Sukkot is always a memorable time for me. It was immediately after Sukkot that I met my wife, many years ago. That same Sukkot I had a dream that I would receive a farm and animals. Within a year I had a flock of gift sheep, several acres of pasture, and a large garden. Even if God seems silent or distant all year, during the festivals – and particularly Sukkot – I always feel His nearness, His presence.
Why is this? After all, Paul wrote “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
David Rudolph, in his recently published monograph A Jew to the Jews, brings out an interesting concept from the Rabbinic literature. Using the concept of bitul (nullification) as an example, Rudolph argues that Rabbinic halacha does not consider unclean meat to be ontologically unclean. That is, there is nothing intrinsically bad or “unclean” about the meat itself. The uncleanness is “imputed” to it by the Torah itself, and only applies for the Jewish people.
Similarly, as Mark Kinzer pointed out in Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his disciples about the power of the water mixed with ashes of the Red Heifer to purify one who had contracted corpse impurity: “By your lives! It is not the corpse that renders a man unclean, nor the waters which purify, but rather, the Holy One said, ‘A statute have I enacted, an ordinance have I ordained, and you are not permitted to transgress my commandment.’” (trans. by Neusner, A Life of Yochanan ben Zakkai, p. 91, which also includes bibliographical information.)
In other words, there is apparently a stream of thought in Judaism that states that the status of pure or impure, clean or unclean, is not inherent to the thing itself, but only exists because the Torah has said it exists. Based on this stream of thought, some might argue that Paul takes the same stance on the Jewish calendar. So Paul would be saying that some people believe that the Sabbath and festivals have inherent power; others don’t. Paul doesn’t give any hint as to which of these categories he falls into (though his stance on unclean meat later in the passage might suggest the latter), but he does charge each group with the responsibility of withholding judgment on the other.
I am honestly not sure what to think of this line of thought. I don’t think there is any comparison between resting on Tuesday and resting on Sabbath, or between a fall camping trip and the Festival of Sukkot. As a Gentile I am not mandated to observe either, but both of them have, in my experience, value in and of themselves.
After all, the festivals are determined by God’s Big Clock in the Sky – the sun, moon, and stars, whose courses in the sky were set at Creation. The days begin and end according to this clock, as do the months and years. All of the Biblical festivals – with the exception of the Sabbath – are tied inextricably to the movements of these heavenly bodies. So there is at least one observable difference between feast days and normal days.
Another aspect of the holidays is their commemorative value. As Gentile believers, we share the heritage of the Exodus with Israel because without Israel, there would have been no Messiah. The King and his people are mutually identified with one another. So the story of the exodus from Egypt as told at the Seder meal, and all of the lessons drawn from it, have value to Christians as well. Celebrating this event on its anniversary is particularly poignant for us, as the Master’s passion occurred on Passover.
Similarly, Sukkot prefigures the Last Judgment. From the sound of the trumpet (shofar), to the opening of the books on Rosh Hashanah, to the complete and full atonement of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked on Yom Kippur, to the bliss of the World to Come as prefigured by Sukkot – every aspect of the Last Judgment is somehow embedded into the traditions surrounding the fall festivals.
So considering their predictive aspects, their commemorative value, and their ontological status as derived from the sun, moon, and stars, I would be sympathetic to the view that the Biblical festivals are both actually (ontologically) holy times and certainly – whether they are ontologically holy or not – of great value to anyone who attaches themselves to the God of Israel.
So what was Paul’s basis for the statement he made in Romans 14:5? I’m not sure. What do you think?