You can’t get very far into describing Shavuot before noting that it has “very few rituals associated with its celebration.” No doubt, that fact has kept the festival, which marks the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, from capturing a very strong place in the imaginations of many if not most American Jews. Like all hagim, it is a time for synagogue, and family, and time apart from the workaday rhythms of the world. But beyond the mysterious consumption of dairy foods, Shavuot’s lack of a signature symbol or rite seems like an oversight.
Or does it? Since Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah – and the Jews’ renewal of their acceptance of Torah – perhaps it is fitting that there is no distinct ritual like a seder, or a shofar blast, or the lighting of a special candelabrum. Perhaps Shavuot is best expressed as the acceptance of totality: for religious Jews, the totality of the commandments and the obligation to learn; for Zionists, the totality of their commitment to Jewish renewal in Israel; for activists, the totality of their commitment to living and realizing the ideals expressed in Torah and Jewish history. In that case, no distinct ritual – except, perhaps, for the all-night study session known as tikun leil shavuot – is needed to express this idea of wholeness. Even the tikun is the “anti-ritual.” You want to celebrate Torah? Then go learn, and learn some more – that’s all there is to it.
Perhaps the lesson for Shavuot is that you don’t need a gimmick or a mnemonic device to celebrate the things or ones you love most. You just need to be in their presence, engage with them in a relationship, share your love with others.
The word “pluralism” is not a concept from Torah, but this is: “Turn the Torah, turn it again and again, for everything you want to know is found within it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:25) There is a hint in that famous mishna that the Torah is for all of us. It’s an invitation to engage with your Jewish self. What’s more, it is an invitation that says, “Come as you are.” And finally, with the lack of a specific ritual, it is an invitation to make Shavuot, and your embrace of Jewish tradition, your very own.
Shavuot begins May 28 at sundown. See you there.
Archive for May, 2009
Ruth Messinger of the American Jewish World Serivce (the “Jewish Peace Corps”) gave the commencemnt address to graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary on May 21. It’s bound to add fuel to the peoplehood/universalism debate; in fact, I heard a federation leader critique it last night. He said that while Jews have an obligation to promote social justice beyond their own community, he worries that emphasis on universal social justice comes at the expense of the obligation to one’s fellow Jew.
Messinger unmistakable thrust was that the struggles and challenges within the Jewish community pale next to the poverty and degradation f elt in places like the Congo and Zimbabwe:
Previously, as a people, we were held together by our common enemies — by anti-semitism, by others’ hostility to Israel and by our remembrance of the holocaust. In the future we must also be held together by our commitment to our common values — by our recognition of our obligation not just to teach Torah but to live it, by our commitment to pursue justice.
What is required, first, is that we embrace those with whom we do not share a faith or a neighborhood, a country, a language, or a political structure. We must bend our minds and our voices, our energies and our material resources to help those most in need, both at home and abroad. They are surely b’tzelem elohim — people made in the image of god.
Note the “first” in the second paragraph. It puts universalist activism ahead of the classic Jewish activist’s concerns, namely anti-anti-Semitism, pro-Israel activity, and Holocoaust remembrance.
Messinger also suggests that the affluence of American Jews obligates them to share with those outside the community (and that their own money woes are as nothing compared to the poorest of the poor):
Yes, there are people in our own communities who have suffered severe losses and have few financial resources left, and we must help them put their lives back together. There are many more people in our communities who have seen their investment portfolios shrink, but that has not translated into significant changes in their day-to-day lives. For many of the world’s poorest, however, shrinkage in their portfolio means going from one meal a day to none. It is important that we urge our community, that we urge ourselves, not to abandon our responsibility to these people….
Think for a minute of your grandparents or great-grandparents. I am certain the vast majority of them could not have imagined the level of affluence and influence the American Jewish community has today. If they were here, wouldn’t they ask us what we were doing with this significant wealth and power?….
The worst consequences of the economic crisis are not felt in the boardrooms or seen in our bank accounts. They are seen in the eyes of the children dying of hunger in Democratic Republic of Congo, and the children neglected in our own communities, the children here or there unable to get health care because a parent has lost a job or no transport is available or a hospital is without staff or medicine.
One thing she didn’t talk about, which I often hear in those arguing for Jewish universalist causes, is “tikun olam” as a tool for attracting and engaging young people. Her argument is solely about “committing to a higher moral standard.”
I don’t know what the rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators in the audience made of her talk, although her unmistakable message was: “You can luxuriate in the parochial exercise of ministering to a comfortable, affluent ethnic group and its so-called ‘challenges,’ or you can help feed, clothe, and save the lives of people who are really suffering. Your call.”
I support engagement with the wider world, first and foremost as a Jewish (and human) moral imperative, but also as an advertisement for the Jewish people, and as a way to engage those for whom particularist Jewish causes seem either narrow or irrelevant.
But I don’t think we can go as far as Messinger, which perceives ethnic loyalties as an obstacle to a general philanthropic and altruistic impulse. In her reading, it’s either/or. I find more compelling those who say particularism and univeralism are not in conflict, but conversation. Our impulse to help the wider world develops within the bosom of famiy. If you allow this family to wither by devoting all of its resources to the world beyond, that impulse may wither as well.
Jeffrey Goldberg has the inside story about Springteen’s version of “Hava Nagila” in Washington last week.
Wasn’t Jewish jurist Benjamin Cardozo, not Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice?
Not so fast, says the Times:
…Cardozo’s family, which came to America in the 18th century, always believed that its forebears had come from Portugal, not Spain.
Most Hispanic organizations and the United States Census Bureau do not regard Portuguese as Hispanic….
The executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Arturo Vargas, said the contemporary political definition of Hispanic in the United States would definitely not include Cardozo. The practical definition he uses, Mr. Vargas said, includes people who are “descended from countries in the Americas” with a Spanish-language heritage. It does not even include those from Spain itself, he said.
The American Girl company has created a Jewish doll, and according to this article, it was NINE YEARS IN THE MAKING.
Every detail of her background, her appearance and whom she would be if she were actually alive, is a result of a painstaking multiyear effort by American Girl to get this character and her marketing right….
…[A] Jewish doll presents her own set of potential pitfalls. While other dolls represented ethnic backgrounds with distinctive visual characteristics, what constitutes a Jewish girl’s appearance is much more open for debate.
The goal is that no one be offended and that Jewish and non-Jewish little girls alike will want to play tenement house with their new toy…
The ADL’s Abe Foxman approves:
“It’s not offensive. It’s sensitive,” he said. “How about that? Most of the time these things fall into stereotypes which border on the offensive.”
Investors Business Daily exploits the foiled Riverdale bomb plot in service of some creative xenophobia.
Today, would-be terrorists are still on the defensive. But they might be a lot more on the defensive if we were more careful about letting terrorists relocate to America.
You have to read the whole thing to see how they arrived at this conclusion, considering three of the four alleged plotters are AMERICAN BORN.
And then there’s this:
Imagine synagogues in the leafy Riverdale section of the Bronx going up in fireballs simultaneously. Further imagine, in a coordinated attack, a Stinger-style surface-to-air missile taking out a massive, four-engine U.S. Air Force C5-Galaxy cargo plane as it takes off from Stewart Air National Guard Base in New York.
In its audacity and focused intent, such an operation might have been more devastating than the 9/11 attacks.
Really? Not to take anything away from the Newburgh nudniks, or belittle the havoc they might have caused, but I think the razing of a major financial center, the devastation of a global economy, a direct hit on the center of American military power, and catalyzing wars on two different fronts is still pretty hard to beat.
Andrew Silow-Carroll, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting, should know better than to write off Jewish secularism. Within a few miles of his editorial office there are two secular Jewish organizations, the Jewish Cultural School and Society, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Morris County, which recently celebrated its 10th. The former is affiliated with the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO)and the latter with the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ). A kindred organization, the Center for Cultural Judaism, endows universities to teach courses in secular Jewish studies and publishes a journal.
I dare him to tell the thriving Boston Workmen’s Circle school and community or the its Peretz School and Community here in central New Jersey that it is nearly midnight. We may be small, but we are alive and kicking. He should come to a local Rosh Hashanah observance, a model seder, a Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemoration or a graduation ceremony and find out for himself.
Mr. Silow-Carroll mentions the 63 three year old Jewish Currents (further evidence that we are still on the scene) and its current issue, but not the article that describes the life and work of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, tragically killed in a car accident 2 years ago, who did a great deal to develop the post-immigrant secular Jewish culture that Mr. Silow-Carroll finds lacking. Furthermore, secular Yiddish culture is not dead either as evident from the National Yiddish Book Center, the klezmer revival, YIVO and the growing number of universities that teach Yiddish.
There are plenty of young gifted Jews proud of their secular identity. They are writing for Jewish Currents, attending conferences, going to summer camps, graduating from Sunday schools and singing in Yiddish choruses. You just have to know where to look.
I am glad to note the vitality Mr. Muraskin describes. But the latest issue of Jewish Currents, and its introduction, hardly paint a rosy picture of “progressive, secular” Judaism [its motto]. As Larry Bush notes in the intro,
“Why is the Workmen’s Circle … now struggling to survive? Why is the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations … marking time instead of growing? Why does the movement for Humanist Judaism have fewer than 30 member organizations and havurot in North America after 40 years of organizing? Why does Jewish Currents arrive in only 2,000 mailboxes?”
I worked for the Forward for three years, in the old Workmen’s Circle building. I met a lot of dedicated, creative, and every now and then young people there, but demographic trends, membership and fundraising were not on their side, and they knew it.
Secular Jewish culture is not dead, thank goodness, but that doesn’t mean it is thriving.
A cute piece from a Texas rabbi: How come Moses never shows up in a tortilla — or a latke, for that matter?
Simple coincidence, or alarming trend? Two sperm-related stories out of Israel this week.
Court: ‘Sperm theft’ doesn’t warrant forced termination
The Haifa Family Court on Thursday rejected a petition by a man to have a woman he accused of “sperm theft” terminate her pregnancy.
The ruling was made in the case of a 21-year-old man who asked the court to order a 26-year-old woman he accidentally got pregnant to terminate the pregnancy.
He claimed that the woman, a divorcee with two children, “stole his sperm” by seducing him while he was under the influence of alcohol and further alleged that she assured him she was using birth control pills.
Study: Quality of Israeli sperm down 40% in past decade
The quality of Israeli sperm has declined alarmingly in the last decade, according to recent research conducted at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus.
The cause for the decline is not known, but it’s believed by some researchers to be connected to the exposure of children and pregnant women to hormones and other contaminants in food and water.
Conducted by Dr. Ronit Haimov-Kokhman, the study showed a 40-percent decline in the concentration of sperm cells among the country’s sperm donors from 2004 to 2008, compared to those of donors from 1995 to 1999. Hadassah’s sperm bank is now turning away two-thirds of potential donors because of low-quality sperm, as opposed to one-third in the past.
This piece in the Times, heavily feeding the pro-Israel hysteria that Obama will undercut Israel, relies heavily for its “yes he will” quotes on Charles Freeman, the former United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia . Freeman’s appointment to an intelligence post was sunk in large part by critics who pointed to the hostility he displayed to Israel in speeches like this.
In the Times piece, Freeman is quoted at length. He praises the appointments of Gen. James Jones as national security adviser and George Mitchell as special envoy to the region.
“You can’t really tell anything by what happened to me and the fact that he didn’t step forward to take on the skunks,” he said, referring to his own appointment controversy and Mr. Obama’s silence amid critics’ attacks. “The first nine months, Nixon was absolutely horrible on China. In retrospect, it was clear that he had every intention to charge ahead, but he was picking his moment. He didn’t want to have the fight before he had to have the fight.”
“I sense that Obama is picking his moment,” Mr. Freeman said.
“I sense.” Which is another way of saying, “I have no intimate knowledge of the situation or contacts among Obama’s closest advisors,” and raises the question in a reader’s mind why he is even being quoted in the first place. Why is wishful thinking by a longtime critic of U.S.-Israel policy treated as if it offers real insight into Obama’s thinking?
Before Obama’s critics start squawking about Freeman’s remarks, they should ask themselves this: Considering his scorched-earth and creepily conspiratorial attack on the “Israel lobby,” why would I believe anything Freeman says in this regard?