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The Jewish festival of Sukkot begins on the eve of 23 September and lasts for eight days.Here, Rabbi Barry Kleinberg reflects on the festival. To learn more about Sukkot, click here.

Alan Brill wrote a book called Judaism and Other Religions: Models for Understanding. He clearly sets out 4 models for such an understanding. In brief terms the models are:

  1. Inclusivism – “One religion is best but weaker forms of religion are possible in other religions.”
  2. Exclusivism – “There is only one true religion.”
  3. Pluralism – “All major world religions have some truth.”
  4. Universalism – “The truth is One.”

Due to obvious conflicting truth claims, many religious people gravitate towards exclusivism. However, Judaism has a rich tradition of a Universalistic approach.

At the beginning of the book of Genesis (1:26-27) G-d says, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’ and ‘When G-d created mankind, he made them in the likeness of G-d.’ In a further reference to the creation of mankind we are told at Genesis 9:6 ‘…for in the image of G-d has G-d made mankind.’ These statements relate to the creation of humankind ‘b’tzelem elokim’, (the image of G-d) and the universalism of humankind.

Recent Jewish thinkers have written about the centrality of universalism in Judaism. R.Avi Weiss described tzelem elokim as ‘Perhaps the most fundamental principle in Judaism…every person is created in the image of G-d’. R. Yitz Greenberg stated that ‘tzelem elokim is the core of the entire tradition – not only the interpersonal mitzvot (commandments), but the ritual commandments as well’.

After chapter 9 of the book of Genesis the phrase ‘image of G-d’ is not used again! However, universalism can be seen during the journey Jews start at the beginning of the month of Elul until the end of the festival of Succot (tabernacles).

As Jews we are coming towards the end of this two-month period of reflection, repentance and prayer. The whole of the month of Elul was spent hearing the shofar (ram’s horn) every morning and adding prayers to our daily routine, relating to repentance. The High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, include prayers, fasting and heartfelt requests for forgiveness from G-d and our fellow human beings.

In a few days’ time, we will enter the 8-day festival of Succot (festival of booths). We will again put our faith in G-d by moving our activities into temporary dwellings. We eat and sleep in temporary Succot (huts) and brave the English autumn weather.

So far, this two-month period seems to be all about the Jewish people, their relationship with G-d and each other.

If we see the movement of time as progress. If we view the festivals as a journey towards an ideal, then we need to ask, what is the message of Succot, the final festival in this packed festive period?

During Succot 70 animals were sacrificed for the original 70 nations. Not for the Jewish people, not to enhance the Jewish connection to G-d but for the nations of the world!

Turning back to Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) which, as Jews, we may well view as the most important, or awe-filled day of the year. It is, on face value, the pinnacle of the process of repentance. Fascinatingly, towards the end of the day, we read the Book of Jonah. There was much debate amongst the Rabbis as to whether this short book (48 verses) should be included in the Jewish Canon. In an enlightening commentary on the Book of Jonah, the French thinker Bernard Henri-Levy (in his book the Genius of Judaism) tells us that Jonah is a unique prophet. He goes to a non-Jewish nation to tell them to repent. This journey to the ‘other’ is so scary for Jonah that he does everything in his power to avoid it! In the end, he makes it to Nineveh and the people do indeed repent.

The message is clear. G-d cares for all people, and so should we!

Every morning in the week leading up to the High Holidays we add supplications. My favourite line in these prayers is taken from Isaiah 56:7

“Even them will I bring to my Holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer, their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon Mine alter; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”.

The culmination and pinnacle of the Jewish festive period is one of universalism. We pray for the ultimate celebration when all people come together, pray together and serve G-d together.


Rabbi Barry Kleinberg