31 May 2019
It is interesting to think about how we celebrate different Jewish holidays over time. Frequently, the nature of our celebration reflects an evolving Jewish history and changes in the Jewish experience.
For example, Shavuot, once the purview of the more observant, has been sparking interest among a broader audience. Traditionally, we celebrate receiving the Torah at Sinai by indulging in all-night text study and marathon philosophical discussion (some can even get very heated). The holiday comes as a chance to acknowledge the profound gift of Jewish heritage, tradition, and learning. It gives us the opportunity to tap back into the joy the Israelites felt over 3,500 years ago.
I believe that there are at least two important changes that have led to this shift in American Jewish engagement with and celebration of Shavuot.
The first has been a radical change in how we think about Jewish learning and celebrating Torah. For many of us, our memories of Jewish learning have been decidedly less joyous than what some strive to achieve through all night study. Far too often, we recall with unfortunate specificity the mix of boredom and dread we felt at Hebrew school or B’Nai Mitzvah class. These experiences did not feel interesting, exciting, or relevant, but Rathmore like a means to an end. The result was that many people quit their Jewish learning as soon as they could.
Fortunately, these days I can say with confidence that more people see Jewish learning as relevant to our lives and speaking to our current questions and quandaries. By looking in new ways at traditional texts, modern literature, arts, music, personal experiences, and so on, we are discovering new ways to learn about our past and present. Today’s teachers also come from a variety of backgrounds and bring many traditional and new perspectives to the conversation.
The second change is more of a reflection of our time. Today’s era of growing interest in Jewish learning accompanies a time of rapid change and uncertainty within our Jewish world and broader society. More and more, we feel destabilized by 24-hour (or even just 30-minute) news cycles and constantly changing critical issues. Rather than have our lives dominated by the latest controversy, we seek to anchor ourselves to something deeper. We want to transcend the realm of the immediate and connect with something that has endured.
Jewish texts and teachings serve that purpose and more. The Jewish canon has survived time, guiding Jews for millennia while remaining highly relevant even within a radically and rapidly changing world. Even beyond any intellectual and philosophical benefits of Jewish learning, we are also craving its most basic purpose: the ability to grapple with life’s questions alongside one another. By learning together with others, we not only strengthen our connection to the past, we form the bonds we fundamentally crave today.
In other words, now is the perfect time to go out and learn, and to celebrate Shavuot, which will begin in the evening of June 8. There are events happening throughout our community that offer up the chance to try something new. I encourage you to look for events and programs in your area that speak to you.
As Jews in the 21st century, we have the privilege to build on the legacy of Jewish learning that has arisen over many generations. I hope that as our community, and we as individuals, continue to engage in the great conversations that have been core to Jewish existence for so many years and still critical to our lives today.