Shavuot and the limits of self
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 29, 2001
Shavuot is the unsung holiday on the Jewish calendar. It lasts only one day (two in the Diaspora), has no special mitzvot associated with it, and lacks any beloved customs, unless one relishes staying up all night. (Please, no angry letters from cheesecake lovers.)
The overwhelming majority of non-religious Jews around the world do not observe the festival in any way, and are probably not even aware of its significance.
At first glance, the low-key nature of the holiday is hard to comprehend, for the day marks the defining moment in world history: the revelation at Sinai. But at another level, the nature of Shavuot conveys a subtle message about the manner in which Torah is received.
One theme runs through the rabbinic literature on the receipt of Torah: Only one who has humbled himself is capable of receiving the Torah. Torah is compared to water. In what way? Just as water naturally flows to the lowest point, so Torah flows only to one who has made himself lowly. Pride, self-assertion, the desire for notice are all incompatible with true understanding of the Torah.
When God came to give the Torah, says one midrash, all the mountains put forth their claims - this one pointing to its exalted height, another to its beauty. Only Sinai did not advance any claim, as if to say, 'What difference does it matter whether the Torah comes into the world through me? The only thing that matters is that the Torah is given." Therefore Sinai was chosen.
Another midrash asks why the Torah was given in the desert, and answers: Only one who makes himself ownerless like the desert can acquire Torah.
Making oneself ownerless means not only the sacrifice of all physical luxury, but also allowing one's whole being to be shaped by the Torah without regard to one's preconceived ideas and beliefs.
The great literary critic Lionel Trilling nicely captured this strain in rabbinic thought. Rabbinic literature, he observed, lacks any trace of the heroic ideal. 'The rabbis, in speaking of virtue, never mention the virtue of courage, which Aristotle regarded as basic to the heroic character."
To be sure, they did not lack courage itself; many would die for their faith. What they lacked was the Greek concept of agon, of proving oneself for the sake of proving oneself. The Greek hero is in essence an actor, his virtue reflected in the impression made on others.
Such self-conscious efforts to assert one's own greatness were contemptible in the rabbis' eyes. They did not recognize the quest for fanfare and the recognition of others. In place of agon, they knew only duty.
Nothing could be further removed from the modern mind than this diminished sense of self. Part of the reason that Jews today have such a hard time connecting to Torah is that they are so busy projecting their own voices that they can no longer hear the still, small voice of God.
Modern Jewish religious ceremony has become a form of performance art - designer ceremonies, with the celebrant at center stage. At the typical modern Jewish wedding, for instance, the traditional formula, 'You are sanctified to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel,' is likely to be replaced by 'I promise to help you grow as a person."
Commenting on one such ceremony, art critic David Gelertner notes that something vital is lost with the refusal to recite the traditional formula - a connection to Jewish grooms and brides throughout the centuries.
'The whole point of a wedding ceremony is to offer the couple a chance to enter into something bigger than themselves,' he writes in Commentary. 'But in modern America, there is nothing bigger than yourself. The infantile insistence that religious ritual conform to you rather than the other way around is the essence of modern American culture, and is strangling Judaism."
To the extent that such ceremonies take note of God at all, the implicit message is: If You, God, want to have a relationship with me, it will have to be on my terms. Can one imagine someone designated to be knighted by the queen, informing her that he finds the knighting ceremony degrading and insists on designing one more to his liking? Yet knowing no measure other than our own assumed sincerity, we tell God the same thing all the time.
From the ceremonies thus created all the mystery of religion has been drained. There is no trembling in the presence of a transcendent being beyond one's puny comprehension. All is understood and subjected to the calipers of the latest political or spiritual fad.
The Jerusalem Report recently devoted three full pages to a group of young Israelis, recently returned from their various spiritual quests in India, who have gathered to meld together elements of Eastern religion and selected Jewish ceremonies. The rhapsodic description concludes with the group leader dancing himself into a trance as the walls of the desert tent undulate: 'All distinctions merge as a desert tribe celebrates its god, celebrates itself."
Precisely. Its god - a god of its own creation, a projection of itself. Nothing more than celebration of self.
Perhaps if we could stop celebrating ourselves for a moment, cease conducting our prayer services with one eye cocked to see whether The New York Times is watching, we might connect again this Shavuot with the ever present voice from Sinai.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Shavuot
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