All Night Long!
May 26, 2004
My Shavuot experience began at eight yesterday evening, as ten of us congregated at shul for the evening service. At nine, I kicked off the study session with a Ten Commandments lesson, in which we read Merle Feld's poem "We All Stood at Sinai," read the Ten Commandments as they appear in Torah, and then brainstormed our own list of commandments/precepts for our community and our lives. Our discussion ranged from the nature of Torah (Feld has some beautiful ideas about what happens when the written text meets the intent/energy of the reader) to our most deeply-held beliefs about how to live. In the end, we came up with thirteen precepts, some of which mirror the Torah closely, others of which are purely our own.
Peter, a professor of literature at Williams, taught a lesson on the Book of Ruth. He read much of the story to us, pausing to lead discussion about the story's motives, the characters' motives, the trick of inclusio (repetition of key words and images, which the original audience -- used to hearing these things aurally -- would have known to listen for). We looked at motifs of emptiness and fullness, at the various strengths of Naomi and of Ruth, at generosity (shown by Ruth in sticking with Naomi, and by Boaz when Ruth is gleaning in his fields). And we looked at that fascinating benediction at the end of the story, in which the village folk wish Ruth to be like Tamar: what does it say that both Ruth and Tamar are praised by the tradition, when they behave in such unorthodox ways?
Rich, a friend who I ordinarily see at the community-supported organic farm in town, taught a lesson on ways of reading ancient rabbinic texts, particularly the Talmud Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud). I never knew that he'd gone to grad school in religion; he doesn't talk about it much, and he says it feels like something that happened to him in a former life, but he still led a fascinating discussion based in an article he'd published eighteen years ago. We looked at Talmud's particular density and logic (it takes some work to learn to see the logic there).
Barbara, an afficionado of Israeli folk songs, taught us three of her favorites. It was nice to cleanse the palate with some singing after the heady intellectualism of the Talmud lesson. We continued the singing theme as Liz spoke to us about her experiences with chant and meditation, and taught us three Hebrew chants based on prayers.
Between each of these we broke to stand up and stretch, to kibbitz, to nosh on fruit and cheesecake. I shared the really cool thing I learned from Islamoyankee at Islamicate, that Islam too has a tradition of all-night study and prayer on the holiday commemorating the revelation of the Qur'an to the Prophet (pbuh). I love it when the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael turn out to be cousins after all.
Jeff taught a lesson on "Unnatural Judaism" -- looking at whether or not Judaism considers itself to be "natural," e.g. part of the natural world. We read, and discussed, short texts from Exodus, Genesis, Midrash Tanchuma, Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, the Babylonian Talmud, and Maimonides' A Guide for the Perplexed. Topics covered ranged from the nature of the yetzer ha-ra (the so-called "evil inclination" -- we decided that it is desire), how God's plan for creation changes over the course of Torah, why God handed out free will in the first place, who benefits when we perform mitzvot, and this wacky idea that in order to fulfil one's true nature one needs to accept discipline to transcend one's nature.
My friend Seth taught a lesson on Jewish humor: its essential characteristics and typical subject matters, what makes it funny, what makes it work. He told dozens of Jewish jokes, some of which had us rolling in the aisles, and then invited us to tell our favorite Jewish jokes, too. Apparently our humor is smart, is often a defense mechanism, often blends pride with self-deprecation, and often simultaneously glorifies and pokes fun at Talmudic logic. (After having studied some wee snips of Talmud, we found the Talmudic jokes especially hilarious. Or maybe it was just the late hour...)
My friend Sandy taught a lesson on strong women in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically Abigal and Bathsheba (the two wives of King David). The differences in their stories are pretty fascinating, and to me it looks like a parable about how power corrupts; when David is ascending to power he attracts a virtuous wife, but when he's already in power and sees a woman he wants he acts wrongly to take her and God is displeased. Then we read the story of Jael killing the general with the tent peg, which is far bloodier (and more sexually suggestive) than I remembered.
And I closed out the night by looking at part of this week's Torah portion: the story of the sotah, the test administered to a woman suspected of adultery. When I started preparing my lesson, I thought this was one of the weirdest (and least feminist) passages in the Torah; by the time I'd read half a dozen commentaries, I was starting to see it as surprisingly subversive of patriarchal authority. (Dr. Blu Greenberg's commentary on this is excellent, and Judith Abrams has some interesting things to say about it as well.)
And then it was very nearly five in the morning! The five of us remaining at that hour joined hands and I led us in a meditation serving as a modified kaddish de rabbanan, the special kaddish we say after Torah study, and then we hugged and cleaned up the cheesecake plates and coffee cups and went home. I don't envy Jeff, who had to lead a morning festival service at 9:30; for my part, I sang the morning blessings in the car, driving home in the mist and the rising light, and then I slept until eleven.
I never imagined that we would actually study until dawn. (Inviting Sandy and Seth clearly qualifies as stacking the deck; they're geeks like me, plus they're night owls.) I'm tremendously grateful to the friends and fellow congregants who taught lessons. My only regret is that I missed my planned AIM study date with Naomi Chana; we were supposed to meet online at three. Maybe next year...