Student Group Feature:
By: Rachael Whitley
Prior to the start of fall semester—even before registering for their first course—a small group of students from the incoming class set out to create a new niche in the Divinity School. With a shared passion for interfaith dialogue, a deep appreciation for the many varieties and expressions of theology in this world, and a hope that through pluralistic experiences, individual convictions will only be strengthened, this group of students came together to form Mosaic.
A student organization determined to bring together individuals from any and all religious traditions, Mosaic seeks to establish a community where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Through sharing culturally, socially, educationally, and by joining hands on service-oriented explorations, students are afforded the opportunity to bridge gaps and create understanding.
In a recent event, Mosaic commenced on this highly conceptual endeavor in a very tangible way—by literally building a community. In honor of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (literally, “booths”), (members of Mosaic dropped their textbooks (or at least set them down slightly to the side for a few hours) and picked up power tools in order to build a communal sukkah (singular of the plural “Sukkot”)in the courtyard. The meaning of this construction, however, penetrates deeper than just Jews and Christians acknowledging their close and special relationship. It meant more than simply putting a religious object out for show. It meant creating a structure that represented not only the religious pluralism of the school but the religious pluralism of the world, thereby opening the floor to interreligious dialogue.
Sukkot as a holiday is rich with meaning revolving around community, especially when it is considered in an interfaith setting. Traditionally, Sukkot asks of the Jewish people essentially three things. First, Jews are to build and live in a temporary shelter—a sukkah—for the course of the seven-day festival. Throughout this week, one is supposed to remember the time the Israelites had to wander the desert, forcing them to live in impermanent structures and only take the possessions they could carry with them. By commemorating this time of Biblical history, Sukkot brings up the questions: “What is permanent in this world?” and “What can we take with us when we have to pack up and go?” To this, Mosaic has responded that it is the relationships created through building a community that matter more than the possessions. They are the things that will outlast the most carefully constructed establishment. They are the things that will always be light enough to carry.
The second major request of Sukkot is to invite and welcome guests into the sukkah. Traditionally speaking, these guests are “honored guests,” ushpizin, such as Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebekah; and Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. In practice, however, this commandment translates into the observance of a holiday full of hospitality and generosity. It is not just nice to invite someone to dinner in your sukkah; it is expected. Mosaic took the initiative to extend hospitality to the Divinity School by hosting a dinner with special guest Rabbi Rami Shapiro, and also sponsoring Al’s Pub in the sukkah. By housing these events, the sukkah became a gathering place where the Divinity School community could come together to ensure the viability of the one permanent “possession” that matters—relationships with each other.
Finally, Sukkot calls for much rejoicing. In traditional observance, “rejoicing” can be achieved at a minimum level by shaking the lulav and etrog—a combination item made up of a palm branch, two willow branches, and three myrtle branches paired with a citron (a fruit similar to a lemon that is native to Israel). There are specific times during and between the daily prayer services when this item is supposed to be shaken in a way that recognizes that G-d is everywhere. In addition to this practice—which Mosaic actually performed with Rabbi Shapiro—other more common modes of rejoicing are encouraged as well. For Mosaic, though, the real rejoicing came every time a passerby stopped to sit in the sukkah, or the handful of times classes from all over the university came to have their sessions in the sukkah, or any time the club worked on, talked about, or planned for Sukkot. In all of these circumstances, Mosaic saw reflections of its role in the community and knew then that the mosaic whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
As Sukkot came a close, discussion of “what’s next?” had already begun. For Mosaic, the rest of the semester holds much promise as members consider hosting a panel of Divinity School students from diverse theologies to discuss experiences at Vanderbilt Divinity School from the perspective of a less than mainstream group. There are plans to hold an evening discussion with Professors Amy-Jill Levine and Ted Smith on Jewish-Christian relations. In a more experiential sense, there are also plans to have a study session on Hinduism paired with a visit to a Hindu temple as well as a session on one person being “interfaith,” led by an Episcopalian priest who also identifies as a Buddhist. For more information about Mosaic or any of their upcoming projects, please contact the executive board at firstname.lastname@example.org.