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Natan Alterman could not have imagined such a sight: At 3 A.M., on the night of the Shavuot holiday, hundreds of people crowd into the auditorium of the ZOA House in Tel Aviv to hear a lecture on his poetry. Outside, dozens of fans who didn't manage to get a seat in the auditorium stare disappointedly at the guard who closes the door and suggests that they wait for the next lecture - at 4 A.M. That was the scene two years ago at the Tikkun Leil Shavuot (a night of study traditionally held on Shavuot), sponsored by Alma College in Tel Aviv - the college for Hebrew culture that has turned the Festival of the Giving of the Torah into a festival of learning for secular people thirsty for knowledge.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot - originally a kabbalistic concept - has in recent years become a good opportunity for a non-Orthodox audience to expand its knowledge on the subject of Jewish and Israeli culture, from the Book of Ruth to the rights of foreign workers in Israel. In the Orthodox synagogues in the past, people studied Jewish texts on the night of Shavuot - the Bible, the Mishna, the Talmud, the Zohar. In Tel Aviv, as well as Jerusalem (see box, Page 5) the tikkun has been translated into cultural studies in the broad sense of the word, which attract hundreds of people who want to know more, and perhaps even to have a religious experience. The streets of Tel Aviv are full of life all night long, with wide-awake people circulating and exchanging tips that focus on the big question: Which lecture is worth going to now? Will it be in Alma, in the Iyun Academy or in the Reform synagogue Beit Daniel?

"People walk around with Bibles under their arms looking for interesting lectures," says Rabbi Roberto Arbiv of the Iyun Academy, which is identified with the Conservative Movement. "In Jerusalem there are also such tikkunim, but wandering around at night between batei midrash [study institutes] is a very Tel Aviv phenomenon. There are people who stay with us until the morning, and for them this is the first time they have been in a synagogue reading about the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai and praying."

Tikkun Leil Shavuot, Tel Aviv-style, reached its peak of popularity as a result of the decision by Alma College, taken about eight years ago, to conduct its own tikkun, in which they would teach not only Bible, Talmud and Midrash, but also - and sometimes mainly - the poetry of Pinhas Sadeh, the state of the Hebrew language or the place of television in Israeli society. The heart of the city, where the college is located, took on a festive atmosphere and filled up with people wearing white, who thronged not only the classrooms of the college, but the neighboring restaurants and coffee houses as well. At 5 A.M. rolls, chocolate milk and cheesecake were distributed to the participants - a reminder of the traditional dairy foods of the holiday.

From first fruits to learning

"For me, Shavuot was a `free' holiday," says Ruth Calderon, the founder of Alma, who has been an emissary in New Jersey for the past year and a half, and is organizing a Tikkun Leil Shavuot in the New York Jewish community for the second year.

"Since we stopped walking around with our baskets of fruits on our shoulders, and the tractors bearing the first fruits stopped being a significant part of Israeli culture, the celebration of books and learning has remained. [Shavuot is also an agricultural festival, which was celebrated as such in modern Israel for many years, especially on the kibbutzim.] My teacher at the Oranim Academic College, Meir Ayali of Kibbutz Yifat, was the first to take the tikkun to the secular world, and in the entire kibbutz movement, the night of Shavuot became a night of learning. When I came to the Elul Institute in Jerusalem, they had tikkunim that were half in the religious- traditional spirit, and half in the spirit of poetry and literature. In 1995 I went to Tel Aviv to establish Alma, and that was the first thing we did there."

One of the unique things about the Tel Aviv tikkun is the erasing of the distinction between Jewishness and Israeliness. The tikkun concentrates on the cultural aspect of Judaism and not necessarily the religious aspect, and has succeeded in attracting many secular people. "This tikkun, and the spirit of Alma in general, are an attempt to carry on Bialik's idea of Tel Aviv as the first Hebrew city," says Calderon. "This is not only a city of coffee houses, but a kind of unique and revolutionary alternative concept of a new and positive Judaism, which is not necessarily nostalgic or religious."

Tikkun Leil Shavuot, says Rabbi Arbiv, has in recent years become one of the most important dates in the Israeli calendar. "During this holiday, there is a relatively large influx of people to community batei midrash, and even to private get-togethers for study," he says. "The study agenda has of course changed, and has become more philosophical and cultural, and the lecturers are no longer only rabbis but professors, writers, intellectuals. We, for example, are trying to raise questions relevant to our times. This year we will deal with revelation and fanaticism, which is a very current topic - the connection between divine revelation, religious zealotry and fanaticism, with which the three great religions are dealing at present."

Rabbi Meir Azari, who heads Beit Daniel, the Center for Progressive Judaism, believes that this type of Tikkun Leil Shavuot takes Judaism back from the Orthodox. "Hundreds of people come to our building, at 3 A.M. I see young people here who have left some party sitting alongside 60-year-olds. A person like Yair Lapid, who has been with us for years, sometimes lectures about Abraham, about Moses, about King David - and brings modern interpretations to these stories. He, by the way, claims that most of the secular public are Reform Jews who don't know it. In previous years, we had artists like Shlomo Bar and Ariel Horowitz here, and it's a very nice idea to have modern Jewish texts by musicians played in the house of prayer. Tel Aviv is a much more aware and open city, and I have no inferiority complexes vis-a-vis Orthodoxy. This is a city that's not afraid."

Seeking freedom

What is the source of this need to study on the night of Shavuot? "People feel a need to be involved with God, but with a small God who knows how to win basketball games with a 24-point advantage," says poet and writer Benjamin Shvili, who will be participating in a tikkun tonight at the poetry festival in Metula. "On the one hand, there is a spiritual thirst for something greater, and on the other, there is a desire not to commit oneself, not to become newly religious or to observe Shabbat. The people who come to the tikkun are people who want freedom, and the framework of the tikkun does not require commitment - you come for two hours, study and return to the place from which you came. You leave with only this evening, your storehouse grows and you add more things to it. That has advantages and disadvantages."

The idea of Tikkun Leil Shavuot began among the kabbalists in Safed in the 16th century, and it means the studying of Jewish sources in a particular order, for an entire night. The study itself is considered an act of atonement. On Shavuot the custom takes on additional significance: "Shavuot as the time of the giving of the Torah is also seen as a mythological wedding between the Holy One blessed be He and the people of Israel," says Rabbi Arbiv. "On the night before the huppah (the Jewish wedding ceremony), the bride is adorned with Torah study. Tikkun is in the sense of adornment, and when a person studies Torah into the night, it's as though he is creating pearls from the verses, and making them into necklaces - these are the ornaments of the bride."

Some people consider the expansion of topics discussed at the Tel Aviv Tikkun Leil Shavuot an exaggeration - a kind of entertaining festival tacked onto a holiday that is basically religious, and that marks a formative Jewish experience - the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. For example, only five of the 15 lectures to be given at the Alma tikkun tonight are related to Jewish sources.

Says Shvili, "There can be too much preoccupation with all the things surrounding the holiday, and I'm not in favor of hiding Judaism or the very attractive event of receiving the Jewish Torah at Mt. Sinai. The events in Tel Aviv may represent some degree of censorship of the original Jewish festival that this holiday was. On the other hand, it's the time of the giving of the Torah - who knows where the Torah begins and where it ends? Who says that receiving the Torah is only the Tanach [the Jewish Bible]? We are coming to study."

Calderon would agree with the last part of his words. "If one year there is more literature and less Tanach, that doesn't make the study less authentic. Alma doesn't have to be a place for studying the past, but a place that asks questions about current cultural and political issues - because that is Judaism. Even when they wrote the Tanach or the Talmud they dealt with current issues," she says.

And the Reform community? At Beit Daniel they are willing to pay the price of avoiding Jewish texts. "The Orthodox person would prefer to see the secular person eating pork on the roof of the synagogue, as long as he doesn't enter a Reform synagogue," says Rabbi Azari. "I prefer to have him sit next to his wife and listen to [Israeli writer] A.B. Yehoshua."

Jerusalem: Carlebach & yoga

In Jerusalem there will be extensive activity tonight, on the eve of Shavuot, in synagogues and study institutes of all the streams - Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and even secular. In these institutions there will be lectures, study groups and prayers in which not only rabbis, but also artists and academics will participate.

Tonight the Yeshurun Central Synagogue will host Chief Rabbis Shlomo Moshe Amar and Yonah Metzger, but also Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky of the department of Jewish thought at Hebrew University who will lecture on the religious command and the moral command in Judaism. At the Kol Rina and Ma'ayanot Synagogues in the Nahlaot neighborhood, for example, there will be tikkunim in the spirit of "songs and study," as they define it, with songs and prayers composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

At the Shalom Hartman Institute Prof. David Hartman will lecture on "What the Rambam Can Teach a Perplexed Jew," and Rabbi Dr. Daniel Hartman will lecture on "Belonging and the Policy of Acceptance into the Jewish Community." At Hadassah's Merkaz Hamagshimim they are promising "Pluralistic study under the open sky." At Beit Midrash Elul poet Hava Pinhas-Cohen will lecture on poetry as midrash (exposition and commentary) in the Book of Ruth, poets Sivan and Avisar Har-Shefi will lecture on the Ba'al Shem Tov and his ideas, and Shlomo Perlmutter will speak on "A.D. Gordon - Man and Nature."

Eight synagogues of the Conservative Movement in Jerusalem will hold tikkunim. The Masorati High School, for example, will wrap up the tikkun with a yoga workshop, and at the Ma'ayanot congregation there will be a tikkun in the spirit of "an evening of cheese, wine and Torah." Poet Haim Gouri will lecture at Hebrew Union College on "Do We Understand Hebrew?" Dr. David Ilan will offer an archaeological perspective on the subject of "Forty Years in the Desert" and toward dawn there will be a joint drumming workshop by musician Zohar Fresco and Rabbi Shlomo Fuchs.

"The transition from dealing directly with texts in Jewish law to dealing with broader intellectual issues also happens in religious society," says Prof. Ravitzky. "On this holiday I am delivering lectures in two places - at one of them I am talking about the sanctity of life, and at the other about the religious and the moral command in Judaism, and these are questions of religious thought that do not deal with the clarification of a specific issue in the law, but rather offer a comprehensive spiritual-religious and intellectual outlook."

Another process that occurs, says Ravitzky, is the tikkun at secular institutions, "and I like these two processes. Today there is a much greater interest in Jewish thought - from intellectual thought to mysticism and Hasidism. After all, even [pop star] Madonna is learning kabbala. It used to be that we knew that there was the Bible and there was

alakha [Jewish religious law], but nowadays the interest - in both religious and secular society - is more in midrash, aggadah [homiletics], Jewish philosophy, mysticism and Hasidism. This creates a range for learning that is more comprehensive and rich. And, of course, there is the phenomenon of the Jewish bookshelf: secular people taking an interest in Jewish sources, on the assumption that the religious do not have a monopoly on this because this is a historical and cultural asset that belongs to everyone. If six years ago I would have said that there is a decline in the demand for Jewish studies, today the process is the other way around and the Shavuot eve tikkun is one of the characteristics of this process."