I took a brief afternoon stroll over to the rustic booth that has been in the Dunster courtyard for the past week. The booth is called a sukkah, the traditional temporary Jewish "home" constructed for the seven-day holiday of Sukkot each fall.
Dunster House Senior Tutor Suzi Naiburg has put up the sukkah in the past, but this year the sukkah's presence and use have aroused the ire of some house residents.
The criticisms proceeded on two fronts. One student opposed the very presence of the sukkah, citing it as an example of an inappropriate public religious symbol. Notwithstanding his mildly offensive comments about how "some people in Dunster have influence in the house and can get the courtyard to use for what they support," his position probably speaks to a sizable group of students.
Another group of students raised a more serious objection. They didn't mind the sukkah per se, but they found the "Harvest Festival" that was held in it on Sunday night to be a tasteless, almost cynical manipulation of religious traditions in the name of multicultural diversity. The festival incorporated Jewish, Chinese and neo-pagan ideas about the harvest season. Several Chinese students door-dropped a "silent protest" to residents, arguing that the differences between religious traditions should not be blurred.
The first student's objection, though sensible at first blush, is silly. We are at Harvard to learn not just from our professors but from our peers. Religious symbols that are tasteful and educational are just as legitimate as dance festivals and movie nights. Students must overcome the fear that public religious displays are inherently exclusive.
That said, the Dunster sukkah has some problems. If you missed Sunday's festival (as I did), you would be hard pressed to know what in God's name that booth is doing in the middle of the courtyard. No signs hang on the makeshift walls, and I found no obvious notices around the house explaining the object and its purpose. Unless such displays are informative and accessible, they are of little worth, and possibly even offensive.
Second, religious diversity must mean that we explore different traditions on their own terms, in their own settings. Common threads are always fascinating, but cannot be the basis for learning about a tradition. A sukkah is fine as an authentically Jewish symbol; as a multicultural harvest hut, it is questionable at best.
Third, for religious values and traditions to serve their proper function in the College, namely, to help us learn more about one another, students, not faculty and staff, must spearhead projects like the Dunster sukkah. Besides, Harvard is blessed with many students that are knowledgeable and deeply committed to religious life. Not to involve them in planning house projects is to squander a tremendous resource.
These issues will not go away. Last spring, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 decided, prudently in my opinion, that Hanukkah candle lightings in dorm rooms would no longer be allowed. A rash of fires had damaged University property and had put other students at risk. The proposed change, however, provides that a public space, like a Junior Common Room or a dining hall, be set aside for Jewish students to perform the candle lighting ritual.
Now, it remains to be seen whether the new policy will actually be enforced. Will a security guard who happens to notice a few flickering flames on the eighth floor of the Leverett towers bound up the stairs to nip disaster in the bud? I doubt it. But if Lewis is serious about the rule, then the houses will experience their first full-blown public religious celebration this December. Will that be met with the same concerns as surrounded the Dunster House sukkah? Will house committees and masters help pay for those celebrations, or are such expenditures inappropriate?
More than ever, we need a policy that outlines what type of religious displays are encouraged and who should pay for them. Guided by the principles of diversity and education, the students and Lewis can succeed in bringing meaningful, authentic traditions into house life.
Ethan M. Tucker's column appears on alternate Thursdays.