Must We Celebrate Shavuos Alone?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 16, 2010
On Shavuos, Orthodox Jews will find themselves celebrating alone. As far as the vast majority of the world's Jews are concerned, Shavuos is the unsung holiday. Even those Jews who faithfully attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and sit down to a Seder every year, rarely take off from work or school for Shavuos.
In Israel, where the Jewish calendar is followed and the early kibbutzim turned Shavuos into an agricultural holiday, at least the existence of the holiday is known. In the Diaspora, even that much cannot be assumed. When Rabbi Berel Wein was practicing law, he once asked a judge for a continuance because a scheduled hearing fell on Shavuos. The judge told him that he was Jewish and was certain that no such holiday exists.
From the vantage point of believing Jews, the lack of knowledge of Shavuos is hard to grasp. We have just spent seven weeks counting the days in eager anticipation of Shavuos. For us, Shavuos commemorates the seminal event in world history: the receipt of Torah at Sinai.
But from the point of view of secular Jews, the day has no such significance. They do not believe that the Torah is the Word of G-d or that Sinai was an actual historical event. They have, by and large, little knowledge of the Torah's commandments, and certainly do not view them as binding. So what should they celebrate?
The lack of awareness of Shavuos, then, is a good measure of the alienation of most of the world's Jews from Torah, and of the chasm between religious and non-religious Jews. We are not responsible for the widespread ignorance of Torah. But we are responsible to try to do something about it. As Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the pioneer of the ba'al teshuva movement, frequently said, Jews' ignorance of Torah constitutes the greatest chilul Hashem.
THE PRESENT MOMENT may prove a propitious one for reaching out to our fellow Jews. Ironically, the increasingly strident and frequent attacks being directed at the chareidi public in Israel may make the task easier. Yair Lapid, a more attractive version of his father, signaled his intention to revive Shinui last week. Kadima leader Tzippi Livni sought to lift her party from the electoral doldrums by calling on Prime Minister Netanyahu to unite with her in freeing the secular public from the chareidim. And Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai characterized chareidi education as training for ignorance. In a single day, Ha'aretz published six articles on chareidim – five of them critical.
Why should these attacks create a propitious moment for kiruv? First, the more attention given to chareidim, the more interest will be directed in our direction. That is a long-observed pattern.
Nor are the secular criticisms coming from a place of strength. Huldai, for instance, obviously decided that the best defense is a good offense. The dismal results consistently registered by Israeli students on international exams are rightfully considered a national disaster and poor omen for the future. The most publicized behaviors of Israeli teenagers are hardly of the kind to inspire national pride.
Recently, I was contacted by one of the leaders of an Israeli think tank, who was interested in arranging a forum on the values that chareidi society has to contribute to Israel. That reaching out reflects a deep suspicion that the general society is running on empty.
In addition, the more that chareidim are portrayed in the most negative terms, the greater the impact of actual contact between chareidim and secular Israelis. When the latter realize how little actual chareidim conform to the media stereotypes, the more inclined they are to disbelieve everything they have been told about chareidim and to open their ears to what the chareidim have to offer.
THESE INTUITIONS WERE GIVEN credence by a recent program, under the auspicies of Kesher Yehudi, at Aish HaTorah's new world center overlooking the Kotel, for about sixty participants in a pre-military academy.
One of the first activities was a role-playing exercise, in which the secular students played chareidim and the chareidi hosts played secular Jews. The chareidim had no difficulty portraying their characters sympathetically. But the secular youngsters could only fall back on cartoonish stereotypes. The secular girl playing a chareidi woman rattled on about how much she enjoyed changing diapers and waiting all day for her husband to return home. And the secular young man playing a chareidi described how he spends all day at the Kosel reciting Tehillim, even as his wife was expecting their fourteenth child.
The secular youngsters realized that they know absolutely nothing about what chareidim actually think and how they live, and were embarrassed by their ignorance.
Next an articulate chareidi woman confronted directly the accusation that chareidim are "shirkers," evading any responsibility to the larger Israeli society. She turned the tables on this frequent charge by pointing out that before there can be a Jewish state, there must be some content to the word Jewish. Imagine that every religious Jew disappeared tomorrow, she challenged them, how would you decide what is Jewish?
Only because religious Jews preserved their identity throughout the millennia, often at the cost of their lives, she argued, was the idea of a Jewish state even conceivable. She suggested that perhaps those who are completely ignorant of what it means to be Jewish are the greatest shirkers of all.
Her remarks triggered a firestorm of discussion that was still raging two days later in discussions between the participants and Mrs. Tzila Schneider, who runs Kesher Yehudi, which arranges study partners for secular students. One participant commented that he felt ashamed to lift up his face so embarrassed was he by his failure to consider that the chareidim have their own perspective and a commitment to collective Jewish life that antedates the state by millenia. Sixty per cent of the secular youngsters requested an ongoing connection to Kesher Yehudi.
I left the meeting convinced that such contacts between mature chareidim and secular Jews are a powerful tool not just to breakdown stereotypes but to open up Jewish hearts to their own connection to Torah. If we do that, perhaps next year we will not find ourselves celebrating Shavuos alone.
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