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Voyage to identity: A multi-generational relay race from Sinai to the present

Staying up late on Shavuot night and connecting to Jewish tradition isn't just for the Orthodox anymore

On Shavuot night, hundreds of thousands of people will leave their homes and celebrate a “white night.” For a few hours, they will detach themselves from the powerful forces that move all Israelis — money, politics, celebrities, disputes, and sports. Large numbers of women and men will assemble to study Jewish texts and ideas. This amazing event — the Tikkun Leil Shavuot — which is quite out of step with the zeitgeist of our age, will be held not only in the study halls of Bnei Brak and the Western Wall plaza, but also, and on a large scale, in the cultural arenas of the “People’s Republic of Tel Aviv,” on the lawns of kibbutzim from the Galilee to the Negev, and all over the country.

The tangible content and spirit of the gathering varies from place to place. But all those who take part share the desire to step off the daily merry-go-round, if only for a moment, and focus on their Jewishness — on the date designated to celebrate the giving of the Torah. During this period, the apt pupils are part of a large congregation that extends beyond a specific time and place. During Shavuot, people conduct a dialogue with the generations, both past and future through the medium of the Torah in its broadest sense — that has been passed from hand to hand, in a sort of multigenerational relay race, from Sinai to the present.

The Tikkun Leil Shavuot has become popular because it responds to the need that many feel to connect to their identity — not their individual identity, but their collective identity, which forges bonds of affinity among people who share a similar mindset and stand together vis-à-vis the “world.”

Various intellectuals maintain that, for Israelis today, the important elements of identity are the homeland, Eretz Israel; the national language, Hebrew; and the political entity, the state. These elements were not available to our forbears, who lived in exile; their only option was to derive their identity from the study of texts and the quarrying of memories.

By contrast — so it is claimed — Israelis who live in the Jewish nation-state need to mold their identity from the materials of the real world and are accordingly exempt from dealing with the treasuries of Jewish culture from Sinai to the present.

However, these thinkers are mistaken. Identity cannot be sustained by exclusive attention to the here and now. It must be based on the historical continuum from which people draw their beliefs and ideals, their myths, their norms, their legitimacy, their memories, and their orientation towards the world. Our identity and culture depend on how we understand and internalize the past. An identity that develops in isolation from shared history and traditions lacks depth and significance. There is no meaningful present without a link to the past and its legacy.

The study groups on Shavuot night are a major expression of the widespread desire to connect to a distinct group. Most Jews in Israel, when their children ask, “Who are we?” will not reply with an identity based on geography (“Tel-Avivians”), kinship groups (“Sephardim”), socioeconomic status (“middle class”), political preferences (“right wing”), or gender. Rather, they will identify themselves first and foremost as Jews (or as Israelis, asserting an automatic if mistaken congruence between their Jewishness and their Israeli nationality). But this is a fluid situation and there is no certainty that it will endure.

In the last generation, we have experienced a shift from a hegemonic society to a multicultural society, from a consensual democracy to a crisis democracy. Our society is decentralized and privatized and we glorify efficiency over social justice. Israel is part of the global economy and subject to the cultural pressures of the liberal West. These changes have disintegrated not only our internal solidarity, but also our shared identity.

The Torah, in the broad sense that comprises the entire Jewish cultural heritage, is the natural haven for those who would cast anchor to ride out the storm of 21st century identity crises. For believers, the Torah is God-given, and thus a text draped with the aura of sanctity. For others, the skeptics and nonbelievers, the Torah is a human product, created over the generations, which expresses the values of Jews and consequently sketches out the boundaries of Jewish identity in the past, present, and future.

But whatever the individual motivation of those who take part in Shavuot night study groups, they are all choosing to take part in the Jewish voyage to identity. In this sense, they are accepting the Torah, on the day it was given.

Yedidia Stern is vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.
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