Religion 101

In a previous blog entry, I commented upon a recent news story involving the cancellation of an Arkansas school district’s elementary school graduation ceremonies in the wake of a local controversy over prayer, which the district had intended to incorporate as part of the official proceedings.

Rather than simply nix the planned prayers, the district instead cancelled the ceremonies altogether. Subsequently, many parents and other local citizens (most of whom were Christian) complained that one person’s objection to the inclusion of a Christian prayer in a public school graduation ceremony had somehow violated their rights en masse.

However, this was not a matter of a minority unfairly overruling a majority (much less of “political correctness” gone overboard), but a simple and straightforward matter of constitutional legality.

Even if an overwhelming majority of the community was in favor of the school district conducting prayers as part of its graduation ceremonies, the wishes of the majority were not even a factor in this case. Public schools are part of the state, and as such must remain religiously neutral themselves. The principle of “separation of church and state” means that state-run public schools may not conduct prayers, or otherwise favor, support, endorse, or advocate for religion.

This sort of squabble is by no means an isolated instance. Unfortunately, public schools — which, by their very nature, must be secular rather than religious institutions — are all too often the locus of similar violations of church/state separation.

Next case in point: just a few days ago, an Oklahoma high school removed from its classroom walls approximately 100 plaques bearing the Ten Commandments. Those plaques had long adorned the walls of most of the classrooms within the state-run public school, in effect expressing a clearly unconstitutional endorsement or advancement of religion (insofar as the Ten Commandments are clearly religious in nature), until a student at this high school recently objected to their presence.

Rather than risk a lawsuit, the school administration removed the plaques. Of course, while this may have avoided costly legal proceedings, it could not avoid raising the ire of many in the community, who took this entire episode as just another outrageous anti-Christian swipe, rather than what it was: an upholding of constitutional law, and the preservation of the secular nature of state-run public schools.

The fact that two high-profile news stories revolving around such violations of church/state separation in our public schools recently appeared within days of each other merely serves to underscore the fact that these sorts of misunderstandings and skirmishes are still anything but rare.




This Sunday (May 19) is the Christian holiday known as Pentecost, widely regarded by many believers as marking the actual birth or nativity of the church.

Pentecost commemorates the descent of, and the manifestation among Christ’s apostles, of the Holy Spirit (one of the three divine Persons of the holy Trinity, which along with the Father and the Son together comprise the triune God of Christianity).

The term pentecost is Greek for “fiftieth,” and signifies the fact that this particular holy day falls upon the fiftieth day following Easter Sunday, the holiday celebrating Christ’s resurrection (with Easter itself counting as “day one” of the fifty-day countdown). Like Easter, Pentecost is also always on a Sunday.

According to the New Testament book known as Acts of the Apostles, it was while celebrating the Jewish holiday of Shavuot that a number of Christ’s disciples suddenly and vividly experienced the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

One outward manifestation of this “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (as it came to be known) was the phenomenon of glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” According to Acts, this particular “gift of the Spirit” resulted in the disciples spontaneously and miraculously preaching the gospel in a variety of diverse foreign languages.

Today, this phenomenon or practice of glossolalia remains linked with the modern Pentecostal movement, current since the early 20th century within contemporary evangelical Christianity.

Different Christian denominations place varying degrees of emphasis upon observing Pentecost. For some, it is celebrated as a major feast day; for others, it receives less attention than other major Christian holidays (and some seem to virtually ignore it).




At sunset yesterday (Tuesday, May 14), Jews worldwide began the Jewish holiday festival of Shavuot (pronounced “shav-oo-OT”), otherwise known as the Feast of Weeks.

Shavout is traditionally both an agricultural harvest festival (originally dating back to when the first fruits of the harvest season were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as sacrificial offerings before the God of Israel), as well as a later commemoration of the giving of the Torah (Teaching, Instruction, Law) from God to Moses and to Israel as a whole at Mount Sinai, following the exodus of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The Hebrew term shavuot literally means “weeks,” and refers to the fact that the Shavuot festival occurs seven weeks after Passover. The Jewish holiday of Pesach (or Passover) celebrates the exodus, while Shavuot celebrates the subsequent receipt of the Torah.

Why does Shavuot, like all Jewish holidays, begin and end at sunset? Judaism traditionally reckons a “day” as technically beginning not at 12:00 midnight, nor at dawn, but instead at sunset. Shavuot therefore began at sunset yesterday (May 14). It is traditionally observed by Jews in Israel, and by Reform Jews everywhere, for one day (concluding at sunset today, May 15), but by other Jews outside of Israel for two days (concluding therefore at sunset tomorrow, May 16).

Shavuot always begins on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. However, that fixed starting date of 6 Sivan on the Jewish religious calendar does not always coincide with May 14 on the secular Western (or “Gregorian”) calendar.

The traditional Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, which means that it counts and calculates its lunar months somewhat differently from how the widely-used Gregorian calendar (which is a solar calendar) reckons its own months. This means that there is a certain amount of built-in “drift,” from year to year, between the two calendars.

Last year, for instance, Shavuot (always 6 Sivan on the Hebrew calendar) began at sunset on May 26, 2012. Next year, by contrast, Shavuot will begin at sunset on June 3, 2014.

Some Jewish holidays are regarded as “working” holidays (work being permitted upon them), whereas other Jewish holidays are considered to be “non-working” holidays (during which work should be avoided; in a few cases, work may be permitted but only with certain restrictions).

For instance, the Jewish holiday of Chanukah (or Hanukkah), familiar to many non-Jews because of its proximity to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, is a working holiday. Chanukah runs for eight days, during which time work is permitted, except on the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) which falls within that eight-day period.

Shavuot, by contrast, is a non-working holiday, meaning that no work (that is, no “work” as defined by the Torah) is permitted during its duration.

In addition to avoiding work and partaking in festive holiday meals and synagogue prayer services, traditional Shavuot observance typically also involves reading special liturgical poetry, eating special dairy foods, overnight Torah study, and a reading of the Book of Ruth.

So, to all of my Jewish friends and readers around the globe, may I today wish you a Chag Sameach (Hebrew for “Happy Holiday”)!