While we are still some weeks away from Shavuot, the culmination of this season, most see the holidays of Passover, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day), and Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) grouped together, primarily because of their calendar proximity, and do not include Shavuot, as it is among the least celebrated holidays. However, the fact that the Reform movement historically bolstered Shavuot with the placement of confirmation taking place on the holiday, and others renewed the practice of all night study—what is called a Tikkun Layl Shavuot— this unique holiday has found its renaissance in some communities.
So let’s take a look at the observance of this group of spring holidays. Passover remains as one of the two most celebrated holidays in the Jewish calendar, in one form or another, and is second only to Hanukkah. Yom Hashoah, as my colleague Rabbi Eliot Malomet has observed, has become a date marked primarily by survivors of the Holocaust and their families. Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut have become days relevant primarily to what might be called Diaspora Israelis (those Israelis who, irrespective of how many generations removed, live in the U.S).
If we step back and look at the pattern of holiday observance in general, there seem to be four holidays celebrated by American Jews: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Passover. This isn’t to say that synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions don’t mark other periods of time. It just means that even among those on the inside of the Jewish community, these are the holidays that speak to them in one way or another, more so than the rest. My colleague Rabbi Mordy Schwartz argues that these holidays are celebrated by American Jews because their narratives are most consistent with the American narrative of personal freedom, liberty, and justice.
It seems to me that the Jewish community has been unduly influenced by what has become the American form of celebration. While some communities continue to mark Memorial Day, those families affected are the ones who mostly acknowledge it. And the same is true for the Fourth of July. It has become a day of picnics and parades—and a day for retail sales. Hanukkah has become the national Jewish holiday, perhaps because of its proximity to Christmas and perhaps because this is just another example of how Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. Even Thanksgiving, based on the biblical observance of Sukkot, has been witness to the erosion of its religious values.
So what of Shavuot? Its narrative certainly does not speak to American values. Like the other so-called pilgrimage festivals (so-called because they included a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem), they are essentially agricultural holidays. Shavuot is the agricultural conclusion to the barley harvest, the count-down having been started on the second night of Passover. But Shavuot speaks to the essence of Judaism—the establishment of a covenant relationship between the Jewish people and the Divine.
It is also the holiday of the stranger—the one that acknowledges the place of Ruth, in particular, who chose to cast her lot with the Jewish people. The very existence of the holiday is an acknowledgment that there are those who live among us, who have chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people, whether or not they have chosen to convert, whether or not they are in a relationship with someone who is Jewish. And this is a direct result of the marketplace of ideas, in which Judaism now has a strong foothold. It seems to me that if welcoming the stranger is affirmed as a core value of Judaism, then perhaps Shavuot will experience its right renaissance.
Only future historians will be able to determine where this pattern will take us. And we know that the Jewish community has taken quantum leaps many times in its history. Of one thing we can be sure: this is clearly yet another indicator that we are in a period of radical change in the Jewish community.
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