Shavuot is my favourite day of the year. More precisely, it’s my favourite night of the year, thanks to the tradition of staying up all night studying Torah, known as Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. By sunrise I’m so exhausted from my Jewish learning geek-out that it would take a team of alarm clocks, a barrel of coffee and a serious quantity of cheesecake to get me out of bed before dinnertime.
So when I was first asked to create a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot e-resource for the Limmud Chavruta Project, I said “yes” without hesitation. Frankly, the level of excitement I felt about the whole thing is a touch embarrassing, and I didn’t come to regret the decision until two years later when the Publications team came to choose a theme for our third Shavuot resource. Allow me to explain.
In 2014, we focused on ‘Learning’. “After all,” explained the powers that be, “the whole point of Shavuot is learning, the whole point of Limmud is learning, and the whole point of Chavruta is learning.” It was a fair point. In 2015, for the second resource, we selected the theme ‘Revelation’. “After all,” we figured, “the whole point of Shavuot is actually the revelation of God’s Torah at Sinai, and a discussion about the nature of revelation is really just another conversation about how to study Torah.”
All well and good… until it came time for round three. What would it be this time? Torah? Knowledge? There’s only so many times you can play the same trick, so I scratched my head for a week or two until inspiration struck. I emailed the chair and chief executive of Limmud to pitch them the title ‘Offerings’… and I imagine that they scratched their heads too. “But of course,” a more articulate version of me might have explained, “the whole point of Shavuot is really offerings! The Tikkun has only been part of our tradition since the 16th Century but Shavuot is a Biblical festival marking the offering of the first fruits at the Temple.”
“True,” they might (and probably should) have replied, “but what relevance does that have for us today? Who is interested in a conversation about an ancient tradition that hasn’t been practiced in two thousand years? Nobody talks about Temple sacrifice anymore.”
“And that,” the still-hypothetical orator-me would have told them with a touch more arrogance than strictly necessary, “is exactly the problem.” Temple sacrifice has become the Jewish elephant in the room, particularly in cross-communal spaces. Of course it’s perfectly natural for Jews today to struggle with the images of slaughtering and burning that pervade Torah law, but too often our discomfort is met with the automated response that prayer replaced sacrifice many centuries ago, and so we needn’t worry.
Now this seems to me an exceptionally un-Jewish attitude. The beauty of Judaism in my eyes is that it continuously refreshes itself by infusing modern meaning into ageless words and traditions. If we can’t find anything with contemporary significance in the many chapters of our sacred texts devoted to the practice of making offerings to God, then we’re just not doing Judaism very well at all. Being Jewish has always meant being retro.
In his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides writes that just as God took the Israelites the long way round to the Land of Israel (so that they would not meet war and turn back to Egypt), so too did God allow the Israelites to perform animal sacrifices based on familiar foreign customs (so that that they should transition seamlessly from the idolatry of Egypt to the not-even-remotely-idolatrous service of God). Maimonides suggests not only that it was always God’s intention that prayer would replace sacrifice, but adds that prayer too will one day be replaced in turn by something new and improved, which he calls “serving God in thought and not by any action”.
The idea that prayer may one day be replaced as the backbone of Jewish life seems particularly pertinent to me as Rabbinic Judaism, designed for a disempowered diaspora, faces up to the reality of a modern, autonomous, Jewish state of Israel.
We are standing at a crossroads in history. Do we press forwards, shed the baggage of a prayer tradition that has ceased to inspire many and look for a newer, shinier way to serve God? Do we stand still and, whilst standing on one leg, try to reimagine and recreate prayer as the central practice of Jews both in independent Israel and the emancipated diaspora? Or do we turn backwards to reclaim the traditions of Biblical Judaism?
These are not hypothetical questions. In recent months, some activists have lobbied the Israeli government for the right to pray on the Temple Mount, while others have lobbied for the right to egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. There are thousands of Jews who pray daily for the rebuilding of the Temple and reinstitution of its sacred rituals, and there are thousands more who have lost faith in Judaism but found God through the meditative practices of Eastern religion.
Offerings – of animals and crops, of money and of prayer, of children and of selves – are the foundation of Jewish identity, community values and commitment to serve God. If we truly want to live Jewishly in the 21st Century, we must first ask ourselves: What have our modern practices evolved from? And what were our ancient practices really for? Only then can we begin to answer the most important question: Where do we go from here?
And so, an invitation: to discuss, debate and join the great dialogue of the Jewish people this Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. You can find the Limmud Chavruta Project’s downloadable e-resource ‘Offerings’ at http://limmud.org/publications/tikkunleyl/.