Meditations on Sukkah City

Scholars Engage the Place of the Sukkah at Yeshiva University Museum

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One of the Sukkah City entries, “In Tension” by SO-IL, on display at the YU Museum

On Monday, September 27, the Yeshiva University Museum, together with the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University and YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, hosted “Judaism and Sacred Space,” a panel discussing Jewish narrative, legal and thinking approaches to sacred space.

Inspired by Sukkah City, a competition that received over 600 submissions for architecturally innovative sukkot, the panel featured three scholars from distinct fields: Dr. Jill Katz, adjunct professor of anthropology and archaeology at Yeshiva University;Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, YU Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future; and Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Ethel and Irvin A. Edelman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Chair of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU. Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, rabbi of the Bronfman Center and university chaplain of NYU, moderated the panel.

Dr. Schacter began with theological perspectives on Jewish sacred spaces. Starting with the time of the Talmud, he presented two opposite interpretations of physical sanctity developed: one as permanent and inherent to the space by divine investment, and the other as temporary sacredness contingent on human action.

While Dr. Schacter provided historical and contextual grounding, Dr. Katz defined sacred space anthropologically and archaeologically, with features such as increasing exclusivity, ritual sanctification areas, and high concentrations of garments and symbols. According to Dr. Katz, the sukkah is thus both an interpretation of, and a response to, those defined guidelines of sacred space, as one not reserved for the elite but rather open to all. The sukkah, she pointed out, does not symbolize or gratify material wealth as other religious spaces do, a concept embraced by a Sukkah City competitor who designed a sukkah clad with cardboard signs bought from the homeless.

Dr. Schiffman detailed the religious development of sukkot from pilgrimage-related desert shelters to sacred and symbolic spatial representations of the Temple, after the latter’s destruction led to an adoption of sukkot as replacements.

Dr. Jacob Wisse, director of the Yeshiva University Museum, said the panel connected relevant cultural occurrences to the museum’s particular mission, studying “how Jewish art and culture in their different forms across time reflect on Judaism.” He also pointed to the intersection between individualism and communal commitment, a popular theme during the open question-and-answer session following the scholars’ presentations.

“The panel raised important issues,” said audience member David Pruwer, visiting from London. “It was interesting to see different perspectives from different disciplines all focused on the same topic.” Rabbi Sarna, the moderator, echoed the significance of the panel: “bridging the gap between art and religion is one of the most important conversations of today.”

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