Tag Archives: Shavuot

A Jewish approach to this moment

Next Friday, JCRC will be closed as Jewish communities around the world celebrate Shavuot. We will retell and re-live the experience of Moses ascending Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments. The week leading up to Shavuot is the final week of the Omer, the intentional counting of the 49 individual days and the full seven weeks from the Passover Seder until this holy day.

This year, for nearly all of us, these seven weeks (and then some) have been spent sheltering at home. It seems almost impossible that we will now mark our second major Jewish holiday season without congregating in person for Torah reading, or for the recitation of our Yizkor memorial service. Counting the Omer has been very much on my mind this week as I’ve been immersed in the public discourse about physical distancing, government health directives, and personal sacrifices. Governors and mayors are easing restrictions. Here in Massachusetts, we now have guidance on safety protocols for re-opening Houses of Worship. While that guidance that has been criticized by some, we at JCRC recognize the multiple pressures facing our Governor and appreciate his efforts to provide guidelines for our safety.

Across the nation, even as a wide majority of Americans continue to support the difficult sacrifices of physically distancing, there is tension and debate regarding the balancing of constitutional rights, personal freedom, and collective safety. This plays out in ways both large and small as when some people refuse to practice basic measures like mask wearing in public spaces.

These debates about freedom and collective responsibility evoke the connection between our holidays. 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 establishment 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.”

In the connection between Passover and Shavuot, we see values and ideas upheld and articulated, not in opposition to each other, but rather in conversation. These values – freedom and social order –each can be of greater import to us at any given moment. But neither is fully realized without its relationship to the other.

It is within this notion that we have an opportunity to offer a deeply Jewish approach to engaging the complexity of this moment. We must insist on having a society that prizes freedoms – enshrined in our constitution - including of assembly and worship. At the same time, with those freedoms come the responsibility of building a collective social well-being, both through laws and through our individual responsibility.

We can choose, as every Jewish denomination and nearly every synagogue in America has, to see state and local directives as a baseline, not a ceiling, for the precautions we take in gathering and protecting all of us, especially the most vulnerable among us.

We can choose to embrace masks, not just because of local civil directives, but as a way of saying to our neighbors that we are ultimately interconnected, responsible to each other and for each other’s health and well-being.

We can choose to take these steps and others, not as a way of winning a fight between left and right but rather as an articulation that we are, still, one society. We can affirm that citizenship in that society means valuing and living within the dynamic tension between personal freedom and collective social order and responsibility.

The journey in the wilderness formed the Jewish people. So too will we be transformed as a nation, as we journey from what we were before this pandemic to what we will be when it is over. Our Jewish tradition, and the days and weeks we’ve been counting off while sheltering at home, have something to teach us about the kind of society we are striving to shape.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

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

No Siloes at Sinai

It seems trite at this point to observe that, lately, every challenge rapidly descends into bickering for partisan ideological gain. To cite just one example in the Jewish community: There are many forms of anti-Semitism that are on the rise, from both the left and from the right, driven by many factors including anti-Israelism and American nativism. These challenge and threaten us all. Can’t we agree that rather than diluting our efforts by demonizing other Jews with whom we differ ideologically, we are best served by working as one against anti-Semitism in all its forms? Sadly, apparently not.

This is part and parcel of the broader divisions that are fracturing our political and civic discourse. Polling and public surveys consistently identify increased ideological sorting and social separation.

There is less and less ideological overlap between those who identify as Democrat and those who identify as Republican. Intense partisan animosities have grown to the point where large numbers of Americans believe that those who identify with the party other than their own are “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” We are more likely to choose our home communities and our closest friends based on shared political views. And, we’re becoming more predictable in our partisan divisions across multiple issues.

These behaviors, and others, make it increasingly impossible to find common ground. It becomes more inevitable by the day that every concern and challenge will devolve into ideological and partisan brow-beating.

This weekend Jews around the world will celebrate Shavuot, marking the experience at Mount Sinai. For me, this celebration reminds us of a Jewish way of thinking about our times - an approach that invites and challenges us to bridge the ideological gap between competing values and ideas.

Shavuot is a holiday that sits in direct relationship with Passover, some seven weeks earlier. They are connected in Jewish tradition by a period of time called the Omer with its own rituals for marking the connection between these two celebrations and their core themes.  

Passover represents freedom, the individual liberty from the tyranny of slavery in Egypt. Shavuot is the establishment of law. This weekend we celebrate the presentation of a social contract between the Divine Being 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 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.”

This is our approach: Two values, freedom and order, not in opposition to each other, but rather in conversation. Our competing values live in dynamic tension. Each may be of greater import to many of us – some or all of the time. But neither is fully developed without its relationship to the other.

So too, we may offer a different and deeply Jewish approach to our ideologically siloed and divided society: To resist the temptation to define competing values as necessarily 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 begin the work of a renewed society, enriched by all our members, informed by all our ideas, walking together on a path to a greater future.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Jeremy