A sleepless night could be the key to Jewish unity

This article first appeared in Haaretz 

With the ultra-Orthodox back in Israel’s new coalition, the small gains made by the previous government in the area of religious pluralism have already started to roll back. What little hope had been nurtured for more cooperation between different streams of Judaism has been crushed for the time being. Outside the legislative realm however, there is hope that the various streams of Judaism might be able to join together, at least on one night.

There is a custom dating back to the 1500s that today has the potential to truly begin the healing process between Jewish denominations. On the first night of Shavuot it is customary to participate in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night session of Torah study. This tradition finds its roots in the Midrash, which states that the night before the Israelites received the Torah they went to bed early to be well rested, but they overslept and arrived late at Mt. Sinai. To fix this (“Tikkun” means rectification) we stay up all night on Shavuot and learn Torah.

When I moved to Brooklyn two years ago, my Modern Orthodox community joined with all the other congregations, big and small, to celebrate Tikkun Leil together. Congregation Beth Elohim, one of the key Reform synagogues in America, would host the event and groups from the Conservative, Modern Orthodox and non-affiliated streams of Judaism would attend to learn from each other’s educators.

This is my first year celebrating Shavuot in Chicago, and I am happy that in Lakeview, the community in which I live, this cross-communal gathering on Tikkun Leil also takes place. All three major synagogues in the community, as well as wondering minyans (prayer quorums) and Jewish schools from every denomination are coming together to celebrate a night of learning together.

This cross-communal learning appears this year to be finding a place in Israel, as the Tzavta club in Tel Aviv and the Orthodox rabbinical group Tzohar hold an all-night Shavuot study session in which Conservative and Reform rabbis can take part. The Tzohar rabbis, who do not recognize non-Orthodox denominations, will reportedly skip the session, evidencing a lack of complete acceptance among the denominations. Yet, we should see this as a first step toward a foundation on which to build.

Collective learning, in which all the different – and often antagonistic – streams of Judaism take place, finds its roots in the Limmud movement that began in the United Kingdom. Often described as Anglo Jewry’s greatest export, the Limmud movement is a global phenomenon and has normalized the concept of cross-communal learning. Today, even the Chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Mirvis, has taught at Limmud, something that his predecessor Lord Jonathan Sacks never did. Lord Sacks had been prevented from going by the long-held opposition to normalizing the relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities on matters to do with Jewish religious practice. The times are clearly changing; Rabbi Mirvis’ landmark lecture indicated that the Orthodox establishment is starting to acknowledge the benefits of cross-communal learning.

We must not be naïve. There is still a long way to go. In Israel, it is Tzohar that is participating in the Tikkun Leil, rather than the ultra-Orthodox, to whom the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are anathema. And in the United States, I am yet to find Haredi communities who are willing to participate in cross-communal learning.

Yet, it is a start.

Shavuot might just be the festival that can begin bring us back together as a people, around our collective heritage and love of learning. As Maimonides (the Rambam) states, the greatest crown of all is that of the Torah, as anyone who desires it shall come and take it.

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