Chaverim Yekarim – Dear Friends,
This is the month of Sivan, the month of June, when we celebrate Shavuot, our short two-day chag that has few rituals or customs attached to it, unlike its partner pilgrimage festivals (regalim) of Passover and Succot.
There’s a reason for that lacuna in ritual for Shavuot because the primary message of this festival is matan Torateinu, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah. Torah speaks for itself, it needs no formal ritual, for it is about our mental and intellectual connection to Torah and Judaism. That is why the most prominent ritual attached to Shavuot has been the custom of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, the Kabbalistic tradition of studying Torah all night long, as our ancestors at Har Sinai stayed awake all night long before receiving the Ten Commandments.
By now you all know the importance of our educational component at Belsize Square Synagogue. We have hosted a variety of prominent speakers, including the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Dr Ismar Schorsch, and more recently the Provost and esteemed Dean of History at JTS, Professor Jack Wertheimer. We’ve had other scholars with us and we have a steady diet of classes in our weekly Monday night Introduction to Judaism course, covering everything from theology, festivals and life cycle to interfaith matters and history.
And we have our regular Sunday morning discussion group where we we have studied this year the great thinkers of Western civilisation and Jewish responses to those thinkers, and have become familiar and knowledgeable about Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Hegel. We have hosted a magnificently successful day of study, Limmud, and held joint classes with our neighbour, St Peter’s Church, on Bible, extremism and many other subjects.
Education is the heart and core of our congregation. Without knowledge we lose our vision, our wisdom, our drive to maintain the light of Israel. Talmud Torah (Torah study) is the hallmark of our religious faith and commitments. We know that without our Jewish education, knowledge and literacy, we would have disappeared long ago.
Here are some cornerstone citations to remember:
1. It says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): Am ha’aretz lo chasid (An ignorant Jew cannot be a pious person). Our rabbis knew 2,000 years ago that without knowledge of Torah, it is impossible to find the drive and purpose to observe the commandments, personal and inter-personal. You simply cannot be or act on something important to you without knowing why. Knowledge increases the sense of obligation.
Jews have learned through the centuries that there is no substitute for learning.
2. Talmud Torah k’neged kulam (The study of Torah has equal weight to all of them, i.e. the rest of the commandments). What was Rabbi Akiva trying to teach us? Without study of Torah you cannot understand why we Jews must do what we do. This says it all regarding the place of study in our tradition.
3. V’shinantem l’vanecha (And you shall teach it to your children – or chew it over with them.) All parents have this obligation, as we recite from the Shema morning and evening, for study leads to the parental ability to transmit our tradition to our children and grandchildren. The verse says we should teach them intensively, repeatedly. V’shinantem, which comes from the word for tooth (shin, like the Hebrew letter), means that we must first be students ourselves so that we know what we are telling our children.
4. Torah lishma (Torah for its own sake), which means that the purpose of our study is not to gain a diploma or secure good grades or even “prepare ourselves for a job”, but for its own sake, just to love the learning – no ulterior motives allowed. Now, would not this ethical value be helpful on our university campuses where so much of student and classroom life is about getting good grades rather than the substance of learning?
So my plea to you all is: Come to our classes and services. I always try to teach something new each week. Come to our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot after evening service on Saturday 11 June. Our subject this year is Maimonides, the great Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1140-1205). Each of our sessions will be on a different aspect of his teachings. What do you know about Maimonides? Come and find out.
And join us on Sunday mornings. We’re wrapping up this year’s course but come next year, when we will be exploring the philosophies of Heschel, Fackenheim, Buber, Rosenzweig, Kaplan and many more prominent 20th century Jewish thinkers.
My wishes to all of you for a blessed and dairy-filled Shavuot.
Chag Shavuot Sameach,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler