One of the great examples of Reform Jewish thinking, some 2000 years before there was anything called Reform Judaism, regards the Festival of Shavuot.
In the Torah, Shavuot is strictly an agricultural holiday, a celebration of both the first summer fruits and the barley harvest (Leviticus 23:15-22). Our ingenious Rabbinic Sages reformed (and I use that word purposely) the festival into the anniversary of our biblical ancestors receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. We cannot be sure of exactly how it happened but I imagine a scenario much like this:
A group of concerned rabbis were discussing the state of Jewish life. One Sage mused, “You know, Shavuot just doesn’t attract the great crowds to celebrate in Jerusalem that it once did.”
A second Rabbi answered: “That’s true, but it’s understandable. Times have changed!”
A third participant: “You are absolutely right! When we were primarily an agrarian society, first fruits and the barley harvest were compelling reasons to celebrate. Now, that we have become more urban, those occasions don’t mean as much to many people.”
First Sage: “What can we do?”
A fourth participant spoke up: “I’ve got it! If you look at the Torah, Shavuot comes 50 days after the first day of Pesach. That’s just about the same amount of time that it took our ancestors to travel to Mount Sinai after they left Egypt! Even though the Torah does not make the connection explicitly we can make the connection. From now on we can celebrate Shavuot—in addition to its biblical significance–as a joyous celebration of when we received Torah at Mount Sinai”.
A fifth Sage asks: “Can we do that?”
The fourth responds: “Not only can we, we must!! If we want our precious Jewish heritage to endure, we must be skilled interpreters of biblical texts so that they speak meaningfully to the present and future realities of our people.”
In this way, I can easily imagine, the rabbis of the Talmudic period took a fading agricultural festival and gave it a historical underpinning and new life for future generations. In similar fashion, our early Reform leaders made Shavuot the time when ninth, tenth, or—in some communities–twelfth grade students celebrate Confirmation.
The example of what our ancient Sages did with Shavuot must continue to inspire our thinking as Reform Jews today. If we want our precious heritage to remain vibrant and relevant, we must always be eager to embrace opportunities to make our traditions and celebrations speak more meaningfully to our children and grandchildren!
When we do, let us rejoice that the process of continually “reforming” Judaism is wholly consistent–and not at odds–with the process by which our Rabbinic Sages enabled Judaism to speak to the realities of their time and place.
6 thoughts on “Shavuot: A Wonderful Example of Reform Jewish Thinking!”
Thank you so much Stephen for pointing out Shawuot’s meaning as a festival of Tora, which I love! In my studies I found a reason for this developement which is complemental to Stephen’s nice story and to the gaining of Jewish Reform-Movement in the 18th and 19th century in Europe. In this time the Protestant Church was seen by many Jews as a good example from with they addapted the whole concept of Reform and some useful elements like confirmation. Confirmation was an invention of Bugenhagen a collegue of Martin Luther, who also wrote and bargained the constution of the churches in North Germany and of the state Danmark. He also was founder of several still existing high-schools. They arenow nearly 500 years old.
In the ancient time Christanity also had influence of Judaism, but not as a good example. Christianity was a challenge and threat. Not only in – i regret – sometimes violent struggles but as a very sucessful competitor in the same field. And Christianity made Shawuot a huge festival named after it’s Jewish-Greek name Pentecost. This challenged the Jewish sages to give the old harvest fedtival a modern and meaningful profile to compete Christanity.
Today Christanity in Germany has the problem that Pentecost became meaningless for most of it’s members. It has a clear meaning an an amazing story behind (additional to the amazing Jewish tradition behind our story). But only a few Christians have faith in the Holy Spirit to teach, syrengthen and lead us. We could use some chalenge from Reform Judaism to come back to this festival. I like very much the Torah-learning-night some Jewish communities practice between Erev Shawuot and Shawuot. We should learn from it.
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Thank you, so much,Pastor Sieg for these remarkable observations. They are just one of so many reason why it is such a privilege for me to work with you!
Thank you Rabbi and to Pastor Ursula for this explication! May we all learn from this, the value of bringing the past into the present.
Thank you, Susan!I think Shavuot is a good prototype for “re-imagining celebrations that have lost luster.
This has been a role of religious leaders always. In India there was a problem, because people were slaughtering the cattle for meat, so the children had no milk. The religious leaders made the cow holy, so that children would have sufficient nourishment. But now, we still have cows turned loose by their owners in the morning, which roam the streets of major cities foraging for food, although milk is readily available. It’s time for those leaders to come up with a new legend.
Fascinating, Skip! The depth nd breadth of your knowledge about so many things amazes me!