Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Vilna Gaon did not invent Judaism

This is part of a drash that I gave on Shavuot morning at Congregation Kol Ami.

In Hebrew school we teach our students that Shavuot is the anniversary of our receiving the Torah. Sometimes we teach specifically about the Ten Commandments, which are part of the Torah reading for the first morning of Shavuot. 

We also teach them about the historical function of Shavuot in celebrating the spring grain harvest. So: how many of us brought a sheaf of fresh-cut barley as an offering this morning?

I suppose I could have come up with an offering of fresh-cut lawn grass, or perhaps asparagus, the only produce of my garden that's ready this early. The Torah does not say anything about bringing offerings of asparagus.

In The First Jewish Catalog, Rabbi Everett Gendler suggested that we resume the practice of cutting an offering of spring grain for Shavuot, waving it heavenward since there are no Temple and priests to receive it. He recommended planting winter rye in the Northeast, as the most likely grain crop to produce in time.

The point of this is to make a connection with the history of Judaism as a religion concerned with agriculture. Not many of us are farmers and herders these days, and we tend to lose track of that. 

Furthermore, it's not easy to teach students about the aspects of Jewish practice that have, or had, to do with farming: the offerings at the pilgrimage festivals, the sabbatical year, and so forth. It's not even easy to teach children how to choose the correct brachah for each kind of food, because that requires knowing how the food is produced. For many of our students, all food comes from the supermarket, end of discussion.

On top of that, a full understanding of the pilgrimage offerings and of many other laws pertaining to agriculture requires some knowledge of ancient Near Eastern agriculture. That would also be an important corrective to our (mis)understanding of Judaism as European culture, when its roots are in the Middle East, not central and eastern Europe.

The Vilna Gaon did not invent Judaism! Jewish life did not originate in the yeshivot of Poland and Lithuania, any more than it originated in Berlin and Vienna. To the extent that we can identify a specific origin for what we think of as modern Judaism, it's in the Land of Israel in the time of the mishnah (second century C.E.). That's when the transition from Biblical Judaism to rabbinic Judaism became codified.

Too many of our congregations treat Jewish life as a celebration of Jewish ethnicity, by which they mean mostly eastern European Jewish ethnicity. That has been a continuing problem in Israel, where many of the early Zionists took pains to identify themselves as European, and it's a problem in North America today.

Our ties to the shtetl world grow ever more tenuous. That world means little or nothing to most of our students and not all that much to a lot of adults. Most students in my school have one parent who did not grow up Jewish and to whom the whole "Yiddish" business means nothing at all. Some, children of Jews by choice, have no Jewish ancestry.

So we need to rethink our misguided emphasis on ethnicity. If that's all there is to modern Jewish life, we're doomed.