Religious pluralism on Shavuot

No longer the exclusive domain of the Orthodox, Shavuot night has become a night-long learn-in for the religious and secular.

Haredim 311 (photo credit:
Haredim 311
(photo credit:
The festival of Shavuot has, in recent years, become a veritable night of study. The custom by which people stay awake during the night and immerse themselves in the study of religious texts and ideas has developed into a supermarket of learning opportunities. From traditional yeshiva study to formal lectures, and from critical study of texts to discussions of ideas and Jewish philosophies, Shavuot night has become the annual night of self enrichment – no examinations at the end of day, just learning for the sake of learning.
There is something for everyone. The weekend papers were full of ads enticing a hungry audience to the diverse synagogues, community centers and yeshivot. No longer the exclusive domain of the Orthodox, Shavuot night has become a night-long learn-in for the religious and secular, the Conservative and the Reform, the youth movements and the neighborhood study groups. The pluralism that is so sorely lacking in many areas of Jewish and religious life in Israel has homed in on the night of Shavuot as a demonstration of the rich diversity of Jewish ideas and alternatives.
DURING SIX decades of statehood, the ultra-Orthodox world and its yeshivot have grown at an exponential rate, to an extent no demographer or politician forecast in the early years of the State.
Today, tens of thousands of students spend their lives immersed in yeshivot, in Israel and the Diaspora, in numbers that could never have been imagined even at the height of pre-World War II Eastern European Jewry – a period in which the famous yeshivot (such as Mir, Ponevezh, Volozhin and Slobodka) were places for relatively small groups of advanced and elite students, rather than the mass houses of learning they have become today. The Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and the Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey each have some 5,000 students, while many of their young rabbis and leaders spread out across the globe and create their own places of learning in peripheral communities. It is a form of haredi outreach that is seriously challenging the more emotional and hassidic type of outreach so commonly associated with the Chabad movement.
At the other end of the spectrum, the study of Jewish texts and source material within the secular community has also grown dramatically during the past decade. Under the slogan of “the Jewish bookshelf,” secular Israel has been coming together in small groups to become acquainted with a heritage that has become alien to large sectors within society. The study is more critical, based on a historical understanding of texts and their writers, and far more questioning and probing than takes place in the yeshivot. Rather than a blind acceptance of Jewish source material and the wealth of commentaries as constituting a divinely inspired, unchanging tradition, the “return to the Jewish bookshelf” generation is able to understand the historical development of Jewish tradition and rituals through the changing social and cultural contexts of society as they have evolved over time in a diversity of place, and contingent upon an ever-changing political environment.
And, increasingly, there are the “in-between” groups: those who profess an allegiance to Orthodox practices but are increasingly critical of the ways in which texts are understood and who, in recent years, have been testing religious (Orthodox) practice to its limits by introducing new modes of ritual behavior. Women have begun to play a much greater role, even within the religious communities, as teachers, as prayer participants and, in some cases, as ordained rabbis.What was once perhaps to be found only in the Religious Kibbutz Movement and in a few scattered communities has now become common among younger generations of Jewish adults who have grown up in Orthodox households and who want to maintain their attachment to basic religious practices, but in a way that has meaning to the modern society with which they interact on a daily basis – in contrast to the self-imposed ghetto existence of the haredi world, unwilling and unable to combine its own religious behavior with the complexities and realities of modern society.
IN THE past, critical understanding of religious texts was to be found solely within the university departments of Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Thought. But although the universities, along with institutes such as Shechter, the Hebrew Union College and Hartman (to name but a few), remain the main places for serious research into Jewish texts and ritual, they are not necessarily attracting the large numbers of undergraduate students to which they were accustomed in the past. The alternative learning frameworks have become more popular as people choose to study for the sake of study rather than for a degree, and find time in busy work weeks to join the many informal learning groups that have sprung up throughout the country.
A stranger in Jerusalem around 10:30 on Tuesday evening will be amazed by the large numbers of people walking the streets in all directions. Many will go from one location to another, following specific lecturers or speakers in this one-night festival of Jewish learning. Many will then make their way, in the early hours of the morning, to the Kotel, where hundreds of thousands of people, from diverse communities and groups, descend upon the Old City – a custom that has been in place since the Six Day War in 1967, when the area first opened to the Israeli public on Shavuot, one week after the war took place.
Shavuot night is not about religious coercion. It is the night when, according to rabbinical teachings, the physical redemption that took place at Pessah was transformed into a spiritual redemption culminating in the Torah – the basis around which Jewish existence and survival has kept itself going through good times and bad. It has taken some time for the new Hebrew nation of Israel to wake up to the fact that religion and study of Jewish source material is not the sole domain of the religious. It is open to all, each in their own way and their own style.
Shavuot night has become one of those rare moments in Israeli life when diverse groups unite around the common desire for knowledge and understanding and when some glimmers of religious pluralism begin to break through. It is becoming a time when the unique spiritual potential of this amazing state, over and beyond its military and hi-tech expertise, is part of the public space. Perhaps it needed a gestation period of 60 years for a generation of younger adults seeking a meaning beyond that of survival to come to the fore. But it has finally arrived, and Israel is a better place and society for its existence.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.