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The meaning of Shavuot

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-05-23

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The festival of Shavuot which we celebrate this coming week is an excellent example of the adaptability of Judaism.

Originally it was a temple based agricultural festivity with the image of poor Ruth working in the fields. Now it is a study centred celebration of our receiving the Torah and Ruth is the symbol of religious devotion.

When the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the great rabbis of the era had to innovate to cope with this fundamental loss.

Some argued that community prayer was central in order to preserve the spiritual nature of the relationship between God and Man as well as create a sense of community. Others argued that study was the more quintessential element in keeping the religious culture of the Jewish people alive. Both points of view had been responses to the previous catastrophe when the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As a result both were incorporated into the revived Judaism that recovered from the cataclysm.

Interestingly this ensured a varied response to losing the sacrificial system. Some sects replaced animal sacrifices with the idea of a human sacrifice. This of course led to the absurd and disastrous medieval assumption that Jews wanted to go on sacrificing humans in the form of little children (revived now by Muslim anti Semites claiming that Judaism needs to kill Muslim children). Mainstream Judaism on the other hand stuck with the literal significance of sacrifices but since it was impossible to carry them out turned them into  objects of study and lesson.

I often heard my late father say that a Jew without learning, an Am Haaretz, was rootless and a Judaism based on ignorance could not possibly survive. His was a typically Lithuanian point of view. Chassidism on the other hand in many of its early forms argued that feeling and prayer played a far more important role in keeping Jews connected to God and their people. In his final years my father argued it was essential to combine the two.

This emphasis on study is absolutely crucial to Judaism. It has kept us alive under the most adverse of conditions and it has given us our inordinate respect for learning and study that has earned us the title The People of The Book. It has enabled us wherever we were to adapt and to use our brains rather than our brawn.

To me it offers another lesson. Our tradition is one of study rather than theological abstraction. Education is universal. Of course some are able to go into greater depth and more complex matters than others. Some are part-timers others professionals. But as the Talmud says, there is room to specialize or concentrate on Halacha, law, Gemara, debate and analysis, Midrash, ideas or Mikra, Biblical Texts. It is a shame in some ways that Gemara has come to dominate but in other ways it is true that Gemara does incorporate all the other disciplines to varying degrees.

But the system of study involves question and answer and this to me is crucial too. I have little patience with blind obedience (‘though I don’t discount that for some this as far as they can go).

It is the strength of Judaism that it is not a theology based religion.There is relatively little theology in the Talmud altogether, a handful of pages in all. This makes great sense. For most of us the theological issues that have dominated thinking these past two thousand years are relatively unimportant. Judaism is concerned primarily with living now.

Most of us are not really that concerned with life after death, the immortality of the soul, messianism, the apocalypse or resurrection. I do not wish to imply that these ideas are unimportant but rather that most of us have other priorities right now. Besides these ideas are so difficult to define and to really come to grips with that they are often simply slogans accepted without question and indeed without real understanding. How many of us are able or willing to adopt the rigors of an Aristotelian philosophical system as Maimonides was? The more one studies Torah the more one realizes that Judaism is less focused on theories than in the practical. It is incredibly down to earth. Of course that can be inconvenient.  It is easier to simply cry out ‘I Believe’ and them carry on acting as though the words mean nothing. Doing, behaving is far more difficult.

Even someone who loves philosophy as I do recognizes the limits of philosophy and how little it currently contributes to the religious life. It has become an academic exercise.

The rabbis of the Talmud praised study above all else because they argued (or rather hoped) study would lead to teaching and to doing. If it doesn’t then it becomes as abstract and as unimportant as vague theological mantras. But it can develop our brains and our minds and leads us to live lives that are more meaningful and creative. It puts us in close contact with the great spirits and minds who founded and sustained our religion these past three thousand years. What a patrimony. What a heritage. And it helps us deal with those small minds who claim to speak in the name of our religion because study enables to see there are and always have been other points of view and other ways of expressing our religion. Study liberates us from our reliance on clerics. It frees us to think for ourselves.

So on Shavuot we do not celebrate our theology. We celebrate study. Torah.

Refuah Sheleyma