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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.