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Yom Kippur, Ashura and Sukkot: how do we learn to make space for difference?

Rabbi Daniel Lichman


Author's Notes: On Erev Yom Kippur (Tuesday 18 September 2018), a driver of a car rammed into people leaving the Al-Majlis Al-Hussaini centre in Cricklewood, seriously injuring two people. See the article in the Jewish News. and the Jewish Chronicle. Following the incident, 20 of us from the Willesden Minyan & Shir Hayim communities went to meet with them to offer our condolences for the hate crime that they had suffered the previous evening. The day after Yom Kippur, I was invited to give a short address to the large Marble Arch gathering of the Al-Hussaini Association for their Ashura commemoration day. This got me thinking about hospitality, my own unconscious prejudices, and the power of community to help challenge and support one another.


Photo Credit goes to Faith Matters

I was honoured to give a short address to a couple of hundred people at the large Marble Arch gathering of the Al-Hussaini Association for their Ashura commemoration day. The community were moved by the visit the day before of 20 of us from the Willesden Minyan/Shir Hayim Yom Kippur community, who went to meet with them to offer our condolences for the hate crime that they had suffered the previous evening. To show their appreciation, they invited me down to Marble Arch, introducing me warmly by explaining to the crowd about the visit the day before. I offered a few words about why it was important to our Jewish community that we stand in solidarity with other groups who suffer from such awful hate crimes.


Prior to speaking, I witnessed part of the Ashura commemoration. Ashura, marked primarily by Shia Muslims, remembers the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of Muhammad. Interestingly, it has parallels with Yom Kippur – being on the tenth day of the lunar month and coming after ten days of preparation. (It had been after one of these days of preparatory teachings that the hate crime had taken place.) At the commemoration most people were dressed in black, including children. The lament for the death of Hussain was read out into the microphone to the response of cries and tears from the crowd, before young people offered their own laments.


It is significant that Sukkot follows straight after Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur recalls the moment that Moshe spent on Mount Sinai receiving pardon from God for the sin of the Golden Calf. The 20th century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig writes about this:


But the people are not allowed to linger in the sheltering shade of Sinai, in which God sheathed it so that they might be alone with him. It must leave the hidden togetherness with God and issue forth into the world.


From Rosh Hashanah through to Yom Kippur, we focus inwardly. We examine that which we carry with us – the pain, trauma and sin which limits us. On those holy days we seek transformation through acknowledgement, confession and honesty about our inner life. Immediately afterwards Sukkot calls us to be attentive to the world around us – to realise that boundaries are always, like the walls of the sukkah, permeable.


At first, I felt confused by my experience at Ashura. My initial reaction to seeing a practice of public lament like this was one of alienation, confusion and even fear. On reflection, I realised this response sprang from my subtle internalisation of a broader Islamophobic strain in wider culture that has encouraged non-Muslims (including Jews) to look out for perceived ‘foreignness’ or ‘extremism’ within Islam. The ceremony itself was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before.


Yet, as I reflected on it, I realised that just the day before in our Yom Kippur musaf service our liturgy describes in some detail the then martyred rabbis, murdered by the Romans. I have read of how some Jewish communities, on hearing this, weep out loud for these lost Rabbis in a show of public lament.


Slowly, my experience of alienation morphed into one of curiosity, and then even into sacred jealousy: what have we lost in our community by no longer being able to access the cathartic power of public lament?


This sukkot I am reflecting on that short moment of fear that I experienced. I know that its origin is not in my direct experience of the community which had been so positive, but in my living within a broader Jewish and British culture that carries prejudice about Islam. Being invited to speak at the Ashura gathering was a profound honour and show of generosity and respect by the Al-Hussaini Association. How then to overcome that reaction, to challenge and heal it?


There is a tradition that immediately after Yom Kippur you begin to build the sukkah. There at Ashura, just after Yom Kippur, I began assembling my internal-Sukkah as I asked: how do I make space within myself to be hospitable to difference?


In their joint Kol Nidre address Debbie Danon and Martin Dives challenged our community to confess those ways in which we all, through small unconscious actions, perpetuate structural prejudices in our broader culture. They pointed out how hard it is to do the work of acknowledging this alone, especially given the guilt and shame that this process unleashes. They considered how being in community and learning out loud can help us to challenge and support one another to notice, speak about and make space amidst these prejudices.


A key mitzvah associated with Sukkot is that of hachnasat orchim, hospitality – as we are encouraged to invite guests into our sukkah. The mitzvah of hospitality makes a radical ethical challenge: it requires that we host the other without making demands on them. This requires us to make space within ourselves for the other: ready to have dialogue with, disagree with and learn from the other.


As this Sukkot, and the festival season as a whole, draws to an end, we are invited to consider these questions:

  • How do we support one another to be hospitable to difference?

  • How do we help one another to acknowledge the prejudices we carry?

  • Are there regular practices that we can take in in our gatherings to help us to acknowledge these?

If you have any responses please be in touch with Rabbi Daniel at rabbidaniel@rjuk.org.

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