The maturing center of Jewish culture is on the street at Shavuot
Shavuot celebrates the Jewish people's maturation into a people with purpose and direction; we need not only be defined by age-old prayers, but allow the slang, fashions and trends of the street to contribute to Hebrew culture.
This week we celebrate Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates maturation. By the time Shavuot arrives, the first grains of Passover have matured into the full spring harvest, first fruits and vegetables have finally matured and ripened, and unleavened breads have matured into fully risen loaves. If Passover celebrates the birth of the Jewish people, Shavuot celebrates the Jewish people's maturation into a people with purpose and direction.
This is because Shavuot most importantly celebrates the beginning of our relationship with our Torah - the primary source of our culture, law and wisdom. The acceptance of Torah is a maturation process, completing our transformation from slaves into free men and women. By turning culture, law and wisdom into the center of our lives, rather than merely following our own desires and appetites, we become civilized. When we matured at Sinai, and accepted the limitations and guidelines of a code of civilized behavior as binding upon ourselves, adopting Jewish civilization as the prism through which we devote our life's work, we infused purpose into our lives, sanctified our existence and elevated our quality of life to new levels.
In the modern era, we are fortunate that the renaissance of modern Hebrew civilization within the modern State of Israel represents a new stage in our maturity. Though Sinai represented the place of our maturity, it was merely a milestone in our history, not our final destination. The Children of Israel knew that, in order to fulfill the promise of their Torah, they needed to make the sacrifices necessary to transform themselves from wandering, dependent transients into a people with a permanent home in which they could transform their Torah into the basis of a civilization.
Today as well, the establishment of a permanent home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel has given root to Jewish civilization, creating a living and dynamic quality of Jewish life that is among the richest ever in Jewish history. The museums, theaters, arts, lectures, study centers and other cultural offerings, both high and low, religious and secular, available in Israel on any given day create a spirit and vitality that increasingly define how Jews are Jewish throughout the world. By freeing Judaism from portable sanctuaries that are limited merely to the religious sphere, we in Israel have succeeded in expanding Jewish civilization beyond the synagogue and Jewish social hall and into the streets, fields and public sphere.
In Israel, Jewish civilization need not only be defined by the age-old prayers that one finds in their prayer books. On the contrary, the songs one listens to on the radio one day, or the slang, fashions and trends that are developed on the street on that same day, become foundations for Hebrew culture throughout the world on the next. While many rightfully celebrate the access to Jewish tradition that Jews have created abroad within their own Diaspora institutions, it is hard to find a quality of Jewish life outside of Israel that is as all encompassing as the richness of the Hebrew cultural life that Jews can enjoy back in Israel. Like all people who aspire to live near cultural centers, the quality of life for Jews who can afford to live in the Jewish cultural center is incomparable.
Nonetheless, despite the great flowering of Hebrew culture that has been experienced since the return of Jews to their land during the last century, there is still much to be said about the challenges and difficulties of life for Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Quality of life requires not just Torah, but also bread, and as we saw during last summer's demonstrations throughout Israel, even those born here, and even those who recognize and desire the quality of life available here, find it difficult to afford life in the Hebrew cultural center. As a Masorti rabbi who has dedicated his career to providing access to the traditions of our culture to Israelis, I know that, despite the great cultural richness of Israel today, much that is essential to the future of our Jewish civilization is as much at risk of being lost here in Israel as elsewhere, especially due to government policies in Israel that inhibit access in Israel to much that is essential and valuable within the Jewish religious tradition. As special as the quality of life is here in Israel, there is still much that we can and must do to go about improving it.
During Shavuot, we are reminded that our maturation as a people started when we received our Torah and transformed a people who were merely free into the agents of what has become one of the most venerable civilizations of history. Like all celebrations of maturation, Shavuot celebrates a beginning, and not an end. The Jewish people's adoption of the Torah, with all of its culture, law, history and wisdom, was merely a milestone on our way to finding a place in which it can take root. The Children of Israel, like Israelis today, eventually succeeded in releasing this Torah from its portable sanctuaries, rooting it in a land in which it was able to create a cultural center for Hebrew civilization that sanctifies our lives and elevates our quality of life far beyond where we started at Sinai. This, however, is merely the beginning of the flowering of what we are capable of - there is still much work to do in order to perfect our civilization, both in the Jewish cultural center and throughout the world that looks to it for inspiration.
Jeff Cymet is the Rabbi of Kehilat Tiferet Shalom, The Masorti Congregation of Ramat Aviv. Prior to becoming a rabbi, Jeff was an international lawyer, primarily in Israel and East Asia, and served as Legal Advisor to the Minister of Justice.