On Shavuot, Reverse the Paucity of Ideas


Israelis celebrate Shavuot more than any other Jewish community in the world. On erev Shavuot, religious, secular and traditional Jews from all over the country will join in the tens of thousands to study in various and incredibly diverse programs of Tikkun Leil Shavuot. What was once the inheritance of primarily the Orthodox has now become the inheritance of many.

This is not its meaning in modern Israel, nor do I believe, even among the Rabbis. When the Rabbis declare: "The study of Torah surpasses them all" (Mishnah Peah 1:1), they are not referring to the study required to perfect the practice of Jewish ritual, for that which is needed in order to attain this goal is marginal.The renaissance of Shavuot has not been accompanied by increased ritual observance. As distinct from Pesach and Sukkot, Shavuot is not commemorated with an abundance of ritual observances, but rather with a concentration on the act of studying Torah. It symbolizes the idea that we Jews are a people of the book, and that to be a Jew means to be involved in study and thought. Talmud Torah, for some, is important for it can lead to practice (BT Kiddushin 40b).

Torah study is significant not merely because it enables practice but rather because it redefines the focus of Judaism's religious agenda away from observance alone and toward a world of thought and ideas as well. To celebrate Shavuot is to declare that in our religious tradition, what we think, how we think and what ideas we produce are critical to the quality and nature of our Jewish identities and lives.

As we celebrate Shavuot this year, we find ourselves in a particularly precarious position, for we are increasingly becoming a people in which the ethos of Torah study — that is, to believe that ideas are important — is being seriously threatened. We have become a people motivated and guided by crises, from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iranian missiles, to Jewish continuity, to Bernie Madoff. These crises are treated like fires that must be extinguished; these efforts, however, are quenching much of our creativity.

We have flattened our intellectual horizons and transformed serious issues in need of serious new thinking into shallow debates, bantering slogans and short-term solutions. "United Jerusalem," a "two-state solution," "Peace Now," Israel as a "Jewish democratic state," "Jewish continuity" — these have all become slogans bandied about instead of examined issues that require our deepest and most creative thought.

How we build a Jewish and democratic state with a large Palestinian Arab minority is not an issue to be manipulated for public political points, but one with which we must struggle intellectually and morally. The future of the West Bank and the settlements has been transformed into a question of what President Obama wants and will let us get away with and not what we want to be in the future. Israel and Jewish morality of war has become an issue debated along political lines, as if it is only a political and not a moral issue.

In the name of Jewish continuity, we are engaging in endless studies to learn exactly the Jewish sensibilities, or lack thereof, of our youth. Yet we are rarely using this knowledge to develop a vision of where they ought to be and how we can inspire them to get there.

Rather we use it to chase after them in panic under the vague notion that if we reach them wherever they are, they may somehow want to "continue" to be Jews. We have transformed our public discourse into one of slogans instead of substance.

Shavuot and the commandment of Talmud Torah teach that there is no continuity without content, and that the survival of the Jewish people, while dependent upon the marshalling of military and political force where necessary, cannot be sustained through these efforts alone.

In a world where all Jews are Jews by choice, we will be sustained only to the extent that we field a product worthy of perpetuation — and a religion filled with ideas and values that inspire commitment and give meaning to belonging.

As we celebrate Shavuot, we need more than a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. We need a Tikkun for our people. We need to recommit to being a people of great ideas. It was these ideas that constituted the revolution that was and is Judaism and which inspired us over the centuries. We need to keep continuing to inspire ourselves if we are to do justice to our heritage and create the foundations for our future.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the Engaging Israel Project. He is the author of The Boundaries of Judaism and the co-editor of Judaism and the Challenges of Modern Life.



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