Idol Chatter

While it isn’t as popular as Chanukah or Passover, the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks, which counts the weeks between Passover and this holiday), which Jews celebrated this week, represents what I think are some of the best parts of Jewish observance and peoplehood.
Refreshingly, the holiday is not based on the theme of persecution, but on the event of the Jewish people receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai, essentially binding them as more than just ex-slaves, but as a people with a code. The event itself was a sound-and-light show-style spectacular so intense that the people, quaking with fear at the awesomeness of it all, convinced Charlton Heston – oops, I meant Moses – to go get the law from God instead of subjecting themselves to more of God’s powerful presentation.
The reason for the dairy products – in the form of cheese, blintzes, cheesecake, anything that would make a lactose intolerant person shudder – is logistical: it comes from the understanding that before the Torah was given, the Jewish people lacked the knowledge of the laws of kashrut, of what kinds of animals were kosher enough to be eaten. Dairy was the default, the type of cuisine not governed by intensive rules, and long story short – this holiday is now brought to you by Lactaid.
In contemporary times, this celebration of receipt of the Torah translates into a night of study known in some communities as “tikkun leil Shavuot.” These study sessions – usually running all night, bring Jews together for community study. Sessions are usually varied in terms of topic and presenters, and are punctuated by coffee and cheesecake breaks. In more liberal communities, presenters may not even be rabbis, men and women may sit together, and people of all backgrounds and from a range of educational levels mix as equals, studying the texts and issues that they are presented with.
This inclusivity of souls is also an argument for a “bigger tent” style approach to defining the Jewish people, inclusive of converts, like this holiday’s patron non-saint, Ruth the Moabite. Ruth famously left her people to be with her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth’s centrality in the Jewish tradition is without question – she becomes the ancestor of one of Israel’s most important kings and poets, King David.

Reflecting this year during Jewish Heritage Month, I realize that it’s often at Shavuot that I feel the notion of nationhood most acutely, being around my peers in a self-selecting classroom unlike the learning environments I experienced in school. We are all there because we want to learn with and from each other. I view this as a logical extension of the midrash (Jewish legend) that all Jewish souls – past, present and future – were metaphysically present at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Two of my friends in Los Angeles are studying for conversion to Judaism, and are dipping enthusiastically into the vast pool of knowledge that is Jewish thought, philosophy, custom, law and literature.
On Shavuot, Jews once again huddle around a metaphorical Mount Sinai, a little afraid of what we’ll find, but willing to stand side-by-side as we gaze on the innermost structure of our faith and peoplehood. Besides, with all that nationdom and peoplehood, we’re sure to find someone who brought a spare Lactaid pill.

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