Shavuot and diversity

It is diversity of opinions and expressions that foster Judaism’s growth and development.

Torah scrolls around the world 370 (photo credit: Elie Posner/ Israel Museum)
Torah scrolls around the world 370
(photo credit: Elie Posner/ Israel Museum)
It was a temporary and uncharacteristic moment of Jewish unity, the rabbis teach, which facilitated the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. At that time, just 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish People were united “like one person, with one heart.” It was this unique state of unity that paved the way for the receiving of the Torah.
The rabbis learned this from the Torah’s surprising use of the singular form of the verb “to camp” in Exodus (19:2) even though millions of Jews were doing the camping in front of Mount Sinai.
But is unity really such a good thing? Obviously, the sort of fratricidal violence that gripped the Jewish People at numerous periods in their long history has proven to be self-destructive. The short periods of unity under King David and King Solomon were shattered by civil wars that pitted Jew against Jew, Israel against Judea, which eventually led to destruction and exile.
However, what is wrong with good healthy debate? The bickering, argumentative, authority-questioning aspect of Jewish and Israeli culture is what makes us such a dynamic and innovative people. Criticism, free inquiry and skepticism are the driving forces behind advances in political systems, science, technology, art and literature.
The same holds true for religion. In recent decades, there has been a renaissance in diverse forms of Jewish expression in Israel. Perhaps no other day of the year better exemplifies this outburst of uniquely Jewish creativity than Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or all-night learning sessions, which used to be the exclusive domain of Orthodoxy have been co-opted by a host of non-Orthodox and non-affiliated movements and groups.
This year, for instance, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality is hosting an event organized by Beit Tefilah Yisraeli, which bills itself as a “congregation that provides a variety of liberal, inclusive and egalitarian Jewish-Israeli programming.” This will be the first time the City Hall hosts such an event.
Alma: Home for Hebrew Culture, also based in Tel Aviv, will focus this year on the theme of “the other,” particularly migrant workers and other non-Jews living in the country.
Bar Kayama, a Jerusalem-based group of artists and media people, will devote this year’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot to the question “is there meaning in the world without God?” A number of events are planned at different venues in the Jezreel Valley, which has become a hot spot for Jewish renewal. The Nigun HaLev community in Moshav Nahalal will host an evening devoted to the subject “materialism in Israeli society, then and now.”
There are also evenings planned at the Hartman Institute, the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, the Shai Agnon House in Jerusalem, Beit Shmuel and many other places across the country.
There are numerous Orthodox organizations such as Chabad and Tzohar that appeal to a wide range of Jews, as well.
This efflorescence of alternative Jewish and Israeli expressions has taken place without the help of the Chief Rabbinate, whose institutions and rabbis receive state funding specifically for the purpose of facilitating, if not encouraging, adherence to Judaism. Indeed, it can be argued that the renaissance in the interest in Judaism has taken place despite the existence of a Chief Rabbinate.
Clearly attempts to impose a uniform, monolithic, Orthodox version of Judaism by giving the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over many aspects of Jewish practice from marriage and kosher supervision to divorce and the appointment of city and town rabbis is a patently bad idea because it stifles creativity. Rather, the robust spiritual forces that exist in the country’s society should be left unimpeded to grow and develop.
The rabbis idealized a state in which the Jewish People were “like one person, with one heart” as a preparation for the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. But it is diversity of opinions and expressions that foster Judaism’s growth and development.