Somewhere around the cheesecake I was blown away. Sitting in the dining area of the all-night Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot at Chicago’s Conservative Anshe Emet synagogue Saturday at midnight, plate piled high with dairy desserts, it hit me. I was in the middle of a crowd of hundreds of committed Jews–almost every male Jew, like me, wearing a kippah. I realized it was the largest avowedly Jewish crowd in the middle of which I’d ever been. And I realized I belonged there.
It was a momentous realization, but it came amid an otherwise uneven evening. I counted the Omer up to Shavuot–and still have the beard to show for it. I love the super-Jewy feeling of rocking a full beard under a yarmulke’d head–the first time I’ve ever been able to grow one, I might add. Now also for the first time, I wanted to experience my first all-night Tikkun.
It’s customary among many Jews to attend overnight study sessions to mark Shavuot–the Jewish holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah–Jewish law–at Sinai. But beyond these intellectual all-nighters, Shavuot is more a find-your-own-meaning holiday than a highly observed one. Reform Jews created the Confirmation ceremony for post-B’nai Mitzvah students to coincide with–and pretty much redeem–the h0liday. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get excited about a holiday based around being given responsibility. I mean, who wants to be told what to do? Even by God?
So we get together, eat midnight cheesecake, sit down and study Torah until the sun comes up. In Jerusalem, people walk from shul to shul all over town, taking in the study sessions that sound interesting. That sounds wonderful, but I was happy to be at what was likely the only community Tikkun in Chicago. It was an interdenominational affair, beginning with a late-evening panel discussion on community inclusivity across denominational lines by Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis (including my own Reform rabbi), and a couple of dozen study topics led mostly by laypersons on through dawn.
My allergies ran me home long before the sun came up. That was fine; the panel discussion gave me more than enough to think about. In the Reform movement, and I’m sure in liberal Judaism generally, from the bimah and from printed and online sources, we hear a lot about hard-headedness, inter-denominational criticisms, and refusals to cooperate in the affairs of the wider Jewish community that together typify–for us–the Orthodox community. While I’ve written critically about the actions of some in the Orthodox community, I’ve never thought it fair to criticize an entire community simply because you differ with them on halachic grounds–even if they criticize you on the same grounds. Consternation just leads to more consternation–it rarely leads to increased love, compassion, and understanding.
On those grounds, I was astounded to hear Rabbi Asher Lopatin, senior rabbi at (Rahm Emanuel’s shul) Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, wax eloquently on the importance of not hitting each other over the head with our halachic differences and, instead, finding ways (sometimes audacious ways) in which to come together as fellow Jews–both at personal happy occasions and community affairs–to honor each other’s humanity and Jewishness. I doubt I’d hear many Orthodox rabbis speak the way Lopatin did on Saturday, but it was clear that very heartfully he meant what he said.
Some of the liberal rabbis on the panel met Lopatin in the middle and shared similar warm comments promoting community inclusivity. However, one rabbi (whom I won’t name except to say it wasn’t my rabbi, thankfully) responded to Lopatin–in front of what I figured was a crowd of about 500–by laying into him for the ills of all of Orthodoxy–and Ultra-Orthodoxy on top of that, for added measure–noting the “revulsion” many liberal Jews feel at the religious- and gender-inclusivity battles currently raging in Israel, and telling Lopatin that his words, essentially, were pretty but not really useful.
When I emailed Lopatin this week to let him know not every liberal Jew shares such sentiments, I told him I thought the comments were saddening. But they were more. They were also kind of instructive. There’s a time and a place for everything, including speaking truth to power. But Lopatin doesn’t represent the Israeli Orthodox powers-that-be, and our tradition teaches us to meet love and kindness in kind. More than that, it urges us not to single out others unfairly.
All week I’ve thought about the comments, tried to make sense out of why one rabbi might seek to shame another publicly and with such cool ferocity as I witnessed on Saturday night. We’re all human and we all have our breaking points and hot-button issues. I don’t expect anyone–rabbi or not–to be superhuman in this regard. But the one though I keep coming back to is this one: If our rabbis can’t even keep compassion in their hearts across halachic lines, what chance do we rank-and-file Jews of differing denominations have of making peace amongst ourselves?
I let Lopatin know that worry of mine, too. It isn’t the food for thought I expected out of Shavuot, but at least it’s a cautionary tale. There’s the ethically and compassionately informed Jew I want to be in this life, and the years of knee-jerk, critical behavior I want to leave behind. I guess that battle is a lifelong one, even for our rabbis.
In his response to me, Lopatin said that he thought I’d make a good rabbi someday. And probably for the first time, you know what? I think I would at that.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.