What a strange Shavuot this is! Many will gather at their local Zoom-Shul to celebrate the festival of first harvest and the historical linkage of the “revelation” at Sinai. There is that tradition that we were all, in some symbolic way, at Sinai and thus linked in history to each other. This of course, opens up the rather interesting debate on the historicity of the Divine Revelation; if it was just the 10 Commandments (and thus we read these during services), the whole Torah, or is this some symbolic re-interpretation by Priestly editors and redactors to underscore the power and position of God? This debate continues, but it is not the thought for now.
The Sinai story discusses the physical covenant. The people were gathered to hear the Word. Let me suggest that for us today, the idea of our spiritual covenant may be more valuable. The diversity of the Jewish community ( a good thing) is part of the reason we have survived. The growing acceptance of diverse communities within the Covenant is also a sign of this diversity. The spiritual diversity that is being seen now is also a sign of the on-going creativity and dynamism that Judaism portrays. The development of the concept of the “Oral Law”, is crucial to this. Judaism, in my view, knew that it had to constantly be open to new ideas and systems. The Diaspora, with its diversity, brought to diverse Jewish communities challenges and opportuntiies that, if not met, would spell decline and disaster–and we have had enough challenges from ruling authorites in our history! This idea of being open to adapt and change how we saw sacred texts has been one of the saving aspects of Jewish life. We see this today in the pandemic. New rituals are being created. Halacha is being re-evaluated to meet the challenges of the pandemic; from permission to use electronic means for worship on festivals and Shabbat to the practices of a chevra kaddish, and more. To survive, we Jews have learrned that we have to adapt to our surroundings and, on occasion, innovate new forms of Jewish life. A phrase from one of my HUC professors many years ago keeps popping up. “There is no such thing as Judaism, rather, there are Judaisms”
An interesting insight to this can be seen in an essay on TheTorah.com by Rabbi David D. Steinberg “Why ‘Our” Torah”? He compares the Torah blessing which says “who has given us His Torah” to the Festival Amidah (Shavuot) blessing which says “our Torah”. Indeed, we will see in the services for Shavuot the Hebrew phrase “z’man matan torah’teinu”–the time of te giving of our Torah. Our Torah, I suggest, speaks to the very powerful meaning that we are given the permission, the power, the responsibility to adapt that Torah for “our” times. This is, I suggest, a spiritual covenant that links us from generation to generation. The right to interpret and adapt is a sacred duty, it is not “what ever I want, whenever I want it”. Rather, we adapt and challenge based on our own spiritual histories. The dynamism has hel;ed us survive and has opened the “tent of meeting” to new ideas, communities and possibilities. And may it continue to be so.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Richard F Address