Writing a column on Jewish identity should be easy the morning after four Jews were murdered, just for being Jews, in Tel Aviv. What better fodder for easy copy. But there is nothing new to say. Nothing whatsoever. Every single politician and pundit on television and radio or on my twitter feed has said exactly what was expected. You know it all, you’ve heard it all before. The presumption to have any new insight or perspective in the wake of something which is just so drearily predictable and routine is beyond me. I can’t even find a way to conveniently connect the bloodshed to the planned subject of this column – Shavuot and the battle of ownership over the Torah. There really is no connection but there is comfort.
I don’t believe the event we are going to commemorate on Saturday night actually happened. I know that my neshome was also supposed to have been there at the foot of Sinai 3,328 years ago, but my mind and my soul are unanimous in telling me it wasn’t. But Shavuot, even though I’m pretty convinced it celebrates a myth, still excites me. The idea that this wonderful book somehow belongs to me, is the most central element of my identity and it doesn’t matter that it was written by various men and women over generations and not dictated by God to Moshe Rabeinu. Actually, my belief that the 39 volumes were the work of humans makes me love them much more. Which is why Shavuot means more to me than any other Jewish festival – it is the birth of our legacy.
Whether or not there is a god observing us from above, the patriarchs and matriarchs ever existed or the Exodus from Egypt took place, the Tanakh is real. It is our one true connection to the past that can never be disputed or taken away. My pride in my identity has nothing to do with the number of Jewish Nobel Prize-winners or writers and artists; I know many more stupid and talentless Jews. And my patriotism as an Israeli and a Zionist is just as conflicted and problematic than that of the citizens of any other country. As Rabeinu Gershom, “the light of exile” wrote a thousand years ago “the holy city and its districts, were defiled and abused, all their treasures drowned and hidden, and we have nothing left but this Torah.”
On Sunday, as politicians and nationalists thronged to my hometown, making political capital and supremacist slogans out of Yom Yerushalayim, I realized how easy it is to defile a city. You don’t need a besieging army to do that. The Jerusalem Day orgy of posturing and speechifying not only empties the city of any real meaning as a place where 800,000 people struggle and live their lives, but also subverts the historical meaning of the Six-Day War, which was a necessary battle of national survival, using it to justify the next 49 years of occupation of another nation. But maybe those who have been opposing the occupation and campaigning to end this travesty corrupting Israel’s soul have been fighting the wrong battle all along?
Perhaps the occupation we should be opposing is the occupation of the Torah by those who have been monopolizing it for so many years as a pretext for any injustice carried out in its name? Not just the occupation and discrimination, but a national narrative that once believed in fusing ancient heritage with enlightenment and democracy, which has become beholden to a narrow and sectarian interpretation of the Torah. It is largely the fault of secular Israel that it allowed for the last century first the ultra-Orthodox, and then the religious-nationalist settler movement of Gush Emunim to claim to represent “authentic Torah Judaism.” The fallacy that Jewish values and culture were somehow frozen in time from Moshe on Sinai, denying both the diversity and adaptability of Judaism, was allowed to take root. No one seriously challenged the Haredi claim that a stream which only came into existence in the 18th century somehow represented the original meaning of the Torah, as if such a thing even existed. That ideological weakness allowed the Judaism of stones and soil of Gush Emunim to succeed in dragging us into a never-ending occupation. But Shavuot can become the festival of reclaiming the Torah for all of us. If we liberate the Torah from the occupation of a small minority, it will be a major step toward ending other occupations.
I’m not a great fan of the city of Tel Aviv. I find it often pretentious and a poor imitation of metropolises abroad. There are many fairer towns along the shores of the Mediterranean. Its air of superiority over Jerusalem is literally built on sand. At last night’s national basketball championship final, you could probably have spotted me, along with 10,000 other Hapoel Jerusalem fans in red, chanting “Tel Aviv is burning.” But on Saturday night, thousands of men and women in Tel Aviv will be out at public Shavuot study events, sitting together learning and listening to a wide array of lecturers and teachers, reclaiming our Torah in the way only Tel Aviv can. And maybe I’m wrong and something good can come out of Tel Aviv besides some decent restaurants and overrated coffee shops.
On Thursday morning politicians rushed to Sarona to have their photographs taken drinking coffee at the scene of the previous night’s carnage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s just as empty a gesture as the one the politicians made on Sunday in Jerusalem. The people of Tel Aviv who head out on Shavuot night, freeing our Torah from the clutches of hidebound extremists, will be the ones delivering the true answer to terror.
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