Receiving the Torah: Contemporary Resources for Shavuot

Shavuot is also known as Chag Matan Torah, the holiday of receiving the Torah. Traditionally, the Written Law and Oral Law were seen as one, but in the modern age, the prominence of the Oral Law has waned in secular Jewish communities. If secular Israelis have lost the connection to this trove of their cultural heritage, they are beginning to reappropriate it in many creative, personal, and meaningful ways. Please see some of these ways below.

INTRODUCTION

“Where were you just before Shavuot 3,323 years ago? You probably don’t remember—truthfully, neither do I, but according to Jewish tradition we were standing together at the foot of a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula known as either Sinai or Horeb—a mountain whose location is unknown today. Tradition says that at that time, not only were the newly released slaves from Egypt there but they were accompanied by the souls of all Israelites that would be born in the future.”

– Rabbi Reuven Hammer

Shavuot is celebrated as an agricultural holiday, but more importantly, as Zman Matan Torateinu (זמן מתן תורתינו, “The Time of the Giving of Our Torah”) at Mt. Sinai. It's a tradition that started after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE when making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and when bringing the bikkurim (ביכורים, “first fruits of the harvest”)  was no longer possible.

The holiday is called the Time of the Giving of the Torah, rather than the Time of the Receiving of the Torah. This is because, according to the sages, we receive the Torah every day.

Many observant Jews throughout the centuries have received the Torah every day. They did so at home as a part of daily Jewish life and ritual in yeshivas, schools, studying the daf yomi (דף יומי, “daily Talmud page”), observing mitzvot, and keeping Shabbat.

In the modern era, around the world and especially in Israel, a shift occurred, and this practice was abandoned. Cultural and secular Jews alike have not received the Torah every day for quite a while. In Israel, where two-thirds of the population is secular, Torah and Bible have been taught in state schools as historic and literary text and the Oral Law has been silenced. Many scholars, sociologists, and educators have been pondering why and how this shift happened. But there has been a recent shift back. 

FROM RUTH TO RUTH

During Shavuot we read the Scroll of Ruth, the Moabite who followed her mother-in-law to Judea declaring “thy people shall be my people and thy God my God” (Ruth:1:16). In the present day, Ruth Calderon (a former Knesset member and long time Talmudic scholar, educator, and trailblazer) followed her heart. Calderon delved into the world of Torah and Talmud to become a leading force behind a renaissance of Jewish and Hebrew culture in Israel. Founder of Alma, Home for Hebrew Culture, and Elul, Israel’s first joint Beit Midrash for men and women, religious and secular, her inaugural speech in the Knesset went viral:

VISUAL MIDRASH

The giving of the Law at Sinai, a central event in Israel's history, is described in half a dozen places in the Torah–each description is a fragment of a bigger puzzle. Even when put together, these fragments do not add up to a unified picture. Perhaps the very nature of the event calls for multiple views: multiple views in the text produce multiple views in art.

Michael Sgan-Cohen: Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey

Torah With a Twist

Artists examine their relationship and affinity with Judaism by presenting us with their versions of Torah Scroll covers and a hands-on interaction with an actual biblical text.

Ken Goldman: Torah mantle

Ken Goldman’s Torah mantle imprinted with red lipstick kisses alludes to the custom of kissing the Torah scroll in the synagogue as it is carried from the pulpit, past the congregants, and back again. The comedic element is clear, but beyond that, it also brings attention to (in a traditional synagogue) a woman’s yearning to kiss the Torah scroll since they are only permitted to peek at it from behind the partition.

Arik Weiss: Torah case

Arik Weiss’ Torah case, from the collection of the Museum of Art in Ein Harod, is bound with masking tape and bearing the biblical quote “thou shalt adhere to Him.”

The roll of tape–a prosaic article in daily life–has been attached to the sacred text, binding the Torah scroll and creating a metaphor for adherence (in both senses: “devotion” and “sticking,” as in “adhesive”) and yearning, which can also lead to shrinking away, withdrawal and even strangulation.

Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design

At the Bezalel Academy, an artist who was pregnant at the time, depicts Torah scroll covers in a personal and intimate way–pregnant with meaning.

Dov Abramson

In conjunction with Hagar in the Desert at the CJM in San Francisco, artist Dov Abramson invited visitors to participate in completing the text covering Hagar’s story, the Torah portion Lech Lecha.

Interested in the mitzvah (commandment) derived from the Torah that states “Every person must write a Torah scroll,” Abramson provided the outline of the letters of Lech Lecha from the Book of Genesis in an installation on the first floor of the Museum. Visitors to the Museum, and now at home, could fill in these letters alluding to the fulfillment of the mitzvah.

MUSICAL MUSINGS

Kobi Oz: “Prayer of the Secular”

In “Psalms for the Perplexed,” Kobi Oz, the former lead singer/songwriter for TeaPacks, brings us the fruits of his engagement with Jewish text and practice. “I feel like a fish that spent its entire life in an aquarium and has suddenly discovered the sea.”

Ehud Banai: “Golden Calf”

Ehud Banai, one of the leading musicians that incorporates traditional Middle Eastern motifs into Western rock music, alludes in his lyrics to biblical subjects and Jewish prayers. His song “Golden Calf” illuminates the terrible sin of creating the golden idol from a surprising point of view–the people who are gathered at Mt. Sinai feeling abandoned by their leader.