Reading text, studying and teaching it, dissecting it, explaining it, discussing it and absorbing it is my drug of choice. Last week brought me the annual opportunity we have to – without pushing the metaphor uncomfortably – OD on text. During Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a custom is to spend the night in study of Torah.
I had borrowed a book from the school library by Michal Lederman entitled “After Abel”. It is a collection of stories that are modern midrashim, extended tales based on biblical texts. One, for example, followed the familiar story of Michal and David’s marriage, separation and reunion, but almost entirely from the point of view of Palti, the warrior loyal to Saul. She receives Michal as a wife when David has fled and Saul seeks to dissolve David’s marriage. It is a small shift, but one that opens up a whole new way of seeing Michal, and the position of royal daughters, and of the rise and fall of kings. I carried the idea of new perspectives into Shavuot.
The afternoon leading into Tikkun Leil Shavuot saw me take my girls to a special kid’s program, and a public reading of the Ten Commandments with Rabbi Allison Conyer at Etz Chayim. Seeing my girls gathered around the open scroll while the section was read reminded me viscerally of the midrash that when Hashem asked for guarantors for the Torah, the response from the Hebrews was, ultimately, “our children”. It was moving to hear the girls’ excitement over hearing the commandments read, although I think they were equally impressed by the ice cream sundae buffet.
I returned them home and raced to a private home to hear a debate on whether shules are doing enough to include young people, hosted by St Kilda shule. The place was crammed. I listened to Laura Davis passionately argue that young women need to be actively included in shule as their perspective adds to the depth of the congregation. Women need the opportunity for spiritual reflection, meditation and prayer that they are otherwise seeking at yoga classes. I heard Lisa Farber argue just as passionately that shules do include women. With over 50 alternatives in Melbourne alone there was definitely a “room of one’s own” to be found. Rabbi Yakov Glasman clarified this idea with his thought that no single shule could be all inclusive to everyone, but that between the shules there were certainly multiple programs and experiences waiting to be savoured. This idea ricocheted around as I thought about the diverse nature of the shules I frequent.
I couldn’t stay for the audience judgement as I sped off to hear a keynote speaker Rabbanit Shani Taragin. She took us on a whirlwind journey through the sources on the idea of Truth Tolerance and Pluralism in Jewish Thought and Law. Part of me was relishing and reeling at the speed and dexterity of the argument, while another was literally sitting in wonder at the crowd who overflowed the seats, filled the aisles and blocked the doorways to hear her Torah. Women in sheitels, women in headscarves, women in hats, women bareheaded. Men in black suits, velvet kippot, knitted kippot, baseball caps. I saw my teachers and my children’s teachers, my friends and my colleagues and my students, all listening for over an hour to the unfolding of an idea that there are 600,000 souls who each received a piece of Torah on Sinai and that we are enriched by the different perspectives each brings. Or that’s what I heard.
My next stop was a shiur offered by Avigal and Lital Weizman, hosted by Hineni, on the future of Conversion. It was heart-warming to see the next generation of text scholars and their friends and chanichim listening, talking and, in the spaces between buildings, reminding me of Brett Kaye’s recollections earlier in the evening of teenage life in his Zimbabwean hood! #youhadtobethere
On my way to hear Rabbi James Kennard, I was in time to hear the last chunk of Eli Solomon who was comparing Donald Trump to Korach, as examples of supposed revolutionaries who were not truly arguing on behalf of the people, but for their self-aggrandisement. Again, a shift in perspective and I hear “You take too much upon you, for all the congregation is holy” not as the Bernie Sanders cry I had usually heard it as, but a challenge from “princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown” as a Trump cry aimed at “Washington elites”.
Rabbi Kennard was in great form, at one of his multitudinous divrei Torah of the evening. He was speaking of Yohanan Ben Zakkai and proposing that the latter’s supposed “re-creation of Judaism” was really a return to an earlier version of practice. I took away the idea that what seems revolutionary can actually be a return to the Source.
This put me in a good place to cross back to a session with Rabbanit Taragin on Miriam, Mara, and Matan Torah. I had been irritated in the past by the tradition that Miriam is also Puah, one of the two midwives who defied Pharoah’s injunction to report Hebrew male births for slaughter. It seemed to deny the possibility that some of the Egyptians were good, or opposed the regime. Yet this selection of texts took a natural arc of Miriam as one who gives life, when arguing with her parents about continuing to co-create life, when acting as Puah in protecting life, when placing Moshe on the water and guarding life, when speaking with the Princess Batya and securing life, when dancing by the Sea of Reeds and celebrating life, when finding water in the desert and sustaining life and when influencing her brothers and building a new life. Rabbanit Taragin instructed us that the Talmud teaches that one should seek out different teachers, because from each one we learn something new.
It will take weeks to come down from the high of this Tikkun Leil. Not just the learning, but the camaraderie and joy shared by the participants of so many different shules creating such varied and stimulating events. It made me think of how we all influence one another, sometimes without meaning to, and that we are all bound by the thread that Torah matters, that studying it matters, and that there is one enduring truth: “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim hayim.” These and these are the words of the living God.