argument that anyone can win or ought to win. This is what John Gottman has called an irreconcilable conflict. It’s a conflict that is built into the nature of what it means to be human.

The whole world is struggling with this issue right now. For, Americans it is manifest in what to do about immigration. For Europeans, it is manifest in what to do about the refugee crisis. And, at the root of this struggle are two complementary values, both of which are necessary for us to be fully human. The question is only how we balance the two.

The word for identity in our tradition is kavod. We talked about this word on Rosh Hashanah. It means honor. It means dignity. And, it means self or soul. In that sense, we can also translate kavod as identity. When we are worried about a loss of kavod, at the root, we are worried about losing our identity. We are worried about losing who we are. Or another way of saying this is that we are worrying about being displaced, losing our place in the world.

Kavod is very legitimate. We cannot function without a sense of self. The challenge with kavod is that we often overdo it. Out of an exaggerated need for our own sense of dignity and self-importance, we denigrate the kavod of our neighbor. Inclusiveness is the recognition that it is not only about me. There are other people out there in the world, and they also have a sense of themselves. How can I be myself and make room for them?

So, sometimes inclusiveness has to trump kavod. Otherwise we end up with xenophobia or cultural imperialism. And, other times, kavod has to trump inclusiveness. Lincoln realized that it was not possible to be a slave-owning nation and an anti-slavery at the same time. We had to pick an identity. And, when we did, identity trumped inclusiveness. The South had to fall in line.

The Torah gives us guidelines for how to decide which direction to tip the scales on the spectrum of kavod and inclusiveness. For example, in the Torah reading we read on Rosh Hashanah, Sarah was jealous of Hagar. She was afraid that Hagar was replacing her as an object of affection in the eyes of her husband, Abraham.

The Torah tells us that when Hagar got pregnant, ‘va’tekal gvirta b’einehah’/Sarah was kal/’light’ in her eyes. Kal is the opposite of kaved/heavy. And, kaved is the root of kavod. Sarah suffered a loss of kavod. She was displaced by Hagar, who treated her as if she weren’t there, as if she weren’t a person to be reckoned with.

So, what did Sarah do? She literally dis-placed Hagar. She drove her out of the house. She made Hagar homeless. Now, this was cruel, and it was ugly. And, maybe it could have been handled more gently. But, ultimately, God upholds Sarah’s decision over Abraham’s objections. Why? Because polygamy doesn’t work. Marriage is not a place for inclusiveness. A husband is not someone you should be expected to share. In this case, kavod takes precedence. Identity trumps inclusiveness.

On the other hand, there is a place in the family, where kavod has to give way to inclusiveness, and that is the relationship among siblings. The Torah tells us that Joseph’s brothers feared displacement by their little brother Joseph. Every older child feels that when her younger sister or brother is born. And, Jacob didn’t help assuage the feelings that come naturally. He explicitly favored Joseph, making matters worse. So, the brothers of Joseph felt their kavod was violated. They felt like nobody. They felt unworthy of love. What was the brothers’ response? They literally dis-placed Joseph. The drove him from his home. They made him a person without a place of his own.

But, this story doesn’t end with permanent separation, the way that the story of Isaac and Yishmael ended. It can’t end that way. Because no family would ever exist if we were to legitimize the murderous feelings of siblings who fear being displaced. A husband’s love cannot be shared. But, a parent’s love must be shared. In this case, inclusiveness trumps kavod. The brothers are going to have to figure out a way to get over themselves, and they do. Otherwise, Cain and Abel becomes the permanent model for sibling relationships. And, that cannot be.

So, when we look at the major problems of the world today, it can be helpful for us to look at them through the framework of kavod/identity on the one hand, and inclusiveness on the other. And, the question is not either/or, but which value applies most at this moment?

David Brooks recently criticized Ann Coulter for dragging the Republican party into a vision of America where the sense of kavod is excessive and inclusiveness takes a back seat. Does Hispanic immigration threaten American identity? Or, is inclusiveness also such an important American value that to diminish it also threatens America?

In Israel, Palestinians say they live with diminished kavod because they don’t have sovereignty over their land. And, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens complain that if Israel is a Jewish state, they can never be fully Israeli. Their kavod/their identity is compromised by the statement that Israel is a Jewish state. We get this. We know how it feels. We are a minority everywhere else. And, we can be more sensitive. But, we cannot ever entirely solve this problem. That’s why there is an Israel. We also have a need for kavod. And, we will not give it up so easily.

Where does my kavod end and my neighbor’s begin? Every day, the world presents us with a different variation of this question. In Afghanistan recently, two American soldiers got into trouble because they didn’t respect the kavod/the honor of the local culture. What did they do? One of them beat up an Afghan military commander for chaining a young boy to his bed and abusing him sexually.

American servicemen have been told to look the other way at the abuse of boys by their elders. They have been told that this is part of Afghani culture and to object to it would be to insult the Afghani men. It would be an affront to their kavod/to their dignity.

But, what about the Kavod of these young men who were humiliated by their elders? If you have to choose between the kavod of an adult commander and the kavod of a young child who is being abused, that seems like an obvious choice. The American soldiers did the right thing.

The sukkah offers us a model for thinking about this tension between two valid values. The sukkah is a structure, but not a structure. It has boundaries, but it is open. The boundaries of the sukkah convey identity. They create a space that we can call our own. But, the openness of the sukkah conveys inclusiveness.

It’s interesting that there is so much discussion in Jewish law on just how to make sure that the sukkah is both a defined space and an open space. We’re very careful about not making the walls too high, and about not making the ‘scach’ too thick or too sparse. And, there are elements of building the sukkah that are precise, but there are some that are vague. When we say that there has to be more shade than sunlight, that’s not a precise measurement.

And, I think that all of this is a way for our Tradition to let us know that the borders between identity and inclusiveness are not precise. We have to struggle with these opposing values constantly and in new ways every day. But, acknowledging that there is a struggle and that both values are legitimate is an important first step.

It’s not either/or. Republicans can be inclusive and still be Republican. Democrats can talk more about identity and still be Democrats. But, for that to happen, we need a Sukkah at the White House.