At Shavuot, every Jew throughout time stands at the foot of Mount Sinai to recive the Torah. That powerful metaphor — passed down from an ancient midrash, or biblical interpretation — should provide every Jew a way to connect with a holiday that re-enacts God’s revelation.
Yet the reality is more nuanced and complicated.
I love the image of all of our souls joined as one community. Yet, as a rabbi who works with Jews who mostly identify as “cultural,” I find myself asking, how do culture Jews — or any who find our Judaism distant or problematic — make meaning of a holiday revolving around the Torah and its laws.
By cultural Jew, I mean non-observant, with an emphasis on attending family gatherings and eating the culinary treats associated with a particular Jewish holiday. Maybe even a focus on our ethical principles. Yet most of the cultural Jews I partner with do not typically celebrate the significance behind key holidays. So, where do the Torah and commandments of God received at Sinai fit into this?
The thing about “cultural Jews” is that they hold so much Jewish pride and identity, whether or not they engage with Jewish law, text or belief in God. They care about the Jewish people and our survival and are willing to uphold the traditions that were passed on to them by the previous generations in their family. They generally do not do participate in organized religion. Yet I would argue that by fighting for Jewish existence, they are demonstrating a level of acceptance of the responsibility of Torah.
Torah is intended for everyone to engage with in their own way. I think about the lessons that children, those with disabilities, or the strangers among us are meant to teach us about the beliefs within Torah. Torah isn’t meant to only be studied. Torah is meant to act as a guide on how to live with ethics, morals and ideals for a highly functional communal society. We are suppossed to ask questions, help one another and give back so that all are cared for. There is a midrash that says everyone heard the Torah in the voice they could understand.
Revelation is still occurring. Jews and those who love them are involved in Jewish values and the tenets of Torah whether they are overtly aware of them or not. Engaging with the truth may not always be the easiest path, yet there is much reward in working towards a better world. Take, for instance, the work Reconstructing Judaism has done on reparations. Engaging with our most pressing problems, facing our shared past: This is what it means to lean in to revelation and live out the moral tenants of Torah and Judaism. On Shavuot, we celebrate that the Torah was given to the Israelite people at Mount Sinai. The act of receiving it can happen at any point for any person. So revelation is not stagnant but rather continual.
The holiday of Shavuot feels deeply in line with Reconstructing Judaism to me. It is up to the Jews and those who love them of the generations present to discover what Torah is revealing for those that are at the “table” today. For some, revelation may come by studying ancient Jewish texts. For others, it may be by working towards freedom in their local communities, current political campaigns or human rights efforts.
All approaches are deeply Jewish, all reveal inner truth, and all work towards a more enlightened world for the communities of which we are a part of.
May Shavuot bring you the experience of revelation that your heart and soul need this year! … And I’ll see you at Sinai!
Rabbi Elyssa Cherney is the founder and CEO of Tacklingtorah. She is a 2018 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.