Making sense of Shavuot
Why I’m Skipping Shavuot
Rabbi Laura Baum, Huffington Post
I’m a rabbi. But I won’t be observing the Shavuot holiday this weekend. Not because I don’t have the time. It’s because the traditional message of Shavuot doesn’t speak to me.
My non-observance of Shavuot makes me like the majority of Jews. Many don’t even know what Shavuot is. If you fall into that category, here’s the primer on one foot: tradition says Shavuot commemorates the day that God gave the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
As a proud Jew who does not believe that God gave the Torah to the Israelites, the holiday doesn’t do much for me. It may sound like I don’t care about Torah. Far from it. I believe Torah is one of the most important reasons to care about Judaism.
But I don’t look at the Torah as a description of actual events. The Torah is not a history book or science text and should not be read like one.
What speaks to me from Torah is that our ancestors took amazingly radical steps to create a document that would survive against all odds. And their efforts resulted in a people who would survive against all odds. The Israelites twice survived the destruction of their temples. When other groups faced such annihilation, they simply assimilated. But not the Jews.
That’s because the writers of the Torah designed the text in such a way that it literally built a community in ancient times. And it created a Jewish people who lasted.
While today I do not use Torah to guide my life, I recognize the power it had for our ancestors, and I am inspired by their boldness and creativity.
Legend has it that when the 18th century French writer and notorious anti-Semite Voltaire discussed the possibilities of miracles with Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, the king challenged Voltaire to point to one authentic example of a miracle. “Sir,” Voltaire is reported to have said, “it’s the Jews.”
But Judaism’s survival was not a miracle in the sense of a divine act. The miracle is that a group of people banded together and said something like, “We have something worth preserving, something we are willing to stand for, even in the face of despair.”
These Israelites had a vision that transcended every notion of peoplehood and culture up until that time. Instead of focusing on land and kings, they focused on relationships. Because their vision so boldly broke from the past, they would need to sustain it through stories.
Through the stories of the Torah, the Israelites would define themselves as a community.
Not only were the Torah’s storywriters brilliant, they did an incredible job of marketing the scroll. In their willingness to fabricate the truth — with the myth that God gave Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai — they found a surefire way to “sell” the story.
To me, the claim that God wrote the Torah diminishes its revolutionary character. Fraught with inconsistencies and filled with stories borrowed from neighboring cultures, it would be a pretty mediocre work for an all-knowing all-powerful divine being.
I am far more interested in the idea that a group of Jews sat around and decided to create a document that would give meaning to their lives. With stories that gave voice to their ideas and values, the biblical authors were able to think beyond themselves, to break from the past.
So while some will celebrate the myth of God giving Jews the Torah on Shavuot, I’ll be doing other things that evening. But I hope to take a moment to appreciate the creativity of my ancestors — the authors of the Torah’s remarkable fables. Perpetuating the God-as-author myth not only serves to deny our ancestors’ creativity; it pushes many Jews further away from Judaism. Today, many Jews want a Judaism that is intellectually sound and historically accurate. A Judaism that reflects how we live and think today. Teaching myth as fact is insulting and self-defeating.
The Torah’s authors felt empowered to engage in an act so radical, so creative that it would ensure not only their own survival, but that of the Jewish people for centuries to come.
As I reflect on Shavuot, I honor the writers of the Torah’s myths. They are my inspiration. They weren’t afraid to challenge the past to create something new. To ensure our Jewish future, we need more people like them today.
Rabbi Laura Baum is a member of Congregation Beth Adam and OurJewishCommunity.org
Shavuot Thoughts for 5772 on Acting with the Solidarity of Ruth and Naomi, and Looking for Boaz
[Excerpts from longer meditation on Shavuot]
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Rabbis for Human Rights
One of the most touching aspects of The Book of Ruth is the special relationship between Ruth and Naomi. They are two women who are impoverished and laden with sorrow. Is it the fact that they share a common loss that binds them together, or something more? Poverty and loss lead many to a space where they can only think about their own needs. This solidarity is even more remarkable when we know that these two women come from different cultures. It is true that Naomi had been living among the Moabites, and that Israelites and Moabites were related in the distant past, but they had also been frequently in conflict with each other. Nonetheless, both Naomi and Ruth often seem more concerned about the other than about themselves.
Ultimately, it is the solidarity between Naomi and Ruth, along with God’s Providence, that allows them to find a way out of their seemingly hopeless situation. Something is created out of the dynamic between the two of them, and it is not clear that either one of them could have succeeded alone. Ruth has youthful energy and the hopefulness, while Naomi feels beaten down by life and by God, “Do not call me Naomi,” (Coming from the word “Naim,” pleasant. A.A.) she replied. Call me Mara (From the word “Mar,” bitter. A.A.), for Shaddai (The Almighty) has made my lot very bitter. I went away full, and Adonai has brought me back empty. How can you call me Naomi, when Adonai has dealt harshly with me, when Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21). However, it is Naomi that knows the ways and customs of her people, things that Ruth probably did not know.
Ruth and Naomi are both living in poverty, but we in RHR are attempting to act in solidarity when we ourselves are not in the same situation as those we seek to help. Sometimes solidarity means simply being present when a Palestinian home is being demolished or an Israeli family is being evicted from their public housing apartment. There is very little we can do, but at least people are not being left alone in their darkest hour. Sometimes it is humanitarian intervention, doing what the state should be doing. We build a school for the Jahalin Bedouin or act as human shields to protect Palestinian farmers. In the case of Palestinian farmers, we eventually were able to require the army to fulfil their responsibilities.
Ideally solidarity is also a partnership in which we bridge cultural divides to see each other as re’im, those who share an essential sameness binding us together. Like Naomi and Ruth, we each contribute to that relationship. This is not simple in an innately hierarchical system that can lead to paternalism that is a far cry from solidarity among people who treat each other as equals.. It is all too easy to see ourselves as the knights in shining armor coming to save the unfortunate ones. And, we know best how to do that. In RHR we do our best to plan together with Palestinians and Israeli Bedouin how best to save their lands. We do our best to plan together with unemployed Israelis or those in need of public housing how best to change policy. We don’t discount the value of our own knowledge and experience, but try to humbly remember that those who ultimately must live with the results of decisions must make those decisions.
In our work, we often see how decent individuals can make the system produce justice, whereas that same system can be exploited to achieve injustice. While we have long ago realized that there can be no “Enlightened occupation” because the realities of occupation corrupt even the best of intentions. As I recently wrote for Parashat Emor, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains in his commentary to the command to leave the gleanings and corners of the field in Leviticus 23:22 that in his “Enlightened” era (Hirsch’s quotation marks) the idea that those who own property have the responsibility to decide how to use THEIR property (my emphasis) in order to help the poor “borders on criminality” גובלת עם פשע because the gleanings and the corners actually don’t belong to them to begin with.
Nevertheless, we in RHR have at least seen how decent individuals can use the system undo injustice created by the system. Justice Dorner ordered in 2000 that the expelled cave dwellers of the South Hebron Hills be returned home. The Legal Advisor for the Occupied Territories has ordered lands taken over by settlers returned to their rightful owners, and that the residents of Bir El ‘Id be allowed to return to their village in 2009. The High Court ordered the army and police in 2006 to make sure that Palestinian farmers get to “Every last olive,” and protect them. During the dark years of the Israeli Wisconsin Plan our staff was able to wrangle out of the Wisconsin Directorate decisions correcting some of the most egregious abuses of unemployed Israelis, and Members of Knesset who came to understand the injustice fought to end the program. There are countless additional examples of how good and decent Israelis work within the system to create justice for both Palestinians and Israelis.
However, the opposite is also true, especially when fear and hatred of “The Other” is involved. I see the massive and growing wave of incitement against African refugees being encouraged by politicians drowning out the voices of Israel Police Chief Yohanan Danino and Tel Aviv Police Chief Aharon Aksel saying that much of the growing crime wave perpetrated by Africans are crimes of desperation which would cease if we allowed them to work.
On the one hand, RHR is signed on an Israeli High Court appeal challenging a situation reminiscent of the midrash that the residents of Sodom would give marked coins to poor people, refuse to sell anything to them, and collect their money back after these people died of starvation. We are part of a coalition appealing policies making it illegal for employers to hire even those refugees and asylum seekers whom Israel has granted temporary residency permits! Politicians such as MK Danny Danon paint all of the refugees as “infiltrators,” and the press often repeats this language.
On the other hand, RHR issued a statement identifying with the fears and needs of the Israeli residents of South Tel Aviv. We can not sit in our comfortable homes where we never see an African refugee and dismiss the concerns of South Tel Aviv residents as not politically correct. We called upon our politicians to behave responsibly. Steps such as granting asylum to those who are truly fleeing for their lives and then allowing them to work, would help to protect South Tel Aviv residents without repeating the closed borders policy that we Jews faced in our darkest hours. We could also be searching for ways to spread out the refugee population, to find third countries who could accept some of them, to increase police presence in S, Tel Aviv, and/or create forums for refugees and Israeli residents of S. Tel Aviv to meet and interact.
There are many other examples where, rather than a “Boaz,” we have a “Pharaoh” or a “Haman” who exploit fear and manipulate the law. Countless times I hear people say apologetically, “Well, the Bedouin simply have non-Western concepts of land ownership. They think they own the land, but the courts have ruled otherwise.” Well, the fact is that in many cases the courts have not yet ruled, and the Bedouin actually have “Western” proofs of ownership from Turkish, British and even Israeli authorities. If there was no “Western” proof of ownership, the government would not have needed to expropriate Bedouin lands in the 50’s. They could have simply declared it “State land.” But, even if it were true that Bedouin culture had a non-Western concept of land ownership, a “Boaz” would not exploit that to displace (לנשל)the Bedouin. A “Boaz” would find a way to arrive at a decision by our modern day equivalent of the Sanhedrin not to exploit or reject today’s Moabitesses.
In RHR’s Shavuot study materials, you have the opportunity to read about Ruti Kedem, and even to write a letter on her behalf. Ruti simply needs a Boaz to cut through the red tape to do what the law allows, enabling her to finish her last semester of studies and finish with a job skill that should lift her out of poverty and dependence on the state.
This past Monday, the activists in the “Ma’abara” in Jerusalem “liberated” another building, this one owned by the Jerusalem Municipality, but left unused for several years. (While some 40,000 wait for public housing, and the actual number of those in need is much larger than those admitted onto the list.) Taking over buildings was not an act of first resort, but rather something that desperate families and those supporting them came to after meeting after meeting with those in government who could be a “Boaz.” They smiled (sometimes), and did nothing. As housing activist Vicki Vanunu says in RHR’s Shavuot study materials, she eventually came to ask, “Who is really breaking the law here? Are we, or is it the State of Israel that leaves buildings abandoned even when there are people without shelter?” There are now some small indications that public pressure is working, and not everybody is simply smiling paternalistically. Housing Minister Atias has started to locate funds and make proposals that are a good start, although far from sufficient.
With out a doubt, there is a slippery slope here. Terrible crimes have been committed by those who felt that they were merely righting injustices done to them. One of the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that both Israelis and Palestinians so deeply feel themselves to be the victims that they fail to see that one can be a victim and a victimizer at the same time, the difference between the two sometimes being less than a hairbreadth.
The point is that we need the “Ruths,” Naomis” and activists of the Maabara working in solidarity to escape impossible situations. A wise Boaz understands that even an imperfect system can be used to meet human needs, honor human rights, and further justice. This does not mean that we accept the system when the system itself must be changed.
Some of us may have opportunities to be a Boaz. All of us can and must learn from Ruth and Naomi how to cross the divides and work together in solidarity. This does not mean that we rely on good will alone, forgetting Rabbi Hirsch’s admonition. And, we are always in need of Divine Providence. However, our current system could find a way to provide affordable housing for all. Creative thinking could allow us to meet our obligations both to African refugees fleeing for their lives and to the residents of S. Tel Aviv. There is room in the Negev both for Israeli Jews and Israeli Bedouin.
One final reminder. As I wrote on Purim, we in RHR will be standing in solidarity with the Palestinian residents of Susya on June 6th at 9:00 am, when the Israeli High Court will hear a petition by “Regavim” to enforce demolition orders against the entire village. Regavim uses misleading statistics to claim reverse discrimination against settlers. They ignore the difference between settlers, who fully participate in Israeli democracy, and the Palestinians who have no say regarding who makes, interprets and enforces the laws that determine their fate. In previous Regavim cases, the Palestinian voice was barely heard. In this case, standing in solidarity means that our legal team has been working together with the residents of Susya.. At Mt. Sinai, we are taught that all were present when God’s voice echoed throughout the world. The midrash even teaches that every person heard God’s voice in their own way. Before earthly judges, solidarity means ensuring that every person can speak in their own voice, and ensuring that the judges hear.
Happy Holiday, and May We Each Hear the Voice From Sinai,
Shavuot not only marks the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, but also draws to our attention human rights issues such as the plight of refugees in foreign lands. Never has this message been so timely in light of the disturbing riots that have taken place in Israel against African refugees.
On the festival, the Book of Ruth is publicly read in synagogues. Ruth was a Moabite woman who found herself widowed following the death of her Israelite husband. Although Ruth could have gone home to her parents, she instead chose to stand by her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi and to travel to a foreign land with her. Ruth is essentially a refugee and an outsider who relies on the kindness of others and seeks inclusion. She works tirelessly in the fields during the harvest season to support herself and Naomi, and ultimately finds acceptance and security through her marriage to Boaz. It is interesting and illuminating that Ruth and Boaz are the great grandparents of King David – this should remind us of the benefits of being open and embracing foreigners for they too have a great role to play in our society, not just in the present, but for generations to come.
Shavuot therefore is a unique opportunity to highlight what may often be perceived as a tension running throughout Judaism. This is the relationship that Jewish people have with G-d and their own community versus the relationship and responsibilities that Jewish people have to society as a whole. It is no coincidence that at a time when the Torah was given to the Jews – the very essence of Judaism and the thing that binds the Jewish people as a nation – the story of Ruth is read. If ever there was a clear message that the foreigner is always amongst us and we should look outward and care for our fellow human being, this is it.
Coming seven-weeks after Passover – the exodus from slavery in Egypt – we are also reminded of the connection between slavery and asylum. Very often those who find themselves seeking asylum are people who have escaped slavery or are the victims of human trafficking. As Jewish people, this has indeed been our story, and will unfortunately continue to be the story of people throughout the world. At present, there are 12.3 million people worldwide who are enslaved. Many of those people will not be as fortunate as Ruth, and will not be ‘redeemed’ by a Boaz type figure. It is up to us to advocate for their rights and to ensure that they are appropriately identified and processed upon arrival in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, and that every effort is made to integrate them into society.
You can join us in our work to advocate for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, and victims of slavery, by reading our Asylum Activist Toolkit and following the action steps; and/or supporting the Voice of Freedom Project, which works to empower and give a voice to formerly trafficked and enslaved women housed at the Ma’agan Safe House in Israel. If you would like to learn more, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.renecassin.org. You can also support the work of the African Refugee Development Centre in Israel in response to the riots by sending a letter to Shimon Peres and Benjamin Natanyahu.
We wish you a wonderful Shavuot and hope you will join us in protecting the rights of those who seek inclusion in our society following their long and harrowing journeys.
The team at René Cassin
[For more information about the work of Rene Cassin, click on the headline above]