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Exclusivity and Openness on Shavuot

Rabbi Ilana Foss
| 25/05/2019

Exclusivity is often seen as a selling point.

Whenever I’m at Ben Gurion airport I look longingly at the executive lounges for members of the various airline frequent flier clubs. I have no idea whether anything all that remarkable is behind the doors but there is something tempting about its exclusive nature. The required loyalty status that for me (and many others) suggests it has greater value than something that is available for everyone, say the general seating area in Ben Gurion near the fountain.  Whether it is college admissions, a hard-to get restaurant reservation, or those airport lounges, the notion that something that is difficult to access is somehow of better quality is not an uncommon belief.

Shavuot, which we celebrate this week, holds in tension the ideas of exclusivity and accessibility.   A popular midrash about the giving of the Torah says that God traveled around to all the nations of the world offering them the Torah, but all the nations refused to accept the Torah and the obligations it entailed. Finally, God came to the Israelites who accepted it.  Even with the Israelites not the first choice, the idea of chosenness is, for many people, a key part of Jewish identity. In the Kiddush blessing over wine we say, “Because You have chosen us and You have sanctified us.” When we recite the Aliyah blessing before the reading of the Torah we praise God “who has chosen from among all the nations and given us God’s Torah.”

Numerous Jewish sources associate chosenness with exclusivity. In our modern context that often implies something out of reach, or perhaps available only to an elite few.  It’s no wonder then that some Jews try and distance themselves from the idea of chosenness because, for them, it implies elitism and exclusivity.  The Kedushat Levi, a Hassidic Torah commentary by Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, relates a parable about the giving of the Torah. He compares the giving of the Torah to a merchant trying to sell goods. Oftentimes an average person might be sad about having to sell or give away his belongings even while the buyer might be happy about his new possession: “Not so with God. When He “sells” something, both ‎the buyer and the seller rejoice. When God “sold” His Torah to ‎Israel, He was happy that He had found someone worthy of ‎receiving that exclusive ‘merchandise’.” ‎ (Kedushat Levi, Deuteronomy, Vaetchanan 15)

While it is possible to view the giving of the Torah as an exclusive event, we can contrast this idea of exclusivity with a famous text from Midrash Tanchuma: “Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that just as the desert is free to all people, so the words of Torah are free to all who desire to learn them.” (Midrash Tanchuma Vaykhel 8:2.) This notion of ownerlessness implies an equality of access. Receiving the Torah while wandering in the desert reminds us that all of Israel received the Torah at Sinai, not just Moses, not only the priests or the Levites.

The importance of equality of access is core to the mission of The Schechter Institutes. Torah is not confined solely to the beit midrash or to people who have grown up with a classic Jewish education.  TALI schools teach Jewish texts and Israeli-Jewish identity to students from kindergarten through high school and ask teachers to reflect deeply on Jewish sources and their own relationship to the Jewish cannon.  The rabbinical school, in addition to offering an ordination program, has multiple tracks where people can come and study as lay people for the pure joy of Jewish learning.  On Mondays and Thursday, days when MA classes are held on Schechter’s Jerusalem campus, the building is filled with students of all ages, religious and ethnic backgrounds intent on learning Jewish History, Jewish Women’s Studies, Sephardic studies and more.  At Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv artists and musicians are redefining the meaning of Jewish art and music.

There is an expansiveness and openness about Schechter’s programming that speaks to the value of egalitarian, open learning.  While Midrash Tanchuma suggests that Torah is ownerless, perhaps another way of expressing that idea is to say that we all are owners of Torah –  free to study, learn and create in myriad ways.  As we celebrate Shavuot and Revelation may we also strive to continue to find ways to bring inclusive, egalitarian, pluralistic Torah to all people.

Chag Shavuot Sameach!

Ilana Foss is a development specialist in grant writing and donor relations. Ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary, she served as a pulpit rabbi in Brockton, Massachusetts before making aliyah. Ilana has worked as an educator for the Nesiya Institute and the 92nd Street Y. She has a BA in Black Studies from Amherst College and lives with her husband and three children in Jerusalem.

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