Shavuot: A Wonderful Example of Reform Jewish Thinking!

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 received 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.

Four Versions of What Happened at Sinai

Shavuot is less than two weeks away! Shavuot (see prior post: Shavuot: A Perfect Example of Ancient Reform Judaism) commemorates the pivotal moment when God revealed Torah on Mount Sinai. So unique in history did the Sages of our people envision the event at Sinai that they imagined the whole world coming to a complete silent standstill. In the words of the Midrash:

When God gave the Torah, no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox grunted…the sea did not roar … the whole world hushed in breathless silence, and the Divine voice went forth proclaiming (Exodus 20:2): “I am the Lord your God; who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Shemot Rabbah 29:9)

What makes this moment so unique? At Sinai the Covenant God made first with Abraham alone became the privilege and sacred responsibility of the entire Jewish people, past, present and future.

What actually took place at Sinai? It should surprise no one that our Sages fertile minds produced a number differing Midrashim. Here are four:

In one God offers Torah to all the nations of the world. But when they hear what it says –Don’t cheat, don’t steal, treat the stranger the widow, the orphan and the poor with special dignity and respect – they all reject it out of hand. (See Sefer Ha-Agadah (Bialik and Rovenitzky, editors, vol. 1, p. 59).

Another Midrash, that I like to call The Godfather Midrash, has God lift Mount Sinai and hold it over the heads of the assembled Children of Israel. Then God says, either you accept and pledge to observe my Torah or I shall drop the mountain on top of you. (B. Shabbat 88A and B. Avodah Zarah 2B)

This Midrash teaches us the vital lesson that our only purpose as a people is to be teachers and examples of the ideals of Torah to the world. Indeed by adherence to these ideals we become in the words of the Prophet Isaiah; “A light to the nations’ (Isaiah 49:6) a worthy example for all. If we are not willing to accept the responsibility of adhering to the Torah’s ideals, there is no good reason for us to continue to exist.

A third Midrash that states that Israel’s willingness to accept Torah was so important to God that the Almighty threatened to break the promise made after the flood never to destroy the world again unless Israel agrees to embrace the Torah and its ideals (B. Shabbat 88A).

A fourth Midrash stresses the importance of passing the ideal of Torah to future generations. In this one the question is not, are we willing to accept the Torah? It is rather, how will we demonstrate to God that we are worthy to receive it? When God asks us to offer guarantors of our worthiness, we offer the deeds of our patriarchs and our prophets but God finds neither of these acceptable. Only when we pledge the loyalty of our children to God’s teachings does God reveal the Torah to our people. (Shir Ha Shirim Rabbah, Chapter 1, Section 4, Midrash 1)

The rabbinic method of interpretation encouraged creative thought. There was rarely only one acceptable point of view on any question. Indeed there are no fewer than four different rabbinic versions of how the greatest moment in our religious history came to be. Each one, though, stress our privilege and responsibility to study Torah and pass its teachings on to the next generation.


A Remarkable Woman of Whom Most of You Have Never Heard

One of the main activities that came to be associated with the Festival of Shavuot is study. Another custom of the festival is to recite special prayers in memory of special people who have died.

As I prepare to participate in our congregation’s annual Shavuot study session in a few weeks, my thoughts turn to one of the most dedicated students I have ever had who died a little more than four years ago, Leah Lantz.

Each year on my birthday, Leah sent me a hand written card that had יום הולדת שמח

(Happy Birthday) written in Hebrew.

Leah was a regular at Beth Israel at every Shabbat Eve service and at Torah study every Shabbat morning.   During the class she asked probing questions and often shared anecdotes about when she was a young girl growing up in Poland.

The one I will always remember was about her father who owned a small shop—jewelry store – if I recall correctly. Her father would keep a volume of Talmud under the shelf in his shop, and in between waiting on customers he would devote every spare minute to study. That example inspired Leah to enjoy a lifelong love of learning.

For me, Leah Lantz was an absolute inspiration. In her last years she could hardly hear, and she could hardly walk, and yet into her 90’s her indomitable spirit and thirst for knowledge propelled her to continue to participate in every imaginable learning opportunity. And she always greeted everyone she met with the most wonderful smile on her face!

Just before I left on a mini sabbatical at the end of 2009 Leah took my arm and told me how much she would miss me. “I’ll be back in two months,” I replied.

“But who knows what can happen in two months?” She answered.

When I returned, it was clear-–to my shock-–that Leah’s condition had deteriorated markedly. She came on the first Friday night after my return to Beth Israel, but there was no sparkle in her eyes, and she was in some pain. She also came to Torah study the next morning. She took her accustomed seat right at my side, which gave her the best chance of hearing, but she was unable to really focus and was in real discomfort.  I looked at her, and my heart told me that this was Leah’s last class with me. I felt like she had waited for me to return and she had come to say, “Goodbye.”

Now I imagine her alive in another realm walking briskly – not shuffling along with her walker – and taking her well-earned seat in the very first row of the ישיבה של מעלה, the Academy on High. There with her mind alert and her ears unclogged she will hold her own in any discussion with such fine minds and great spirits as our sages, Rabbi Akiva or Hillel, Beruria or Ima Shalom.

On the Shabbat after Leah died, I asked our Torah class to please leave the seat next to me-–Leah’s seat– empty in tribute to her. Four years later the void in our class and in my own heart left by Leah’s passing remains. Her memory, though, and the shining example of תלמוד תורה—the diligent study of Torah-–that she personified will always be with me particularly as Shavuot, the holiday we celebrate by studying Torah, approaches each year.