As part of God’s promise that He would scatter Jews throughout the Diaspora (Deuteronomy 31 and 32), there was the mysterious notion that they would then serve as a barometer of their host country’s spiritual state. Spain’s golden age, for instance, was reflected by the religious devotion of Spanish Jewry. In contrast, the decadence of Weimar Germany could be measured by the assimilated and religiously alienated German Jewish community.
One convenient way of measuring the spiritual state of my community, and thereby that of America, happens now to present itself. As I write, Holocaust Remembrance Day is two weeks past, and in two weeks time it will be the holiday of Shavuot.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day synagogues, temples, and Jewish community centers around the country were besieged by crowds. Yet Jewish community centers and even many temples will all but ignore Shavuot, sometimes called the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost.
For all the unspeakable horror it commemorates, Holocaust Remembrance Day is nonetheless a recent addition to the calendar. To Jews, whose collective memory goes back well over 3,000 years and who sadly mourn many hideous periods of terror, Holocaust Remembrance Day has hardly blipped onto our radar screen. Still, it attracts crowds. Yet Shavuot—the day on which God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai and gave His people the Torah 3,306 years ago—leaves all but the observant segment of the community quite indifferent.
Shavuot directly affects the daily lives of most Jews. Every circumcision of a Jewish male infant commemorates God’s gift of the Torah, because without it, this procedure would not be so consistently performed on all Jewish males.
Every time a Jew politely declines bacon with his morning eggs, he is commemorating the holiday on which that rule was given, too—Shavuot. Almost every Jewish couple marries “according to the laws of Moses and Israel” and thus also commemorates Shavuot, the day on which those laws were presented.
In spite of all its centrality in the timeless Jewish experience, Shavuot with its three Scriptural references (Leviticus 23, Numbers 28, and Deuteronomy 16) gets trumped by Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Shavuot also gets trumped in popularity by holidays that wouldn’t be celebrated at all were it not for the Bible. For example, many more American Jews celebrate Passover than celebrate Shavuot. Many more Jews celebrate Chanukah than celebrate Shavuot. It is hard to think of a holiday bearing greater Jewish significance than Shavuot; it is also hard to think of a Jewish holiday that gets less attention. For the most part, Shavuot is celebrated chiefly by Orthodox Jews, whereas holidays such as Passover and Chanukah are also celebrated by the more liberal denominations of Judaism such as Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Reconstructionist Judaism.
The reason is that Shavuot is the only Jewish festival possessing not one single symbol. Passover has its matzo or unleavened bread. Chanukah is symbolized by the candle-lighting ceremony each evening. Shavuot, however, is only observed by serious Torah study through the night.
One suspects the greater popularity of other holidays stems from their capacity for being celebrated in a secular and non-threatening way. After all, Holocaust Remembrance Day was established under the entirely secular auspices of the Israeli Parliament on April 12, 1951. It is a day that offers significance and meaning without demanding that anybody evaluate his relationship with God. It doesn’t even demand that anyone recognize or even concede the existence of God. One of the more disturbing themes that has become an occasional part of Holocaust Remembrance Day’s secular liturgy is questioning the very existence of a God who could allow the deaths of so many innocents. Naturally this offends many of us who continue to be inspired by the well-documented accounts of how many millions went to the gas chambers with these words upon their lips: “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
Passover also allows a secular observance. For many American Jews, it has become little more than a family reunion, the dinner table distinguished chiefly by a symbolic box of matzo. The discussion, if it takes place at all, tends to focus on the universal aspects of slavery and suffering, rather than on the Almighty’s role in bringing an end to the tyranny. It is all kept secular and comfortable.
Chanukah also allows a secular expression. Bring light into the world by the symbolic candle lighting, exchange gifts, and cheer the victory against the Greeks. This way, nobody need be disconcerted by thoughts of the religious tension between Athens and Jerusalem. The religious nature of the Macabees’ struggle can be ignored because there are safe symbols that tolerate God-free interpretations.
Shavuot, by contrast, is awkward. There is simply no secular rationale for celebrating it. To participate in a Shavuot observance is to concede that one believes in God and in the Torah that He gave His servant Moses. Unlike Passover, which can be seen as an endorsement of “freedom,” and unlike Chanukah, which can be celebrated as a kind of “Jewish Christmas,” Shavuot presents no option but to celebrate it as the day that God gave us Jews 613 rules to live by. What fun!
Shavuot reminds us to defy the decadent worship of golden calves; it refutes the self-indulgent message of our secular society—”reject authority.” The popular culture champions the rugged individualist who does exactly as he chooses. “Nobody gives me orders,” bellows the hero as he thumps his chest. Shavuot reminds its adherents that with no awareness of authority, and no sense that obedience can be the greatest act of masculine courage, society must crumble.
Perhaps the lack of enthusiasm for Shavuot in the broader Jewish community is indeed a reflection of an American problem. Rejection of Shavuot is rejection of the entire notion that civilization requires each of us to be willing to take orders from someone. A family, a school, a business, and an army also depend on general acceptance of a hierarchy. Yet one of the most conspicuous characteristics of our culture is hatred of hierarchy.
Our hatred has already produced sad results, such as a growing contempt for military virtues. This is a natural consequence of an increasing inability to “take orders,” since all militaries depend on lines of authority and unquestioning obedience. Another result of a population forgetting that greatness can be found in subservience is the deterioration of marriage and families, as men say “No woman is going to tell me what to do.”
When people forget that one can only acquire authority by being able to accept it, the economy also declines. The most important lesson of one’s first job can be learning how to subdue the childish instinct to tell the boss to go jump in the lake.
One of the most conspicuous differences between a nation comfortable in its Judeo-Christian heritage, versus one engaged in a struggle to reject it is how its people accept authority. Do they manufacture bumper stickers that proclaim, “Question authority!” or do they train children to obey parents, students to venerate teachers, husbands to revere their wives, and soldiers to follow their commanders?
Nazi Germany is an example of the dangers of total obedience to orders, but we may have gone too far in the other direction. With no ability to recognize any authority over us, we lose the ability to function in almost every area of civilization. The ability to recognize and live with authority is most reliably nurtured within a religious environment. When a society abolishes its religious underpinnings, one of the first casualties is the ability of its people to accept authority.
The holiday called Shavuot or Pentecost serves as an annual infusion of “authority medicine.” The relative obscurity to which this Jewish holiday has been condemned might just serve as a barometer of something amiss in America.