Friday, June 5, 2009

Socialist Shavuot

Blintzes, loved by wife and older son, sit in the fridge. Me and younger son passed. The cheese, dairy treat reminded me about Shavuot, the forgotten Jewish holiday.

Fifty days after Passover, after "counting the omer," the day arrives with little theophany, although as I type this there's a rare June thunderstorm that might dimly echo that supposed to have resounded around Sinai at the giving of the Torah, the offer the Jews found they could not refuse. Strange that the dancing around the scrolls at temples at Simchat Torah, the "joyous" reception of the Law, comes only in the autumn, after the High Holy Days. In the spring, it's a muted, barely registered celebration, similar to that for the winter crops of fruits and nuts of Tu b'Shevat, which unless you're a Jewish Renewal hippie-type, gets little press today outside of preschools eager to enliven Torah however they can! One reason the winter harvest may garner less attention may be its atypically healthier fare; why Shavuot suffers equal neglect given the usual cholesterol-laden delights puzzles me.

Four articles in the Forward's "May 29, 2009 issue" relate directly or tangentially this overlooked late spring holiday's relevance. (We get the venerable paper at least a week late mailed from NYC.) I don't count two more on cheese and cheesecake outside the opinion section! Shavuot, as the "Leave the Gleanings" unsigned editorial reminds us, is not only the spring harvest holiday (every season has one in Judaism, all marked by different foods, practically and appealingly) but the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. I recall the tradition that the Hebrews only took on the burden of the Law after seventy nations rejected it; another tale tells how Sinai was dangled over the crowd as an "incentive." The bargain, as the Hebrews shouted back in apparent agreement after this closer, first to "do" what the Law commanded, only later, after acting upon the commandments, to "understand" all 613. You do it, and it begins to make sense even if it doesn't make much sense. Rabbis ever since have so explained this imperative so phrased, a bit easier to comprehend by this routine than why observant men thank G-d each morning that they were not born women! (Although in this same issue, the moderate Orthodox Yeshiva U. will now accept women for "rabbinic clergy," a nicely phrased or controversial alternative to "rabbi.")

The Forward's editorial writer remarks that there's no ritual for Shavuot, alone among biblical festivals. No special meal (only blintzes). But, the spring harvest does come, as so much of Torah, with fine print for "a specific code of behavior." "Doing" comes first, then the Jewish people try to "understand" it for 3000 years. Action in Judaism makes it a rugged religion for the crowd rather than for the recluse. It's full of legalisms, provisos, haggling, and compromise. One wonders how the Eternal Power can be credited with its authorship, given its insistence on jots and tittles. In such hashing it out and hechshering it after its beaten to death, rabbinic and subsequent Talmudic and yeshiva-based interpretations thrive on iotas.

Here's one command, however, pretty straightforward, with little room to negotiate. Leviticus 23 enjoins Jews to let go the "gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord." The editorial reasons "that the harvest you're celebrating isn't yours alone." Out of this comes the rationale that we are to put aside part of what we glean, or gather, or acquire, for the poor-- even if we don't know who will come along to pick up the windfall and the leftovers. Wealth redistribution makes Shavuot a reminder of the socialism that for so long has inspired, long before Proudhon or Marx, Engels or Robert Owen, a basic Jewish drive to share wealth "throughout your generations"-- no expiration, no ifs, ands or buts.

Private property in the next chapter also gets a Forward socialist makeover; that jubilee year every fifty springs annuls land purchases so property reverts to its original owner. "Large property holdings may be amassed only temporarily," the editorial summarizes. "Enduring wealth, like enduring poverty, is impermissible."

An aside. The L.A. Times every day announces another philanthropic award given by or received by Donald Sterling, owner of garish high-rises that regularly mar our skylines in the pricier stretches of my rat-race city, I thought of what must drive this man to proclaim in full-page color ads his largess. Is it to make up for charges that he's discriminated against blacks in housing, so that as owner of the Clippers (about as forlorn in the NBA as Shavuot among favorite festivals) he has to now make amends to every African American leader in town at an endless series of banquets alongside Our Smiling Mayor? Or, as a Jewish millionaire, does Sterling, a name well chosen at Ellis Island, demonstrate true conviction to give back to his community a portion left from his immense wealth as a public form of amendment, a necessary nod to gleaning? I may not like him, but I realize that I cannot judge him.

Next to the editorial, columnist Leonard Fein protests the crackdown on Palestinian commemoration of their dispossession of their land in what they refer to as the "Nakba" or "catastrophe" of 1948 when Israel won its independence. Of course, the reversion of property and land, back to beyond fifty to, well, sixty-two years ago to Palestinians would divest Jews of much of their holdings, to say the least. I suppose Leviticus applies to the Hebrews themselves, for they had to take their land by force from the ancestors of today's Hamas and Fatah enemies, the Philistines and Phoenicians, however you render that ancient Levantine people's name.

Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg over on the next page explores the "covenantal reminder" of Shavuot in reference to the "tikkun olam" ideal of "perfecting the world." He contrasts its peaceful method with the violent ones promoted over the past two centuries. Revolution, he notes, has killed, hurt, and oppressed "in the name of equality and progress" more people than ever before.

The Torah provides an alternative. God says to the Jews: "I, appointed you a covenant people, a light to the nations." (Isaiah 42:6) Jews must live up to their role model to show the rest of the world a peaceful way that relies not on God forcing humans to be good (Sinai upended over the crowd?) nor on a magical deity eliminating evil. "Humans must participate in their own liberation."

Finally, an Israeli government minister, Ephraim Sneh, reminds his audience of the limits of doves vs. hawks when it comes to expecting Zion to trust its neighbors in the pursuit of rabbinical visions and mutual respect among nations seeking light. Sneh chides the peace camp for unrealistic optimism when surrounded by Iran with its control over oil and gas pipelines, nuclear weapons, and terror exported to those who surround Israel. The present or future boundaries of the Palestinian state reveal its character: "Will it be a Taliban-like state or a modern, democratic one? Will there be a cinema in Nablus? Will folklore festivals be permitted in Quaqilya? Will the beach in Gaza be open simultaneously to men and women? There is no compromise between these two visions for Palestinian society. That is why reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah fail time and again," Sneh explains.

As another aside, for I wrote this entry before Obama's Cairo speech yesterday, it'll be intriguing to follow the Jewish press reaction-- in Israel, referred to not as the Jewish state or nation, but "homeland," and among the "Palestinian resistance." Obama's obviously far beyond playing it safe pre-election to our homeland's Christian crowd. While his speech understandably omitted the fact his Muslim father later became an atheist and that his mother disdained religion, the talk does show Obama's swerve away from the pro-Israel policies that have dominated the past sixty years in Washington. Well, the voters asked for change, and this is one crucial move away from the status quo and what's been labelled the "Jewish lobby."

While nearly all American Jews idolize Obama, I wonder if this speech will inspire anguish among those whom, like Sneh, have to live in Zion. As a former defense minister, he demographically and militarily fears for Israel's future. Will those in Israel-- Arab, Christian, Jews of all sorts-- benefit from our president's appeal to live and let live? Obama did chide the Arab world for its Holocaust denial, and he did include the nod to the suffering that preceded, accompanied, and follows the establishment of Israel. For such a ecumenical view, Leonard Fein and The Forward's editorial writers I figure will be ecstatic over the president's message for compromise and tolerance; Rabbi Greenberg may balance support of these values with caution, I predict, in his nuanced, eloquent fashion.

So, a typically Jewish conclusion in which nothing's concluded. Four opinions not to mention two cheesecake recipes (or Obama's speech, which I did mention and which cites Torah as the way of peace) as relevant reminders of how open-ended can and must be the application of Jewish reminders of our human obligation to help those weaker than ourselves. Hebrew covenants confront us, Forward readers, and Obama's audience. They command us just as three thousand years ago these rules did a nation also threatened by jealous rivals and intolerant sectarians.

Still, the human frailties cause if not the Creator than His chosen people to rally around the need for food to accompany any festival. They volunteered, if under mythical duress of geological upheaval, for the duty of upholding the Law, so it's only right they earn some of the perks, like getting to choose the menu each special meal each special season. It's telling that despite the manifold woes of the Hebrews then and now, they speak of so rich a harvest that the remainders can be left on the ground. For the poor, who as Jesus reminded us will always be with us, picking up the scraps, waiting to be comforted, begging for a denarius with Caesar's image upon it or a humbler offering of a widow's mite.

Photo: Blintzes do remind me of rolled-up Torah scrolls.
"Brief entry on Shavuot." Sweets are eaten to commemorate the entrance into the "land of milk and honey." Two challahs instead of one, as well.

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