Yesterday ended the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, one of the major observances of the Jewish year. Jewish “days” actually begin at night. The festival of Shavuot (“Weeks” or “Pentecost”) is also known in our tradition as z’man matan toratenu—“The Time of the Giving of Our Torah.” I have some thoughts.
After dinner on the first night of Shavuot there is a practice called Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. It is a practice of a study session well into the night. We study Torah, Talmud, commentaries, commentaries on the commentaries, and other topics you feel compelled to study which will help us build a better world and self (a progressive contemporary Jewish practice). Some study until dawn! Then, after waking up, some Jews choose to keep studying all day again. We study and learn together in synagogues and in homes. In the modern age, we can come together and study with others across the nation and the world virtually. Just as valuable as ever is time spent ruminating and investigating alone too.
What is the Talmud? The Talmud is a collection of historical conversations about the Torah. It is oral record kept in conversation, and eventually written down generations later. It is disagreements and dialogues. It is written record of Rabbis and those who experienced prophecies; still handed down hundreds and hundreds of years later. Admittedly, mostly of these figures are written and seen as Men, but do we really know or understand their genders? I can’t wait to hear others’ ideas on that too – send them to me.
Anyways. In the Talmud, we read of very brilliant people discussing their differing opinions and interpretations as they further put forth each their own alternate, sometimes conflicting consensus on halakha too, which can be summarized as Jewish process of observance (often insufficiently described colloquially as Jewish “law.”). Some call, for example writings on keeping kashrut (kosher) as “rules” around eating. That’s not really sufficient though. It is an analytical, moral, and ethical framework around the treatment and consumption of other life on this planet. I keep kosher. I don’t consume dairy or meat products as they are currently made, and I think that is what kashrut is all about. What is the deep meaning behind what animals we can and cannot eat, how we treat them and end their lives, and consume them? To me, I think in our modern day and age the way meat and dairy is produced is harmful beyond any spiritual justification that I read from the Torah and learn through Jewish praxis. But that’s just me! It is more than shellfish – it is about how our industrial farming and decimation of shellfish is beyond my life as a Jew. And I think right now, that extends to all our relations with non-human animals in the United States and factory farming as a Jew. I cannot speak for others and their moral, spiritual, divine callings each day (e.g. not only differing views on kashrut with other Jews, but Indigenous and Native American practices and more!) The end result is a thriving and ever-evolving debate about our consumption of animals that has been going on for thousands of years.
Marxist dialectical frameworks put structures, concepts, material and subject realities together for analysis. Talmudic discussion and knowledge production is similar. This is a very queer value too – when presented with a binary, it is worth unpacking that binary to discover as Kate Bornstein describes as the “hidden third.” We can further explore how and why this third and the multiplicities beyond have been obscured. The Talmud presents different ideas in conversation with each other. Jewish scholars and everyday people put forth: dialogue and disagreement; differing conceptual ways of interacting with the world; and evaluation of our governing social and communal structures. Torah and Talmud study become discussions on our material reality as it connects to social and cultural values. What is the meta-level goal? Perhaps it is finding and honing our path to liberation – Jewish study and teaching is a pedagogy of liberation.
I studied with synagogue Beit Am over zoom this year. The conversation was lead by Rabbi Bressler, who I have had the pleasure of learning from and discussing a lot of history, ideas, and Jewish concepts with. The most impactful passage we discussed this year to me this Shavuot was Midrash Mekhilta.
“And all the people saw the sounds and the lightning”: They saw what was visible and heard what was audible. These are the words of R. Yishmael.
R. Akiva says: They saw (what was audible) and heard what was visible.Midrash Mekhilta, 20:15:1
The passage begins with a rather literal and mundane interpretation by Rabbi Yishmael. Seeing lightning and hearing thunder. But ah, a twist- what a tension! How do we reconcile Rabbi Akiva’s statement which flips the two sensations literal hearing and seeing of divine revelation? This seeming-synesthesia experienced at Sinai must have been a collective, unimaginable, yet incredible awe to behold. A full body experience of knowledge. Despite the Midrash the differing perspectives on the same experience – can both Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva be right? The reality of seeing and hearing is up for debate. But it is all worth discussing and interpreting. A singular witness may not become the singular judge: the outcome can be experienced or described differently. The Rabbis and we today may reach consensus, but sometimes they may not. Often we don’t know at all! What we are grappling with as readers, learners, and teacher-students is that these two interpretations may be true or at least partially true. And what does it mean to both see and hear thunder, to hear and see lightning? We will spend our lives unpacking the meaning beyond this disagreement and countless other topics on Shavuot, just like generations upon generations have grappled before us. Were the Israelites on psychedelics? https://jewishpsychedelicsummit.org
As I reflected tonight, I believe this Midrash particularly communicates the full physical embodiment of knowledge, belief, practice, and experience we come into contact with, the most incredible example at Sinai but compellingly divine. This synesthesia was also related to the experience we all may be familiar with, such as feeling music with booming bass in our whole bodies. Is it a stretch to say that the experience at Sinai may have given an unparalleled full body, sensory, and all encompassing powerful experience? This is a divine experience, yet also a human experience, for hashem is divine, and to be divine is to be (b’tzelem Elohim)
Talmudic interpretation and study is a skill we collectively and intentionally spend time to developing in our lives and structured into our life – almost like an check in, work shop, or standing meeting. This is just scratching the surface of Shavuot learning. It is also custom to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. It coincides with the study of Sinai, which may speak to the depth of its meaning. In it, a theme of interpretation is the welcoming of converts – they are fully Jewish, as Jewish as the Jews of Sinai and beyond, as Jews of birth and those of journey. In such a way, total acceptance is another Jewish value we reflect on annually, for hundreds of years. It is always important. Every year.
My parents divorced when I was young. This was a notably difficult experience and had ripple effects in my life for years to come. One struggle was this – I was told two very different stories of the same events by both parents. This is not a moral judgement; this is just what I experienced. I will always remember the epiphany I had on my third (or so?) therapist as a young adult. “You will have to come to accept that you will never know a singular truth.” She didn’t say those exact words, but that is the takeaway as I remember it. But it was a total experience. My head loosened up. My heart opened, deepened. I felt a greater capacity for the unknown yet known. I think both of them likely had truth to their stories. I bet both of them missed something. Yet together, it is the oral record I have, and I must reconcile this fragmented history. What happened that neither have said?
A very impactful therapy I received for over a year at Bert Nash Community Health Center in Lawrence, Kansas was Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Notice a theme? Dialectic, Talmudic, Binary-breaking, and Healing practice. In DBT, we are taught to balance emotion and ration – to balance our embodied, personal feelings and what we can best describe as material, objective events around us. Ultimately, DBT teaches to find and proactively nurture balance and healthy behaviors around these. Damaging decisions or ineffective coping mechanisms result for some of us from emotional imbalance or dysregulation. The most powerful concept, to me? That my symptoms and inability to reconcile my life events and feelings can by learned, trained, refined, and improved. It is a growth mindset towards our behaviors and our futures that I took away for the rest of my life from DBT. Is my life perfectly wise and wisely perfect, no? I don’t know there is an end to this journey – it is lifelong. Just like Torah and Talmud study! DBT taught me to fully embrace and appreciate the embodied knowledge of heart, mind, body, and soul. I think this Midrash does to.
To resolve and make meaningful peace with differing narratives and interpretations of events is a divine experience that Jews have experienced before and can tap into again. And I think even if you aren’t Jewish, these concepts may ring true for you too.
It’s not only studying – particularly, it is a major observance with a custom of EXQUISITE DESERTS! Why? Because it is so sweet and rich to have this knowledge, to study it, grapple with it, disagree about it, and find commonalities which inspire us.
What do you think? What do you agree with, disagree with? These opinions you and I have are part of a sacred fracture and coming together on this world we all live in.