Sukkot fruits give Jewish people taste for pluralism

Says the Torah: "On the first day [of Sukkot, this year Monday., Oct. 9], you shall take the fruit of the hadar tree [by tradition, the citron or etrog], the branches of the palm tree [lulav], boughs of leafy trees [by tradition, myrtle] and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God [at the Temple]" (Leviticus 23: 39-40).

In biblical times, these so-called "four species" served as an offering of thanksgiving and celebration at harvest time.

Centuries later, a midrash — a biblical interpretation — homiletically transformed the cluster into a symbol of Clal Yisrael, the community of Israel as a whole.

Today, the fruits of the Sukkot holiday offer yet another layer of meaning: They can teach us the difference between tolerance and pluralism.

And they can tell us why tolerance is not enough for Clal Yisrael in our time.

The midrash teaches that the citron is a fruit with both strong flavor and fragrance. It represents one section of the people Israel: Jews who learn Torah and perform good deeds.

The palm generates a fruit with flavor but no fragrance, which represents another section of Israelites: people who learn Torah but do not perform good deeds.

The myrtle, on the other hand, is a plant that has fragrance but no flavor. This symbolizes yet another kind of Jew — those who perform good deeds but remain ignorant of Torah.

Finally, willows have neither flavor nor fragrance, representing Jews with neither Torah knowledge nor a record of good deeds.

The midrash concludes: "What does God do to such Jews?" In other words, what good are people with no Torah knowledge and no good deeds?

The answer is that "to lose them [or destroy them] is impossible [morally and theologically]."

"Instead, the Holy One, the Blessed, says: Bind them together as one bunch and they will each make up for each other. When you do this, I [God] rise up on high" (Vayikra Raba, ch. 30, Paragraph 2).

The requirement that all four fruits must be waved together has thus remained a symbol of Jewish unity.

Nevertheless, the message is essentially one of tolerance. Those "willow-like" Jews with neither Torah nor good deeds have no redeeming social value. Yet people who have everything — that is, both Torah and good deeds — are nevertheless gracious enough to reach out and hold onto those who have nothing.

No one should make light of tolerance. For thousands of years, religions tended to treat other faiths as the totally "other." Those who did not meet the inside group's standards had no rights.

Jews were frequently the victims of such violence and suppression. Nevertheless, when Jews were in power, they did not necessarily respect others, either. The establishment of the right to practice religion freely without interference was one of the breakthroughs of modern culture, and as a minority, Jews benefited a great deal from the shift.

Nevertheless tolerance, as a policy, is none too strong in contemporary society. According to the tolerance ethic, someone else's faith might be different and thus "all wrong"; but still we are exhorted to live and let live.

Yet when religious emotions run high, people have trouble restraining themselves in the face of what they perceive as wrong. In country after country, the bonds of tolerance have frayed under the impact of resurgent religious feelings.

In Judaism as in other faiths, tolerant people have been thrown on the defensive; they have retreated or yielded all decision-making powers to the religion's fundamentalists, the "totally committed."

The tolerance ethic is strongly affected by modern society's openness. As people experience a neighbor's faith, they are often struck by that faith's power, its coherence.

In the new encounter between faiths, the language of tolerance often sounds condescending rather than respectful. And people often lose respect for their own religious position simply because it negates someone else's.

But the four species can be interpreted anew — extending a viewpoint expressed in the Talmud, which says in Menachot 27A: Of the four species, "two [i.e., citron and date palm] are fruit-bearing and two are not. The fruit-bearing need the nonfruit-bearing and the nonfruit-bearing need the fruit-bearing [to be valid]. No one fulfills their obligation to God unless they bind [all four plants] together in one bunch. Similarly, when [the community of] Israel seeks reconciliation with God, [it is achieved] only when they come together as one group."

The observant and the learned, then, both can realize that they need all the other Jews — yes, even the wicked ones. Please note: Pluralism is not relativism. The learned do not yield their criticism that those others are nonobservant — even wicked. But the learned admit their goals cannot be accomplished without the presence of the other.

Pluralism is more than tolerance. Without saying "anything goes" or "all are the same" — and without yielding its own standards — a pluralist group affirms that the others, despite their limits and even their misdeeds, contribute in their way to Clal Yisrael. It's a contribution God wants and one that the pluralist group by itself cannot make.

Lubavitchers and members of other right-wing Orthodox outreach groups that embrace all kinds of Jews can be called "Jews of tolerance." Individual sinners are embraced but have little to contribute beyond their repentance and transformation.

The tolerance does not include organized groups or the rabbis of liberal movements.

Similarly, often we must judge liberal groups claiming to be pluralist as, at most, tolerant — as when they delegitimate the ultrareligious. Some years ago, the National Havurah Institute, which is officially dedicated to pluralism, gave its vote of confidence to all minyanim or prayer quorums except one: the Orthodox mechitzah service, which in separating men and women violated Havurah's principle of egalitarianism.

Both sides offer limited tolerance for individuals who "deviate" from a given group's standards. But they are reluctant to admit that organized groups with views differing from their own can make a real contribution to Clal Yisrael.

The four species of Sukkot offer us a deeper vision. As we bind them together, we should remember that neither relativism nor tolerance is enough.

We can disagree sharply with other groups, yet we can admit that they bring strength to Clal Yisrael. And the great reward of this binding is that when disparate elements come together, their fragrance and flavor rub off on one another.