January 23, 2019

The holiday of diaspora Jewry — a suggestion

Shavuot — the Feast of the Weeks — is a modest holiday. It is one of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals, though not as central and celebrated as the two others — Passover and Sukkot. Content-wise, it is a classic Jewish combination of agriculture and theology. It marks the all-important wheat harvest in the Land of Israel (Exodus 34:22), and it commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah — or, more accurately, the Ten Commandments — to the entire nation of Israel assembled at the bottom of Mount Sinai. Its timing stems directly from that of Passover; the holiday’s name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” and it marks the completion of seven weeks of counting in the wake of Passover. According to Jewish mythology, the people of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh on Passover. Seven weeks later, on Shavuot, God gave them the Torah, making them a nation committed to serving God.

Shavuot also tends to be less celebrated than other major Jewish holy days, except by more observant Jews. Nonetheless, it has potential for more, and I would suggest it’s time to rebrand it as the holiday for Diaspora Jewry. In an era when our society is no longer bound by the cycles of agriculture, and the Bikkurim ceremony (the offering of first fruits to God) has become mostly obsolete, it is Shavuot’s spiritual and theological components that remain compelling. And the Ten Commandments given on this very day, according to our tradition, remain relevant in modern times. The holiday and the commandments together offer a profound alternative to the current Diaspora identity.  

There is no doubt that the State of Israel was, for decades, the center of gravity for many of the Jewish people. But now, almost seven decades after the establishment of the Jewish state, Israel’s attraction — its magnetism —  has dimmed somewhat. Many studies show that fewer Jews in the Diaspora are committed to the well-being of Israel than was the case just a few decades ago. And younger Jews are even less bound to it. There are many explanations for this phenomenon — differences in value systems, cultural divergences and, perhaps, disparate political priorities. 

But there is something that connects us: The Ten Commandments are the only body of text in the Torah explicitly given by God. We love quoting the values named therein: Observe the Sabbath; respect our parents and the sanctity of life (“Thou shalt not kill”). In these commandments, we feel an intimacy between God and us, particularly through the directly personal and unique language of “thou” and “thy.” But the most interesting content of the commandments is not named. This God-given constitutional covenant, the nucleus of Judaism, never names the Holy Land or the temple; there is no shrine or Kohanim (priests), not even a kingdom or sovereignty or government. The Ten Commandments are an abstract set of rules, with no grounding in institutions. 

Why is that? 

If we travel back in time, we are reminded that the revelation at Sinai occurred just seven weeks after the miracle of the Exodus. From the top of the mountain, God, via Moses, proposed to the people a far-reaching, comprehensive alternative to the “Egyptianism” they had just escaped. The Egypt of the Bible is the embodiment of top-down tyranny. At Sinai, God offers an alternative, a bottom-up political philosophy of everything that is not Egyptian: No central government. No single ruler. No state-enforcing institutions. No privileged classes, not even sacred social strata. The new nation is a liberated one, based on the individual (thou). It consists of many individuals inspired by the eternal call of freedom: “Let my people go.” 

Every member of the new nation is equal to the others, and the heck with any human despotism. And as such, this ancient text is a timeless stand against any manifestation of Egyptianism, by any people, us included. 

The current, third Jewish commonwealth, the Israel of today, is fully defined by land and government, religious institutions and privileged classes. And that is one of the main reasons it no longer is the defining connector of the Jewish Diaspora. Diaspora Judaism today is a totally different Jewish corpus of ideas and content than in Israel. It is almost a different Judaism, much closer to the original version of Sinai. 

Diaspora Judaism celebrates the individual, and in that, Shavuot is its most representative holiday. 

Chag sameach.

Avraham Burg is an Israeli author and social activist, a former speaker of the Knesset and former chairman of The Jewish Agency.