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(photo credit: Illustration by JUHA)
Shavuot is tied to the agricultural cycle of the Land, and is a celebration of God's giving of the Torah at Sinai. As Jewish life unfolded in the Diaspora, the Revelation of the Law became the holiday's dominant theme. We deceive ourselves if we believe the Revelation was a one-time event. Revelation is a process that challenges each generation to accept the Torah anew.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the great thinker of religious Zionism, compared the Torah to a mirror. The mirror always remains the same, but the reflection is different in each generation. Every epoch faces new situations, new challenges and new influences. By looking in the mirror of our Torah and our past, we can pursue our destiny as a people.
But what if there is no mirror? What if the past is forgotten? How do we know who we are if we can no longer see our own image? The Jewish people face many crises today. The most immediate is the threat of a nuclear Iran. As well, the rising call for "holy war" among fundamentalists in the world of Islam represents a great danger to Western civilization.
But let's not ignore the internal danger that threatens to bring the Jewish people to ruin: Jewish ignorance. Jews - traditionally a people of the book - are today biblically illiterate. Assimilation in America and the embrace of universalism in Israel are endangering the Jewish future. We are mired in ignorance of who we are and from whence we came. Those who do not know their own past will have no future.
The crisis of American Jewry is particularly acute. In these difficult economic times, parents do not have the means to provide their children with a day-school education. Synagogues provide afternoon and Sunday school teaching, but this is only for a few hours a week - not enough for children to learn the Hebrew required to read the great texts of Judaism and Zionism. American Jews, for the most part, can neither speak nor read Hebrew, the language of our people.
While there are wonderful translations of our great texts, I wonder how many American Jews utilize them. Most US Jews have little connection to Judaism or Israel. Rates of affiliation with synagogues and Jewish organizations are alarmingly low. Yes, in the Orthodox world there is more emphasis on the Torah and Talmud. But how many of these American Jews have studied the texts that are the foundation of the modern Jewish Zionist revolution?
Modern Jewish literacy requires that we understand the fundamentals of one of the most important events in Jewish history - the founding of the State of Israel. We find money to build museums commemorating the Holocaust. Why don't we have a "super fund" to finance Jewish education for our youth?
IN ISRAEL, the crisis of Jewish illiteracy takes on a different dimension. While Jews here obviously have a command of the Hebrew language, how many are familiar with the classics of Jewish literature? The Jewish state today is mired in a culture war. Many intellectuals and artists are cutting themselves off from their Jewish identity. These vocal "post-Zionists" are embracing a "universal" understanding of modern Israel as a state with no Jewish character. They reject the idea that Israel is a Jewish state, the center of world Jewry on the political, religious and cultural plane. This is, in part, the fault of Israel's Zionist founders. In rejecting their Jewish past - not only throwing the baby out with the bathwater but dashing the infant against the rocks - these socialists created today's spiritual and cultural void.
Only by studying both the religious and secular works of our past can Jews in Israel reconnect with that past. Zionist identity is not even 150 years old and is the product, for the most part, of modern European nationalism. Jewish identity, however, is firmly grounded in more than 3,000 years of Jewish genius and spirit. Jews in Israel and the Diaspora should not try to recreate the ghetto of the exile, but there is a great need to integrate the cultural achievements of the Jewish people into the ideology of Zionism. Otherwise, the post-Zionists will win. Israel's Jewish identity - and the nation's will to survive and thrive - will disappear.
There are many ways to overcome the scandal of Jews' ignorance of their own history and literature. One of the vehicles is popular culture. I love to go to the movies, and always wondered why more Jewish filmmakers have not explored the Jewish past. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa created wonderful cinematic masterpieces based on the history of medieval and early modern Japan. His films - The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha and Ran come to mind - are great entertainment but also a terrific way to gain insight into the culture and history of Japan.
Why are no Jewish filmmakers producing cinematic epics based on Jewish history? Jewish history is packed with many great stories. What of Bar Kochba? A film biography of Shmuel Hanagid, the great Torah scholar and poet, a Jew who as prime minister of medieval Granada led Muslim armies out to battle for 20 years, would be the perfect tool to educate young Jews about our past, our heritage, our faith and our literature.
As a people of ongoing revelations, both ancient and modern, we are failing. We are not facing the challenges we must overcome to ensure our future. Without faith or culture, a deadly decadence and pessimism fill the void. We must act. We must act now.
The writer is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University's LifelongLearning Institute in Davie, Florida.