Festival reflections from Lord Sacks

Ceremony and Celebration, By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Maggid/OU Press, £18.99


If you are looking for a book to get you in the mood for the High Holy Days, you need only reach for the new collection of essays by Lord Sacks on the five major festivals.

Comprised of the introductions to the Koren Sacks machzor series, the publication of which was completed last year, these 300 pages of creative exploration of the chagim reinforce the message of the Emeritus Chief Rabbi that Judaism ripples with radically transformative ideas.

He draws his insights from close reading of biblical texts, explaining within a broader framework of knowledge with references that range from Renaissance figures such as Pico della Mirandella and Vico to Freud’s disciple, Otto Rank. Judaism’s concept of forgiveness, he argues for example, institutionalised in the Day of Atonement but first dramatised through the story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers, was an innovation within ancient culture.

All is delivered with characteristic literary grace. The High Holy Days, he writes, continue “the world’s longest courtroom drama” — “the extended argument between God and His People about the fate of justice and the justice of fate”.

He demonstrates his ingenuity in an interpretation of the ceremony of the two goats on Yom Kippur, a Temple rite recalled in the day’s liturgy, into which he breathes new symbolic life by linking it to personal psychology.

The “subversive” book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, is naturally meat-and-drink to the philosophical Sacks. The recital of the enigmatic text on Succot, with its ruminations on the “vanity” of life, seems to contradict the very nature of the festival when we are meant to celebrate the “season of our joy”. But understanding the book, he says, is a key to understanding the festival itself.

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