Shavuot and “Embracing the holy space”

This weekend we, the “People of the Book,” will mark the giving of said Book. Jews around the world will celebrate Shavuot, as we retell the experience of Moses ascending Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments.

For me, one of the most powerful aspects of this holiday is that it does not stand alone, but rather, it exists in direct relationship with Passover, exactly seven weeks earlier. And in that relationship comes an idea about the dynamic tension between values that is relevant to our times.

Passover celebrates our individual freedom, our liberty from the tyranny of slavery in Egypt. Shavuot marks the establishment of a collective law. This weekend, we celebrate the presentation of a social contract between the Divine and the People, but also – and more importantly – among the people. And these holidays are connected because the gift of freedom is incomplete without the gift of law.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, explains it thus:

“If freedom means only that I can do what I want, then my freedom will inevitably conflict with yours. If I am free to steal, you are not free to own...That is why Judaism sees the exodus as the beginning, not the end, of the journey to freedom. The culmination came in the giving of the Law. The biblical vision is of a society in which no one will be at the mercy of others. Its rules and institutions aim at creating a social order of independent human beings linked by bonds of kinship and compassion...The freedom to do what we want creates individuals. It does not create a free society.”

The idea of values that are incomplete without each other, and that are enriched in dynamic relationship to each other, is a theme of several books I’ve had the opportunity to read this past year; books that are deeply relevant to the challenges we face. Yascha Mounk, in The People Vs. Democracy, explores the dual threats of undemocratic liberalism and of illiberal democracy. Both tendencies, when implemented to excess, pose a risk to our civil society. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind explores another set of tensions – the moral values that compete within us and within societies to inform our politics. He examines the multiple foundations of human morality, and makes the case that by recognizing these foundations, we can become more open to other points of view.

In our Book and these books, as in the connection between Passover and Shavuot, we see values and ideas held and articulated, not in opposition to each other, but rather in conversation. Each value or idea – freedom and order, liberalism and democracy, fairness and loyalty (two of the six values that Haidt enumerates) – may be of greater import to many of us some or all of the time. But none is fully developed without its relationship to the other(s).

And it is within this notion that we have an opportunity to offer a deeply Jewish approach to our ideologically siloed and divided society: To resist the temptation to define competing values as opposing ones. And to refuse to be bullied into rejecting the concerns and beliefs of those with whom we disagree solely because they identify elsewhere on the ideological spectrum.

Rather, we can insist that what are defined as ‘their’ values and ‘our’ values, ‘their’ ideas and ‘our’ ideas, exist in dynamic tension and conversation with each other. We can promote a radical idea – to hold the center and honor the whole – by embracing the holy space between competing ideas, beliefs, and values.

Together, as the People did in the wilderness as they journeyed from the split sea to Sinai, we can do the work of building communities enriched by all our members, informed by all our ideas, walking together on a path through the desert and toward a greater future.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Jeremy