Taking Tikkun Leil into the modern world
As part of the celebration of the giving of the Torah, it has become a practice to stay up all night on Shavuot, learning Torah. The name for this practice is Tikkun Leil Shavuot. It is interesting to consider the different forms this practice can take and what this might say about being Jewish or Jew-ish, in the 21st century.
But first, what is tikkun? It has two possible meanings. The first and more well-known rendering is to fix something, while tikkun can also mean to adorn or beautify.
According to the Midrash, the Jewish people fell asleep at the giving of the Torah, kept G-d waiting on top of Mount Sinai and had to be woken to join the Revelation.
In deep remorse, we fix this faux pas and offence to G-d, by learning Torah all night on Shavuot for the rest of time. Some of the earliest sources that talk about Tikkun Leil are found in the Zohar, although this Kabbalistic work refers to it as an older practice.
For hundreds of years, the practice of Tikkun Leil was confined to religious men, studying Torah in the shul until dawn and Shacharit. However, Jewish learning today has become redefined, first by the 20th century phenomenon of Jewish women’s learning and also by a more recent embrace of Jewish learning by secular or unaffiliated Jews.
This latter trend was movingly articulated when Ruth Calderon, a secular Israeli woman from the Yesh Atid party, stood up, in 2013, in the Knesset and spoke about her love of ancient Jewish texts.
She spoke about the history of secular Zionism’s abdication of texts, in particular the oral tradition and she said: “The Torah is… a gift that every one of us received and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it as we create the realities of our lives.
“Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important.”
Calderon has established Alma, the first secular yeshiva in Israel where people study Jewish texts and Talmud in particular, without any intention of assuming the strictures of Jewish practice.
Or consider Shulem Deen, a former Chassid in New York, who tells a powerful narrative of leaving the Chassidic world and Jewish observance completely, and then finding his way back into Judaism through studying the Talmud with a study partner in a disciplined weekly practice. Afterwards they would sometimes share a… wait for it… lobster and prosciutto dinner!
These trends point to a hybridisation of Judaism, reflecting the formation of the post-modern Jewish self. A secular person can enter passionately into the Jewish parts of herself without any intention of becoming “religious”, a Jewish atheist can study G-d as a concept, without an existential struggle about the tenets of Jewish faith.
This contrasts with the Judaism I grew up with, which is captured in the rabbinic dictum “to learn, in order to teach, in order to do”.
Yet, one can’t discard this renaissance as academic and detached, devoid of praxis. There is a strong ethical impetus behind a lot of this more secularised learning, even if the ethics does not translate to ritual mitzvot.
If Shavuot is the holiday that most celebrates the learning tradition of Judaism, it would make sense that Tikkun Leil Shavuot is reflective of these different learning iterations.
A case in point is Tikkun Leil in Tel Aviv. An article in Ha’aretz in 2012, describes how the secular hub of Israel has become one of the most exciting Tikkun Leil spots in the country as thousands of secular Israelis walk the streets attending learning events throughout the night.
The Israeli Bar Association, for example, hosts an event for Tikkun Leil, which discusses aspects of Israeli law. One can find learning across the city from classes on “free love” in a Reform synagogue, to Tibetan meditation sessions on the language of love.
Alma, Calderon’s secular yeshiva has set up its Tikkun Leil to the Tel Aviv museum, where people struggle to get into secular politician Yair Lapid’s class on Avraham: “How he was scared to be himself”.
The learning can also be found in trendy music and night clubs where a vigorous discussion on conversion takes place.
Tikkun Leil has moved from the traditional hub of men learning in their community with their rabbi, to become an on-trend nexus for the young, the old, the searching and the restless.
Lex Rufus, co-host of the edgy podcast Judaism Unbound, describes spending Tikkun Leil watching “bim-bam” videos for every Torah portion of the week. He observes that his Tikkun Leil practice was enabled using a medium that breaches traditional observances.
For Rufus, this kind of hybridisation of the ancient and the super-modern is to be celebrated.
Some may gasp at the flagrant breach of halachic standards reflected in these 21st century iterations of Tikkun Leil. It invites the question: What makes something authentically Jewish? If Jews of different persuasions are gathering and learning on Shavuot, in bars, in museums, with Tibetan teachings and with a cello in the background, where is the Judaism?
At what point does ritual lose its Jewish character and become another “Afrika-Burn”, a trendy experience for the experience-seeking human being of 21st century drama?
That said, I am reminded of a friend’s comment, that there are only two groups of Jews in the world today: engaged and disengaged Jews.
The story is not yet written as to what new embodiments of ancient practices will take hold and become incorporated, but I would argue, in a world of deepening disaffection and disaffiliation with Judaism, let’s suspend the judgement and celebrate every Jewish person’s desire to engage with Jewish text or Jewish ritual practice, even if accompanied by a ham sandwich.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
My kind of hero
The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.
That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.
Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!
Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.
Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.
His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.
Learning to fall teaches us to fly
“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”
Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.
This Rashi is problematic:
Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?
Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.
But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?
Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.
One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.
Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!
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