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Rethinking Shavuot

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 2 Spring 1995

In priestly and rabbinic Judaism, holidays were celebrations of divine power and divine “history.” They recalled and dramatized the intervention of God in human and Jewish affairs. One of the most spectacular of such events was the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, especially the giving of the Ten Commandments, when Moses was believed to have spoken face to face with God. For the rabbis, Shavuot commemorated this awesome moment. 

Reform Judaism built on this rabbinic model. Although more skeptical than the traditional rabbis, the reformers found divine reasons for Jewish holidays. Since Shavuot was the day that celebrated the covenant between God and the Jewish people, many Reform congregations chose that day to celebrate the confirmation of teenagers. There was an obvious connection between the covenant idea and pledging allegiance to Judaism and the Jewish people. 

Secular Jews had a hard time with Shavuot. Divine revelation and divine covenants were not their cup of tea. Furthermore, modern biblical criticism separated the Ten Commandments from Moses and Mount Sinai, assigning their origin to historical events that took place some six centuries later. As for the Commandments themselves, the first four are hopelessly theistic. Amon secularists, only the Zionists were comfortable with Shavuot. As farmers of the land, secular kibbutzniks restored the old agricultural significance of the holiday as the closing day of the spring harvest. Yet, even for Zionists, Shavuot was problematic, since most “yishuvniks” were confirmed urban dwellers. 

Very little secular effort went into saving Shavuot. Pesakh and Hanukka were the dramatic symbols of Jewish loyalty. The fortunes of Shavuot had sunk all over the Jewish world. It came at the wrong time of the year. It featured no compelling home rituals. There was no need to deal with a holiday that Jewry in general ignored. 

Humanistic Judaism inherited the Shavuot malaise. What should be done with this anachronism? Is it as useless as Tisha b’Av? Or is it worth rescuing? 

Ironically, the rabbinic model provides the key to the secular rescue of Shavuot. By designating Shavuot z’man mattan toratenu (the season of the giving of our Torah), the rabbis connected the festival with the literature of the Jewish people. Jewish literature is the most important Jewish cultural creation. For a verbal people with very little historic attachment to the visual arts, writing and books have been the central focus of Jewry’s cultural life and religious worship. 

Shavuot as a holiday to celebrate Jewish books and Jewish literature can be both useful and exciting. The major harvest of the Jewish people throughout the past two hundred years has not been wheat. It has been the written word. From the secular perspective, that “harvest” is not the creation of God. It is the creation of the Jewish people. It is a tribute to human ingenuity and human effort. Celebrating Jewish literature is a way to celebrate the creative energies of the Jewish people. 

Celebrating Jewish literature is quite different for Secular and Humanistic Jews from what it is for Orthodox Jews. For Orthodox Jews, there are two kinds of Jewish books: books written by God and books written by people. Of the two categories, the first obviously is more important. The Torah is the center of literary attention because it is sacred, primary, and superior. All other books are insignificant by comparison. For humanistic Jews, all authors are human. All books are human creations. The Torah is simply one of them. As a human creation, the Torah is a work of mixed value. Some parts of it are wonderful; other parts are mediocre. Its importance lies in the fact that it is the beginning of a long process of Jewish literary achievement. The continuation of the process is just as important as the launching. The present is just as significant as the past. 

That perspective is central to a secular rethinking of Shavuot. Simply knowing the Torah and the Ten Commandments is a pale imitation of the rabbinic process. The Torah and the Ten Commandments — no matter what interpretive permutations we invent — cannot take the center stage of humanistic allegiance. Our holidays must express our unique approach to Jewish history and Jewish identity. They must avoid the often justified accusation that what we choose to do with the tradition is to use it, only less. 

A humanistic Shavuot must not be “less.” It must be different. It must be based not only on the Torah, but on the whole spectrum of Jewish literary activity. Worthy of honor are dozens of books and dozens of authors. Worthy of honor is all the prose that motivated Jewish ethical activity and all the poetry that celebrated beauties of this world. 

The heart of our celebration of Shavuot should be the reading of the literature, whether old or new, that gives expression to our beliefs and commitments as Humanistic Jews. Since all this prose and poetry cannot be read at one celebration, the criteria for selection becomes all-important. Three formats are possible. 

The first format would be to select five or six readings that summarize the basic ideas of Humanistic Judaism. This summary could be repeated every year as a core statement of belief. The advantage of this format is that the community would have a brief literary presentation that identified its convictions both to itself and to others. The annual celebration of this creed would reinforce group identity and tie the literature to personal conviction.  

The second format would be to select five or six readings that change from year to year. The advantage of this format is that Shavuot would become an educational opportunity to experience more and more the humanistic dimension of Jewish literature. Instead of the traditional comfort of hearing the same readings repeated every year, there would be the excitement and freshness of new materials. In time the assembled collection of readings would become the community’s “Shavuot Book.” 

The third format would be to honor a Jewish thinker whose ideas and writings are at the foundation of Secular and Humanistic Judaism. Biographical and literary materials could be assembled into an appropriate tribute. Over a period of years the community would be exposed to the words of the historic founders and pathbreakers of our movement.\ 

In order to develop any of these three formats, there has to be a strong awareness of the full extent of Jewish literature: biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern; Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Oriental; philosophic, ethical, and historic. Most early Jewish writing is anonymous. But most later and contemporary Jewish writing is attached to interesting and sometimes provocative personalities. Secular Humanistic Jews study the Bible and the Talmud. But they also study and admire Moses Maimonides, Barukh Spinoza, Shaul Tchernikovsky, Joseph Brenner, Haim Zhitlovsky, Avraham Shlonsky, and Yehuda Amichai. The forthcoming anthology of Secular Humanistic Judaism, which contains excerpts from the works of important thinkers such as these, will be an invaluable resource for developers of a new Shavuot. 

Shavuot, as a day to dramatize and reaffirm our Humanistic Jewish convictions through Jewish literature, provides many additional opportunities. It is an ideal time to sell, or to encourage the purchase of, Jewish books. It is a perfect occasion to celebrate the completion of a course of Jewish studies by members of the community. It is an appropriate time at the end of the school year to honor students who have studied and mastered some of the literature in the “Shavuot Book.” 

What began as an agricultural festival to celebrate the end of the spring harvest and was transformed into a tribute to divine revelation now can become the occasion to honor the meaningful words of a verbal people. 

Our Shavuot has roots. But it also has a harvest that never ends. 

Judaism the Old and the New

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer, 1975

How can you call it Judaism if you don’t believe in God?

The eternal question.

A tiresome question.

But valid. If religion is identified with a set of theological beliefs, it is the ultimate logical challenge.

If Judaism is identified with the implicit creed of the Biblical and Talmudic authors, is the most rational of responses. The humanist cannot ignore the question. Not only because of the badgering of people in his environment. But also because he cannot, in good conscious, my call his religion Judaism if it is unrelated to the essentials of the Jewish religious experience.

Non-traditional Judaism, including Reform, justifies its label by establishing its adherence to the Torah. The Torah is on the peg on which all “real” Judaism supposedly hangs. The holidays and other ceremonies derive their “kosher” character from their presence in the Bible.

Traditional Judaism depends on an acceptance of the stories and the Torah. The Jewish religion begin with God who transmitted his commands to Abraham and Moses. Abraham’s son Israel had 12 sons each of who became the ancestor of a tribe. Ultimately all 12 tribes want to live in Egypt where they were enslaved by the pharaohs. After their liberation from bondage, the new leader Moses led them to Mount Sinai. At this mountain they receive the full doctrine of the Torah and pledged themselves and their children to fulfill the commitment.

By the official story the Bible came first. The religious regimen of Jewish life came second.

Humanistic Judaism, on the other hand, denies the truth of the story. It denies that the holiday and life-cycle ceremonies which express the rhythm of Judaism are the result of the Torah. It denies that the origin of Judaism is in the Bible and in the historic events described in the Bible.

Using the result of a scientific survey of the Jewish past, a humanistic Judaism presents the counter-story to the story of the Torah. In the discoveries of archaeology and of the higher Bible criticism lie its scriptures.

Humanistic Judaism affirms 10 historical observations which are in conflict with traditional claims.

Here they are.

  1. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed; they are mythical figures. In ancient Palestine there were three somatic peoples who spoke the same language. There were the Canaanites (also called Phoenicians), the Amorites, and the Hebrews. Their difference was not racial, but occupational. The Canaanites were city-dwellers, the Amorites hill-country farmers, and the Hebrews wandering herdsman and shepherds. The Hebrews conquered the Amorite Hill-country in successive small invasions lasting over 1000 years. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are personifications of three important invasions. Although the authors of the Torah try hard to deny the ethnic and cultural connection between the Hebrews and the Canaanites, objective research proves them wrong.
  2. Most Hebrews never went down into Egypt. The exit is a story is a myth. There is no historical evidence the subs tonight a massive Hebrew departure from the land of the pharaohs. As far as we can surmise, the Hebrew occupation of the hill-country on both sides of the Jordan was continuous. The 12 tribes Joseph considered us to never left their ancestral land, never under 400 years of slavery, and never wonder the Sinai desert. The origin of their custom ceremonies had nothing to do with an Egyptian experience.
  3. Moses was never the leader of the Hebrews. One Semitic tribe called Levi did spend time in Egypt. They may have even been slaves. However by 1200 B.C., long after the Hebrews had been settled in Palestine, this tribe was wondering the Sinai desert. Their leader and shaman was a man called Moses (an Egyptian name) and their chief god was either a snake god called Nehushtan or a wind god called Yahveh. Under the leadership of Moses they infiltrated the Hebrew land of Judah (the south of the Hebrew territory was called Judah and the north is called Israel). Famous for their magical powers they were invited by the people of Judah (the Jews) to become their priests. After Moses died, his descendants, in particular, were in demand as priests. In time, the Levites, like the Magi in Persia, specialized in soothsaying and in the conducting of religious ceremonies. All the Levites remembered their leader Moses, the Jews had, for obvious reasons, no historic memory of his leadership.
  4. The Jewish religion was old before the Bible was written. Long before the Levites ever set foot in Palestine, long before the story of the Torah was written, the Hebrews had an ancient religion and an ancient set of religious ceremonies. The Torah was not even written by Moses (who is most likely illiterate). It’s written by a group of Levitical priests 700 years after Moses had died and centuries after the basic religious calendar of Judaism had evolved.
  5. Sukkoth, Hanukkah, and Passover were established holidays long for the Torah was dreamed of. In ancient Palestine there were three moments of the seasonal year which were suspenseful. The first was at the fall equinox when the rainy season was scheduled to begin. The second was at the winter solstice when the dying light of the sun was scheduled to renew itself. And the third was in the spring when the herds and the flocks regularly conceived. The failure of either the rain or, or the sun, or animal fertility to fulfill its promise spelled disaster. Therefore our Hebrew ancestors set aside a week of celebration at each of these annual crises to ensure success. They danced and they sang and sought to urge the natural forces on through imitation. They poured water on Sukkot, light candles on Hanukkah, and ate eggs on Passover to urge the rhythm of nature to assert herself. The Levitical authors of the Torah sought to deny the natural origins of these festivals and to attach them (with the exception of Hanukkah) to historic desert experience of the Hebrews never knew. But modern research gives the lie to the tampering.
  6. Judaism began as a series of nature experiences. Judaism is as old as the Jewish people. It began with the natural experiences of the Hebrew people in their own land. It began with a Jewish response to the season crises of autumn, winter, and spring as well as to the individual crises of birth, puberty, marriage, death. What the Bible denies, the evidence of history affirms. Although the orthodox leadership, both historical and rabbinical, sought to turn the attention of the Jews from nature to their god Yahveh, it could not erase the nature experience. Even when officially demoted to insignificance, it persisted as the major motivation for celebration.
  7. The Torah is an attempt to explain the already established Jewish calendar. After the destruction of the northern Hebrew (Israel) by the Assyrians and the defeat of the northern Hebrew (the Jews) by the Chaldeans, a power vacuum existed. Since the Chaldeans and their successors the Persians did not wish to restore the military leadership of Judah out of fear that revolt would be encouraged, they removed the royal house of David and replaced them with a group of harmless collaborators. This collaborators were the Levitical priests who were hungry for power. (We forgive their modern descendants, the Levines and the Cohens).
  8. The Levites had a problem. In the eyes of the people they were usurpers, opportunistic replacements of the legitimate house of David. They therefore had to prove the right to rule.
  1. The Torah is a deliberate attempt by the Levites to prove that Moses and his relatives (as contrasted to David and his descendants) are the rightful rulers of the Jews. A fictional Moses was created to become the leader of all the Hebrews and the start of a supernatural spectacular at Sinai.
  1. In order to re-enforce the authority of Moses the Levites deliberately associated all holidays with Moses and with Yahveh, the god of Moses. Passover emerges as the anniversary of the mythical Exodus. Sukkoth emerges as a commemoration of the never-never 40 years wandering in the desert. And the rest day, sacred to Saturn, the God of Jerusalem, is justified as the Sabbath through a childish story of creation. When the Levites get through with their book, but the history of Judaism is totally distorted. A non-hero called Modes arises as the savior of Israel, and the ancient Jewish calendar with all its pagan gaiety is reduced to a solemn desert travesty.
  2. The Biblical point of view is the Levitical point of view. The Bible is a series of 24 bucks either written by or edited by the Levites. It is an attempt to explain ancient Judaism through the vested interest of the priestly clan. If read uncritically, it distorts the truth and makes the origins of Judaism to appear as they weren’t. The Torah is not the source of Judaism. It is a clever and successful attempt to rationalize Judaism for the benefit of a small power elite.
  3. The Jewish religious experience precedes the articulated belief about the gods or God.The religious experience in all cultures is the attempt to celebrate the unchanging rhythm of life, whether seasonal or personal. Before there was a Moses or Levites, before there was any formal theology, there existed an ancient Hebrew calendar of life. The dramatic experience of this calendar, with all their sense of identity with the events of nature, were independent of any theological explanation. Only later when the caretakers of religion tried to articulate the significance of these experiences that they conjure up fantasies about the gods. Judaism preceded the gods and will survive them.
  4. Historic Judaism is not the Bible. It is the celebration of life through the seasonal and personal calendars of Jewish experience. An authentic Judaism seeks to go behind the official theological rationalizations. It seeks to articulate the human experience which makes Sukkot, Hanukkah, Passover, and the other celebrations significant. It finds the ethical values of these holidays and no mythical story but in the human response to this season. Reflection is natural to the autumn, hope is essential to the winter, and freedom is the imitation of spring.

And so, there they are. 10 historical assertions. 10 humanistic interpretations of Jewish history. Just as the modern Jew is utterly distinct from the man official theology described, so was the ancient Jew vastly different from the pious image the Bible prefers.