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What’s Your Shavuot Celebration Like?

by Shmuel Rosner

June 3, 2014 | 3:37 am

Photo by Reuters/Todd Korol

Did you notice the fact that the Torah – the Torah! – isn't mentioned at all in the vast Pew study of Jewish Americans, except for three times in small-letter endnotes? The day of Shavuot, which we mark tomorrow, is also missing from the report, except for one negligible mention, when the researchers inform the reader that no phone calls to Jews were made on Passover and Shavuot. Mount Sinai is not mentioned in the report. Moses isn't there. The Mishna and the Talmud – not there. Maybe it is reasonable to study the state of current Judaism without ever mentioning the Torah. But I'm not sure it is.

When the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys studied Israeli Judaism for The AVI CHAI–Israel Foundation, the issue of "Torah" was raised more than once. About "two-thirds reported a strong belief in the unique character of the Jewish people and the Torah" in that report. 69% of Israelis believe that the "Torah and precepts are God-given". This is up from 63% of Israeli Jews in 1991 and in 1999. In the study "more than two-thirds of Israeli Jews say that it is 'very important' or 'important' to study Tanakh (Bible), Talmud, and other Jewish classical texts". Apparently, it is important enough to be studied by Jews, but not always important enough to be studied by those who study the practices, habits, and beliefs of American Jews.

Shavuot is the day in which we celebrate the giving of the Torah. Pew teaches us that "U.S. Jews see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry, culture and values than of religious observance". Fine. Do "ancestry, culture and values" have anything to do with the study of Torah? I assume they do, even though Pew doesn’t address this question.

Compare that with the much more detailed answer on Jewish practices in the Israeli study: A majority of Israeli Jews (85%) say that it is “important” or “very important” for them to celebrate Jewish holydays in the traditional manner; even more (90%) say this about the Passover seder. Many (82%) say that they light Hanukkah candles “always” or “frequently,” but a smaller percentage refrain from eating hametz (bread) on Passover (67%), fast on Yom Kippur (68%), listen to the public reading of the Megillah (Book of Esther) on Purim (36%), or take part in an all-night study session on Shavuot (20%)".

The Shavuout all-night study session is an Israeli wonder. It is a relatively new invention – not the all-nighter, but rather the all-nighter-aimed-at-broader-public-consumption. 20% was the answer when the study took place in 2009. I wonder what the percentage would be like today – as the Shavuot study is a custom that's growing fast and is turning into a unique Israeli celebration of a once-neglected holiday. Maybe it's 30%? Could it possibly be more? The night of study is still far from reaching its full potential, but it is becoming the symbol of the day – its core activity.

It is a curious transition that Israel has gone through with Shavuot: once upon a time, when the country was still heavily influenced by its agricultural pioneers and their emphasis on agricultural season-cycle, Shavuot was the highpoint of celebrating the recently acquired and conquered land. The first fruit ceremony in agricultural communities was the markedly Israeli way of celebrating it – while the celebration of Torah was confined to Orthodox communities. But as the years pass, as Israel becomes less agricultural and much more urban, as the miracle of having a Jewish-owned land no longer leaves us in awe, and as Israel also changes demographically, the context of Israel's Shavuot festivities changes. From a celebration of agriculture and Jewish farming, the holiday has changed into a celebration of Jewish text and culture. A celebration of Torah – but not in the religious sense. All around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and many other cities, people gather to hear popular speakers on Jewish themes, listen to music, study, schmooze, flirt, pray, walk around. Many of them move from one place to the other, from a community center to a synagogue, from a Conservative shul to an Orthodox setting. They sit through a lecture about Kabbalah and then sing along with an Israeli rock star.

If Yom Kippur is the day of the individual (and his bicycle), and Passover is the day of the family, Shavuot is the day of Israeli Jewish culture. Here's one reason why this is important: In the Guttman study, while a majority talked about the importance of studying Jewish texts, "only a minority of respondents reported that they themselves have a “great” or “fairly great” interest in topics related to the Jewish religion, in studying classical Jewish texts from books or on the Internet, in manifestations of Judaism in music, or in New Age, spiritualism, or mysticism". Shavuot is the way for the majority of believers in the importance of study, and the minority who actually do study, to come closer to it – by turning the study of Torah to a "practice" and even a "celebration". Shavuot is the occasion; the all-nighter is the celebration. On Shavuot Israelis don't exactly study – they do. Seeing this habit grow will make you an optimist, at least for one full night.

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