Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shavuot 5768: Creativity, Adaptation and the Nature of Torah

Shavuot night in Jerusalem is indicative of one of the greatest problems the 21st century poses – too much choice. From workshops, poetry and lectures, in Synagogues, streets and private homes, the Jewish long tail is at its most dynamic on Tikun Leil, when Jews traditionally stay up all night learning to commemorate the giving of the Torah.

Yet as always, accompanying such an array of choice is the FOMO – fear of missing out, or of choosing the wrong lecture.

Two years ago I got overwhelmed by the abundance of choice; after presenting a session to year course kids, I rushed to hear another Shiur (getting lost on the way) only to find myself squashed (and stressed) in the corner of a room unable to hear a thing and within half an hour had dozed off.

The whole scenario still makes me cringe.

Preferring not to make the same mistake again, I was delighted when friends suggested a DIY Tikun Leil – each person preparing a short something to be learned and discussed by everyone.

So following a lovely dinner at
Gila’s, the guests spent the midnight hours deliberating over the origins of Shavuot as well as our relationship with God, Halacha and history. One discussion revolved around the connection between the festival and the actual giving of the Torah. Strangely enough, traditional commentators disagree as to the exact day the event supposedly took place while the Pentateuch itself never explicitly links the holiday of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah.

It seems most likely that while the festival originally centred round the harvest, its nature was reconceptualised after the destruction of the temple so as to maintain its relevancy. In the new reality, without a temple to bring first fruits to, Shavuot loses its meaning if that is its raison d'être.

Emphasising the receiving the Torah meanwhile, makes it meaningful for future generations. As
Rabbi Joshua Berman commented, this 'refinement' speaks volumes about the Rabbis' flexibility and capacity for adaptation as well as recognition that yesterday’s solutions don’t always adequately address tomorrow's problems.

This Jewish capacity for adaptation was the main reason Tom Friedman gave as to why he is optimistic about Israel's future.

Speaking at last weeks Reut Conference (after I had geekily nabbed him to sign three books I have of his), Friedman argued that despite the problems with peace and political systems, Israel is hard wired for a flat world.

Having successfully moved from
Jaffa to Java, we have something that can't be learned – the ability to think out of the box and be creative. It's no coincidence that from start ups to solar power, cars to clean tech, Israelis are leaders in the field.

It's not unreasonable to suggest that this modern success is in some small part based on Judaism's tradition of argumentation, questioning, and openness to a changing reality…a positive slant on the 2 Jews 3 opinions shtick.

And even though today's religious leadership show few signs of living up to the challenge of maintaining relevancy, its refreshing to see how even if its for one night a year, the diversity and latent creativity of Torah study is recreated in a way that offers us a model for 21st century success.

Maybe the Torah (or at least its nature) was 'revealed' on Shavuot after all…


NSB said...

You know what? .. I like it.

{Anecdotes can make a blog strong :)}

Zak said...

the question in my mind while reading this was - where do we find the balance between creativity and tradition? Reform certainly innovate, and I respect that, but they lose too much for me.

One thing is for sure though - the Rabbis of the Talmud were far more innovative than the mainstream Orthodox (MO) Rabbis today, and I think that's not good to say the least. Maybe the lack of innovation in Halacha is a prodcut of 2000 years of Galut where Halacha became an expression of identity, rather than a legal framework for running a country in its home land. So it's understandable that Halacha stagnates, nevertheless, not good enough.

Another issue thats kind of close to this Halachik stagnation is religious authority. In today's day and age, religion has zero authority, and it sometimes feels like MO leaders haven't realised yet that they have to offer something tangible, so teaching people about sacrifices as a goal for the future Temple, and totally out of their historical context, for example, is just off-putting. For all it's past sins, the Catholic Church has realised this before we have... they are much more in touch....

gils said...

Nice one Calev

Calev said...

Thanks for the comments;

Zaki i agree with you. I think one of the biggest questions in our day is not only the balance between creativity and tradition but also between authority (divine / rabbinic) and personal individual autonomy.

Tradition requries a certain amount of acceptance of authority. Modernity meanwhile trumpets personal autonomy.

I suppose if the rabbis made themselves more relevant to peoples' lives, then maybe their authority might be less of any issue.

i wonder if the controversy over Shmittah and Conversions and comments by Benny Lau among others suggesting an alternative non Charedi Bet Din is the beginning of signs of change...

Calev said...

in addition, i foudn this discussion about a similar subject at the President's Conference...its really interesting

One speaker actually touched on the topic of the nature of Torah saying that discussions over tradition are actually not about tradition bit "the ability of tradition to change, to be radically transformed"