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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

SHAVUOT THIS YEAR

With Shavuot coinciding with Memorial Day Weekend, we’re skipping our Shavuot service this year.


I’m sure that for Humanistic Jews this statement has all the shock value of announcing that we’re passing on the day-old doughnut sale at the Dollar Store. It’s just not that important to us. 


It’s not our fault, really, though like all products of the internalized Jewish guilt machine, many Very Important Jews think it is. But if I were taking Shavuot out on a date I would not hold back. “No, Shavuot, it isn’t me. It’s you. How about we take a little break?”


For over 2,000 years, this holiday (which this year begins on Thursday and runs through Friday and Shabbat) has sought to regain its lost relevancy. Like some other famous festivals, namely the so-called “pilgrimage” feasts of Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot began as a harvest festival. The relative longevity of those first two was helped along by biblical narratives that gave them new life. Passover morphed so completely from an agricultural holiday to a celebration of freedom from slavery, that its agrarian roots are almost impossible to locate. Sukkot held onto a few farmland associations (due to the Sukkah and Lulav and Etrog) but was mostly transformed into a commemoration of the Israelites’ temporary housing situation as they wandered their way to Israel.


Shavuot did not benefit from a biblical re-write. There was no ancient legend with which it was associated. Just the harvest, nothing more. So it should come as no surprise that as the Jews, née Israelites, urbanized, attachments to this solely agricultural holiday waned. For this reason, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. when rabbis took over Judaism from the priests, they attempted to give Shavuot a boost.


Taking a page from the biblical holiday re-write tradition, the rabbis re-positioned Shavuot, giving it a whole new storyline as the commemoration of the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Unfortunately, their re-purposing the holiday still left it with little in the way of ritual. Still, over time, folk customs emerged. One of these involves eating dairy on the holiday. Because a cheesecake-based holiday is never a bad idea. Another innovation involved an all-night Torah study session.* Frankly, I think this kind of contradicted the cheesecake as it is patently impossible to stay up all night loaded with cheesecake. Much later, early Reform and some Conservative rabbis invented (stole) the Confirmation ceremony from the Christians to try to rally some interest in Shavuot.** None of these innovations were enough to get Shavuot noticed even as much as Sukkot, much less Passover.


Over the past few years some communities and Jewish internet influencers have tried to modernize the all-night study by introducing cultural elements or Zoom Shavuot celebrations. These are all laudable, but they haven’t exactly revived the average Jew’s relationship with the holiday. It turns out that we’re really just not that into it.


Once upon a time in rabbinical school I was taught that it was my job to make Judaism relevant to those who were leaving it behind. Oddly, this included making sure that a holiday like Chanukah (“It’s a MINOR HOLIDAY, damn it!”) was kept in its place even as we were expected to cheerlead lesser-known (i.e., completely unknown) holidays like Shavuot. I never really bought into that idea then and I do so less now. As a secular Jew and Humanistic rabbi I believe that Judaism must be the living culture of the Jewish people, not a set of requirements mandated by our ancestors. If Chanukah is now more important to Jews than Shavuot—which is demonstrably so!—why shouldn’t Jewish leaders put more energy into Chanukah?


Just to be clear, despite our differences, I’m not breaking up with Shavuot. I’ve spent time this week teaching about it. I’m literally writing about it here. But that said, there’s nothing wrong with taking a little liturgical break. Especially when Shavuot coincides with Memorial Day weekend. I believe that I can accurately say that very few Humanistic Jews thought first about this weekend being Shavuot and only then about Memorial Day.


Rabbi Wine once suggested transforming Shavuot into a holiday celebrating Jewish literature. In that spirit, I offer you a copy of my article in last summer’s edition of Humanistic Judaism Magazine entitled “Understanding Ancient Texts: The things that you’re liable to think about the bible ain’t necessarily so.” It’s a great way to gain a better appreciation of the true relevance of the Hebrew Bible to Humanistic Jews.


And if you read that—or other Jewish literature you might enjoy—you will have had your own very appropriate secular and cultural celebration of Shavuot!


Chag Sameach! (Happy Holiday)!


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* The reason given for the all-night study session was that the Israelites were insufficiently excited about the big Torah-Giving Event planned by God and Moses. This is evidenced by the fact that they all went to bed on time. The all-night study is meant to make up for their insufficient enthusiasm. Hence it is called a Tikkun Layl Shavuot – A Corrective for the Night of Shavuot.


** Early Reform Jews also emphasized confirmation because they wanted to eliminate the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. But that’s another story altogether.

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