Thursday, May 20, 2010

49 Days of the Omer, 2 Tablets, 613 Commandments...Shavuot Tally!!

3...cups of NesCafe
3...Tikkun Leil Shavuot(s) attended (all night study session...and if you can tell me how to make that plural, you get a prize)
1...Brandeis NEJS professor
10.6km...walked around Jerusalem over the course of the evening
2...renditions of Debbie Friedman's 613 Commandments
7...constipated men of the Bible (that we could remember)
8 hours...slept after staying up all night

Shavuot in Jerusalem is a special experience. There's a tradition of staying up learning all night in anticipation of receiving the Torah, a tradition that it seems the entire city takes part in. As I walked from place to place throughout the night, I saw others doing the same, filling streets that are usually silent and empty at 2 AM with bustling social chatter.

At home early in the evening, I was studying from a book of contemporary Israeli women's midrash called Dirshuni. The midrash I was reading told a story of a young woman sitting in services while the 10 Commandments were being read from the Torah. As she heard the commandment of Shabbat, "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work - you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements," (Exodus 20:8-10) and the commandment "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's" (Exodus 20:14), the young woman's thought was "And the woman, what about her? Isn't she commanded in the holiness of Shabbat? Isn't she commanded to not envy the husband of her neighbor?" In the woman's anger and fear, the midrash describes as being gathered up in God's palm, where she confronts God with her questions. God answers her, describing how Moses, prior to receiving the Torah, was commanded to separate from all women, including his wife Tziporah. Because Moses wasn't mixed up with the rest of creation, including his own wife, prior to writing down all the Torah, it was just inconceivable to him that anyone other than men would be held responsible for keeping Shabbat, or that a woman could have the inclination to envy her neighbor. God implies that God's intention in giving the commandments was for men AND women, but Moses, who could only understand out of his own experience, missed that. The midrash ends saying, "Every beit midrash in which there is no woman, no complete words of Torah will go out from it." We need to include all perspectives in our learning, not just our own, otherwise our Torah isn't complete.

The first tikkun leil I went to was at Pardes; I heard Judy Klitsner, a Pardes faculty member in Bible who I haven't had the chance to learn with because she has been promoting her new book this year. She taught about the patriarchs of the Torah turning to non-Jewish mentors (Abraham to Malchi-tzedek, and Moses to Yitro his father-in-law). Then I went to Yedidya, a nearby synagogue, where I heard Jonathan Sarna speak on Judaism in post-revolutionary America. Judaism adopted the values around it, of democracy, republicanism, and a rejection of central authority. The Jewish community could no longer rely on the rabbi's authority to enforce communal norms regarding intermarriage, among other things. . As Judaism entered the free market, "it had to become compelling and interesting, it couldn't rely on being coercive." Sarna's thesis reminded me of the midrash describing the moment of revelation, in which God literally holds Mount Sinai over Am Yisrael, threatening to kill the entire community if they do not accept the Torah. This coercive, do-or-be-punished model of Jewish life no longer worked in the New World.

After Sarna's talk, I walked 45 minutes across the city to Tchernichovsky Street, where some of my friends were holding their own tikkun leil, independent of any of the formal institutions of learning that fill this city. I think this really reflected the spirit of Shavuot, and in particular the spirit of Shavuot in Jerusalem. Anyone can walk into any synagogue, beit midrash, or lecture hall to participate in the learning happening. You don't need to have a particular amount of Jewish learning or be a major donor (Major Donor!) in order to access the learning and teaching. And anyone can teach, not only the big names who are advertised on posters all over the city in the week prior to the holiday. And as a Jewish people, we need to be aware of the diversity of experience among us, the myriad of ways that we live in the world and experience revelation. We can't rely on just one understanding of the tradition, held by those in traditional roles of rabbinic and social authority.

As morning approached, we went to meet up with those heading to Robinson's Arch, sometimes referred to as the "Kotel Masorti" (referring to the Masorti, Israeli Conservative, movement). Robinson's Arch, in the archaeological excavations next to the Western Wall plaza, is the space dedicated for egalitarian prayer, where Women of the Wall holds its Torah services, and where boys and girls can both become b'nai mitzvah. Praying Shacharit at sunrise, in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, surrounded by a liberal, egalitarian community was one of the more powerful prayer experiences I've had this year. When we first got there and started to get ready to daven, we were unsure if it was even light enough to put on our tallitot - and I was praying with my beautiful new tallit that I got when my mom was here a few weeks ago, so this was very important! Gradually it got lighter, and the only noise heard, other than our own prayers and the faint mumble of prayer from the Kotel, was that of birds chirping and greeting the day. The tallitot around me, of both men and women, flapped in the early morning wind. We loudly and jubilantly sang the words of hallel...and then walked home and I slept from 7:30am until 3:00pm.

Sweet as honey, sweet as honey, sweet as honey on my tongue!

*Points to anyone who read closely enough to find the How I Met Your Mother reference.


  1. major donor!

    i noticed it right away. good work, mirishiri

  2. Also, my vote is for Tikunei Leil Shavuot as the plural, but I wouldn't place any money on that.