Three Great Ideas of Shavu'ot

Shavuot Sermon Agudas Achim 2018
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Three Great Ideas

I read a very interesting article by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, one-time Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary on Shavu’ot that really shifted my perspective on the holiday. See, Shavu’ot is the ‘orphan’ of Jewish holidays. Overcome by its more assertive siblings on the Equinoxes – Pesach and Sukkot – Shavu’ot has to fight its own corner. But why? Why is Shavu’ot so much less popular than Pesach and Sukkot? Rabbi Schorsch has a simple and elegant explanation: it’s about the theology, stupid.

“As the liturgy for the day constantly reminds us, Shavuot commemorates the divine gift of Torah received at Mount Sinai, in consequence of which Judaism spawned a text-centered religious community, possibly the first in human history. Shavuot, then, is about the essential and unique nature of Judaism, a portable religion based on a canon susceptible to unending interpretation. At Sinai, freedom from slavery was recast into fidelity to law and literacy.

But that defining content is not enough to imbue Shavuot with power or popularity. And the reason tells us something about the workings of Judaism. Shavuot is ritually bereft. Unlike Passover or Sukkot, it lacks a set of distinctive practices that would convey experientially its meaning and message.
There is nothing comparable to the seder or sukkah for Shavuot, no absorbing home ritual that might unite family and friends in preparation and observance.”

The far less nuanced and elegant take-away from Rabbi Schorsch’s thesis is: Shavu’ot is about God. Jews don’t like talking about God. Ergo: Shavu’ot sinks to the bottom of the pile. There are no Seders to prepare, no Sukkahs to erect. No smells of chicken soup or scents of etrog; just the stark thesis that we received Torah at Sinai.

Lucky – or unlucky, depending on your perspective – for you, I do rather enjoy talking about God. I found myself in the fortunate circumstance where I can make a living out of Jewish theology, or at least its implied and applied versions.

Now, when I say I like talking about God, I literally mean that. ‘Talking about God’ or ‘God language’ is a charged term, because unfortunately, judgment often seems to come on the back of theological speculation, or even worse, certitude. One can only talk about God with any notion of integrity by doing two things: recognizing one’s personal humility and acknowledge everyone else’s right to their own narrative and experience. You can only have a sensible conversation about God by clearing the toxic waste that religion often has dumped onto the human experience. Before one can construct any notion of God, one must deconstruct God. One must create space for people to feel, sense, intuit, believe, test, verify or falsify whatever their conscience dictates.

Only then can you level the playing field and have a more authentic conversation about God.

But why is it important to talk about God or Revelation? Absolutist certainty is the province of fundamentalists: be it religious or atheist. Meditating on the meaning of the Divine is not about levying evidence; after all, theology is a veritably untestable science. Theology is about prompting the heart and examining the ethics that flow forth from our beliefs. What is compelling about Shavu’ot is not whether we literally affirm Torah mi’Sinai, but whether we can affirm, or at least, debate, the ideas that lie at the base of the Mount. So, I would like to present you with three compelling and world-shattering ideas that Shavu’ot has given to the Jewish People.

First: Revelation is collective. Judaism is one of the few, or perhaps the only, religion that centers its Revelatory narrative on a collective experience. While it is true that Jewish fundamentalists use this as a circular argument to inanely prove the validity of the Torah’s truth claims, I think there is a second, deeper layer that is far more compelling. What does it mean for an entire community to stand and hear? To bear witness to an inclusive mass event that makes them all bear testimony to the transformative wisdom of Torah? Revelation was not secret, it was not gnostic, not elitist, not the purview of mystics retreating from the world: rather it is OF the world, for each and everyone of us.

The Rabbinic tradition capitalizes on this notion even further by expanding the Torah’s reach: for it was given in the wilderness so that all would partake of it. The souls who were there and those who were yet to stand at Sinai.

Secondly, the Torah is multilayered. There are Midrashim that recount how each of us heard Torah in its own unique way. ‘Shivim panim la’Torah’ is a famous Rabbinic dictum: seventy faces to the Torah. Judaism in its premodern iteration was an avant-gardist post-modern experiment. ‘Elu v’elu divrey Elohim chayyim’, the Talmud tells us. ‘These and these are the words of the living God.’ Plurality and makhloket – disputation – is coded into our system. The great gift of Jewish thought is its ability to hold multiple thoughts, multiple truths in one. To this day, each one of us is charged to hear Revelation in our own way; to internalize it, celebrate it, embrace it and carry it forth. We are not intimidated by contrast; we welcome it, and it has served our People well.

Lastly, the Torah is lived experience. Famously, we proclaimed ‘na’aseh v’nishmah’: we will do and we will hear. What is compelling about the religious life is its aspect of surrender. Sometimes we don’t know what we will encounter in the surrendering but maybe it can be beautiful, poignant and transformative. Torah is not just a theoretical construct, there is no catechism in Judaism.

It’s a living, breathing walk-with-words that started 3500 years ago and has not yet stopped. We encounter sanctity and transcendence through the profane and immanent: through the rituals, customs, stories of our People; what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would have called ‘folkways’. Again and again, we are called to consider what this lived experience might look like or feel like or taste like. In the words of the psalmist: ‘ta’amu u’ra’u ki tov Adonai’ - ‘taste and see how good God is.’ (Psalm 34:8)

As we observe Shavu’ot and debate powerful ideas, let us use these three unique features to explore these ideas: the democracy of Revelation, the democracy of interpretation and the democracy of action. As we prepare to receive Torah physically as well as spiritually, especially in context of welcoming our new Ottumwa Torah, may we be sated by her wellsprings and continue to question, argue, grow, perceive and receive for many thousands of years more.

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