Forward Thinking

Can Washington D.C. Save This Rare Synagogue Mural?

By Michael Kaminer

Washington’s Synagogue Mural / Jewish Historical Society

Stephanie Slewka was peeling layers of paint and plaster from her just-purchased house in downtown Washington, D.C. when she spied a blue patch — unusual in the mildewy mess of browns and beiges. Removing a few more gunky strata revealed a Star of David. And tearing off even more exposed an arc of Hebrew letters across a sky-blue background speckled with stars. “We didn’t know what it meant, but it seemed awfully cool,” she told the Forward.

The artwork turned out to be a 1920s mural commissioned by Shomrei Shabbos, an Orthodox congregation that occupied the house in the early 20th century. To understand its history, Slewka called on the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. To restore it, she tapped local artist Nicholas Kahn, who also added a Venice-inspired winged lion. And so the non-Jewish homeowner became the unlikely guardian of a rare and valuable piece of the region’s Jewish history. “It just became part of the house,” Slewka said.

That was 1993. Now, ten years after Slewka sold the house, the mural is facing a new threat to its survival. A developer plans to convert the house to condominiums. And the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is mounting a last-ditch effort to save the artwork, believed to be the only surviving synagogue mural in Washington.

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Why Bother Playing Gaza Rocket Blame Game?

By Nathan Jeffay

Man walks by rocket shelter in Israeli town of Sderot / Getty Images

Responding to the new Palestinian unity government yesterday, Israel decided that it will start holding the Palestinian Authority responsible for rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

The security cabinet resolved unanimously to “hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for all actions that harm the security of Israel which originate in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.” In other words, all terror from the West Bank and Gaza will be blamed on the Palestinian Authority.

Jerusalem’s perspective is that this is a logical position now that there’s a Hamas-backed government in the Palestinian Authority. Until now, it blamed Hamas for all terror emanating from Gaza, even if it didn’t launch the rockets.

This Israeli position sounds dramatic, but it is unclear where its real significance lies. Is this just a declarative position, meaning that Israel will point its finger at Ramallah each time a rocket lands near Sderot? Currently, Israel’s response to rockets is standard — it hits terror infrastructure in Gaza with air strikes. It is hardly going to start striking sites in the West Bank in response, and is hardly going to remove the deterrent of strikes in Gaza. The bottom line is that Israel’s reaction to rocket attacks will be exactly the same.

But perhaps the security cabinet declaration constitutes a veiled morsel of optimism from Israel regarding the unity deal — that perhaps the formation of the unity government could actually lead to restraint in the Gaza Strip and could lead to the quieting of rocket launchers. This is against every ideological inclination of the Israeli government, but could represent its practical thinking.


News Quiz: The Rolling Stones Rock and Chubby Checker

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images: Alfred ‘Chuck’ Leavell, keyboard player for The Rolling Stones, puts a note into the Western Wall in the old city.

Chubby Checker, ultra-Orthodox rabbis and The Rolling Stones reunite for their farewell tour! Ok, so maybe they just unite as part of this week’s news quiz.

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King Juan Carlos Gone — Can Sephardic Jews Still Return?

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Spain’s King Juan Carlos / Getty Images

If Juan Carlos didn’t entirely reconcile Spain and the Sephardic Jews, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

The Spanish king announced his abdication this morning, 39 years into a reign that stands both as an argument for monarchy and an argument against it.

Lionized for shepherding Spain through its democratic transition in the 1970s, Juan Carlos has seen his approval ratings crater as scandals and economic crisis have eroded faith in the Spanish monarchy.

To many Sephardic Jews, the king was not only a symbol of Spain’s resurgent democracy, but of the country’s efforts to atone for the anti-Jewish sins of its past, however ham-fisted some of those efforts turned out to be.

It’s safe to say that, from a Sephardic perspective, Juan Carlos was the best Spanish king in over half a millennium. An heir to the throne of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who expelled Spain’s Jews in 1492, Juan Carlos asserted that their descendants remained a part of Spain. In 1992, the king attended a ceremony at Madrid’s main synagogue, a symbolically weighty moment in a country that actively persecuted hidden Jews for centuries.

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Israeli Rabbinate Should Learn From Shavuot Heroine

By Pesach Sommer

Russian immigrants to Israel / Courtesy of Alona Sibuk

Her story is well known. She came from a foreign land where she lived like a princess. Despite a very questionable connection to Judaism, she chose to follow her mother-in-law to Israel. There, she lived in abject poverty, getting by only by taking charity. Even when she found a kind stranger to help her, there were those who continued to doubt whether she belonged in Israel, and tried to prevent her from getting married.

Her name is Irina, Svetlana or Marissa, and you don’t have to read the Book of Ruth — as Jews around the world will do this week for Shavuot — to know her story and feel for her, her family, and the literally hundreds of thousands of other Russians of Jewish descent who are living in limbo in Israel.

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Want Authentic Shavuot Meals? Try Fruit, Not Dairy

By Sarah Chandler

As a Jewish food educator, I’m often asked for ways to enhance holiday celebrations with authentically themed dishes for the season. What was once a simple plate of apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah becomes a series of prepared desserts featuring these key ingredients. Chanukah gelt can now be acquired with fair trade certification. Vegans can finally enjoy kale challah shipped across the country.

And yet, for Shavuot, folks only want to know about one thing: dairy. Since the majority of elaborate Shabbat and holiday dishes are centered around meat, when it comes time for Shavuot, people think: Finally, an opportunity to plan a delectable dairy meal!

Only problem is, dairy isn’t originally a Shavuot food at all.

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The Shaming of Rabbi Barry Starr

By Adena Cohen-Bearak

Getty Images

I don’t know Rabbi Barry Starr personally, but I don’t like how he is being vilified in the media, most recently in an article in The Forward with the lurid headline “When a Good Rabbi Goes Bad.”

We still don’t know all the facts in this case, and we’ve already found this man guilty in the court of public opinion. I also think there is an important aspect to this case that hasn’t been adequately addressed: the issue of shame.

When I taught sex education way back in the mid-1980s, it was popular when talking about sexuality to describe a continuum of sexuality, also known as the Kinsey Scale. If you imagine a horizontal line, with the words “completely heterosexual” on one end and “completely homosexual” on the other, and then imagine gradations in the middle, you get the idea of the continuum.

The notion was to get people to think about sexuality not as black and white — completely straight or completely gay — but as something that had lots of grays. For example, it is possibly to be sexually attracted to people of your own gender yet not “be gay.” It is possible to identify as gay but also have some sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex. There are lots of variations in-between, and it’s all okay and normal.

Now it’s 30 years later, and we’re still dealing with this. And we’re not dealing with it well.

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How Wily Donald Sterling Beat These 5 Investments

By Dan Burns

Getty Images

(Reuters) — Donald Sterling bought the Los Angeles Clippers for 16 million and is set to sell the team for $2 billion.

That’s a 16,000% return or a lofty 16% a year.

Here’s a look at other investments he could have made at the time, and how much less he would have made.

Stocks

Since the start of 1981, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has risen about 1,315 percent, or 8.4 percent a year.

Including reinvested dividends, the S&P has delivered a total return of 1,509 percent, or 8.8 percent a year.

The Nasdaq Composite Index is up 1,994 percent, or 9.65 percent a year.

Bonds

The Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index has risen 1,385 percent, or 8.5 percent a year.

Gold

Spot gold is up 113 percent, or just 2.3 percent a year.

Wine

Earlier this month, London-based Liv-ex said its Liv-ex Investables Index had gained 1,504 percent, or just under 11 percent a year, since its launch in 1988.

Real estate

New York City real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller says the average Manhattan apartment has gained just 5.75 percent a year in value over the 25 years he has tracked their prices.


Agudath Israel Is Wrong About Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

By Jordan Soffer

Courtesy of Agudath Israel

As I concluded a yearlong course that I have been teaching at a local day school, a student approached me with a concerned look on his face.

“What if I don’t know what my Jewish identity is?” I pushed him to say more. “Well, my parents had the Holocaust, but — I don’t know. I just don’t know what my Jewish identity is.”

Forced to think on my feet, I told him that this is part of the journey. Uncertainly is a prerequisite for growth; through this struggle a clear, focused Jewish identity will emerge. He thanked me and we parted ways.

In the hours since, his question has been replaying in my head. I heard its echo as I listened to the words of Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the rabbinical head of Agudath Israel. Rabbi Perlow bemoaned a Judaism void of meaning; divorced from its core values. He lamented a disintegrating Yiddishkeit. A new generation, he grieved, was coming — one that does not know its roots. We need, Rabbi Perlow claimed, “a Judaism that has a future.”

These words ring true. We must present a Judaism that sings in the hearts of our Jewish brethren. We need, as I told my beloved student, a Torah that embraces all and that speaks to the masses. We need a loving Torah to overflow in this world.

Rabbi Perlow, however, found a false target for his trepidations. He described “a new danger [that] has appeared on the horizon. [One that] seeks to subvert the sacred meaning of Yiddishkeit.” Indeed, he warned, it is “a sakana (danger) to klal yisroel (the Jewish community).”

He was talking about my yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.

And, though his initial concerns spoke to me, by the end of his speech, I had no idea what he was talking about.

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Why Is Avigdor Mad at Bibi?

By Nathan Jeffay

Getty Images

Since Israel’s last general election a year and a half ago, the country’s two most powerful party leaders have exhibited surprisingly good relations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman united their parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, before the election and have surprised observers by keeping them together and getting along relatively well. Netanyahu loyally kept the Foreign Minister post open for him until his legal troubles ended in November.

But all is no longer rosy in paradise. Netanyahu has angered Liberman by backing Likud’s Reuven Rivlin for president. Netanyahu made the move reluctantly, after failing to recruit a candidate he deemed more suitable. His coolness towards Rivlin even prompted him to take the highly unusual step of trying to bring a president from New York, namely Elie Wiesel.

While Rivlin is a staunch rightist, both Netanyahu and Liberman dislike him for various reasons, including his refusal to back certain measures aimed against Israel’s Arab minority. But Netanyahu gave in to pressures from within is party, while Liberman remains opposed — and is left angry at Netanyahu for breaking what he said was an agreement not to back Rivlin.

Under the surface of the Netanyahu-Liberman relationship, they are two men jostling for prominence and fighting for the title of king of the Israeli right. And if Liberman can get ahead by generating a crisis based on Netanyahu’s presidential choices, capitalizing on an accusation that he acted in bad faith, Israel may be in for some political turbulence.


I'm No One's 'Heretic'

By Emily L. Hauser

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow speaks at the Agudath Isael annual gala / YouTube

On Wednesday we learned that, while speaking at a fundraising gala for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of that organization, slandered virtually every Jew on the planet, down to and including a bunch of plain-old-Orthodox folks. We were told that attendees of the event were “stunned.”

“The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of [Jews], from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people,” Perlow said. And also: “[The Reform and Conservative Movements] have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation. They have no future, they almost have no present.” And furthermore, the Open Orthodoxy movement is “steeped in apikorsos [heresy].”

It was quite the little speech. But stunned? Really? Attendees were stunned? Do they not get out much?

Perlow heads an organization that is, by definition, extremist. They believe themselves to be upholding the strictest, and thus most correct, interpretation of God’s own Divine law; they believe that the existence of the Jewish people, the coming of Messiah, and quite possibly the world itself depends on the painstaking observance of that interpretation — which is not, in their understanding, an interpretation at all, but simply Jewish law, halakhah.

Of course he thinks you’re a bad Jew — no, I’m sorry, not a “bad Jew.” He thinks that you’re a literal danger to Judaism itself. You have come — yes, you! — to “subvert and destroy the eternal values” of the Jewish people. You! (Unless you happen to be Haredi, and Perlow’s kind of Haredi at that, in which case, welcome to Forward Thinking, we try to be a very welcoming blog).

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‘Go to Hell, Leftist’ and Other Jerusalem Day Slogans

By Leanne Gale

The crowd enters Jerusalem’s Old City singing racist chants / A. Daniel Roth Photography

As I made my way out of the Muslim Quarter, the dark alleyways suddenly seemed too quiet. Just moments before, crowds of ultranationalist Jewish celebrants had marched through this same space shouting “Death to Arabs.” Children had banged against shuttered Palestinian homes with wooden sticks and Israeli police had stood by as teenagers chanted “Muhammad is dead.” Now, all that remained were eerie remnants of their presence: “Kahane Tzadak” (Kahane was right) stickers plastered over closed Palestinian shops and the ground littered with anti-Muslim flyers. As Israeli police and soldiers began to unblock closures, Palestinian residents of the Muslim Quarter cautiously ventured outside. This is the only time I cried.

Jerusalem Day marks the anniversary of the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967. The March of Flags has become an annual tradition in which thousands of ultranationalist Jewish celebrants parade through the city waving Israeli flags. It culminates in a dramatic march through the Muslim Quarter, generally accompanied by racist slogans and incitement to violence. Israeli police arrive in the area earlier in the day, sealing off entry to Palestinian residents “for their own safety.” Those Palestinians who live in the Muslim Quarter are encouraged to close their shops and stay indoors, while any Palestinian counter-protest is quickly dispersed.

Growing up at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Long Island, I have fond memories of Jerusalem Day. We celebrated every year with school-wide assemblies and dances, singing “Sisu et Yerushalayim” (Rejoice in Jerusalem) and “Jerusalem of Gold” with pride. Even in high school, I never knew the political significance of the day or imagined that my joy might be at someone else’s expense. Today, I know better.

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Maya Angelou's Lesson for the Orthodox

By Eliyahu Fink

‘People will forget what you said.

People will forget what you did.

But people will never forget how you made them feel.’ – Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

(Haaretz) — To me, this beautiful quote from the now late, great Maya Angelou, encapsulates so much of the tension in Orthodox Judaism today. Generally, people in my community are either baffled by any dissatisfaction with Orthodox Judaism or they are convinced they have an intellectual response that can fix the problem.

There is a tendency to believe that if we say the right thing or if we do the right thing everyone will be content. Or that even if individuals are unhappy or uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter - if we did the right thing and they are still disgruntled – it’s their problem. It’s a philosophy that assumes that there are objective responses to subjective circumstances and that we can preselect the experience of community members by providing a particular group of words or ideas.

But that isn’t true. Two people can have the same experience but feel completely different. There is no objective version of Orthodox Judaism. Despite our best intentions and our greatest efforts, the correct answers or even our sincerity don’t really determine the fate of everyone’s commitment to Orthodox Judaism. The thing that makes or breaks Orthodox Jewish continuity, in my opinion, is “how we made them feel.”

This is what Maya Angelou taught us in the quote above. Our memories are selective and some things stick for longer and dig deeper than others. Words and actions can make an impression on us, but they are not the thing that make the strongest impression on us.

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Help Us Find The Do-ers

By Anne Cohen

Tikkun Olam. Repair the world.

If you’re anything like me, the mere mention of the phrase is enough to make you cringe.

Not because we don’t want to do our part for a better world. But for many in my generation, brought up with the idea that you wouldn’t get into college or get a job unless you spent three months building houses in Uganda or took a selfie meditating with the Dalai Lama, the concept has all but lost its meaning.

Millenials have a bad reputation when it comes to engagement. We are “lazy,” “nihilistic,” and “apathetic.”

Unlike our parents, who came of age protesting against the Vietnam War, or working to free Jews from Soviet oppression, we don’t have a uniting cause. We’re the social media generation, who would rather casually “like” or retweet a plea to #BringBackOurGirls than actually get up and do.

In the Jewish world, the recent Pew survey showed a significant rise in Jews of no religion, who are less likely to be involved in Jewish causes or communities. Still, the same survey showed that 94% of us are proud to be Jewish.

In the end, actions speak louder than words. In an October editorial in response to the Pew survey, Jane Eisner wrote: “A Jew is what a Jew does.”

All across the country, young Jews are working to improve their communities. We want to find those people and share their stories.

We’re looking for The Do-ers.

Share Your Stories With Us

We’re looking for young Jews between the ages of 16 to 26 who are impacting their community in a significant way. This can be a geographic community, ethnic community, religious community, identity-based community, etc.

Whether it’s launching an after-school program in an underserved neighborhood, creating a Torah-themed comic strip or striving to document recipes from the Old Country, the work they’re doing must be informed by their Jewish identity. Nominations close June 7.


6 Jewish Memories of Maya Angelou

By Hody Nemes

Maya Angelou, who has died at 86, was a celebrated poet, author, and chronicler of the African-American experience.

Angelou also had several memorable interactions with the Jewish community. Here are six Jewish memories of Maya:

1) Poignant Poetry

In one of his final acts in office, President Bill Clinton appointed Angelou to the board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 2001. During meetings, she would occasionally read poems to focus board members on their shared mission.

“Maya Angelou brought a unique voice,” recalled Sara J. Bloomfield, the museum’s director. “(She) would take us beyond the business at hand and remind everyone of the importance of the museum’s mission in promoting human dignity for all people.”

2) Farrakhan Flap

Angelou’s seemingly straightforward appointment to the museum’s board was not without some controversy. She came under fire from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who criticized Angelou for accepting a speaking invitation from Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam who is considered by many Jews to be an anti-Semite. Angelou had recited a poem at the 1995 Million Man March organized by Farrakhan, which brought hundreds of thousands of blacks to the Washington Mall.

She “bestowed her name and prestige upon a man whose anti-Semitism and racism were by then unquestionable and who referred to the murder of Europe’s Jews as ‘the so-called Holocaust of the so-called Jew, the imposter Jew,’” Cohen wrote.

“Maya Angelou doesn’t belong in its board room. She belongs, instead, in the museum’s exhibition rooms. She has lots to learn.”

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Trying To Prove a Palestinian Died? Good Luck.

By Jordan Kutzik

Paul Hansen’s 2013 World Press Photo winning picture “Gaza Burial”

In college I had a Palestinian friend who, due to her ethnically ambiguous appearance, was often asked about her heritage. She would sometimes answer the invasive question by stating “I’m 95% Palestinian and I think about 5% squirrel or perhaps raccoon.” After hearing that line three or four times I decided to ask her why she kept using it. She responded: “Because, being Palestinian, I know that many people will never consider me fully human.”

I thought her line, albeit clever and poetic, was pure hyperbole. I didn’t fully grasp the extent to which Palestinians, not just as a people but as individual human beings, have been dehumanized by much of the Jewish community — until this past week when I began looking into the “Pallywood” meme.

“Pallywood,” a portmanteau of “Palestine” and “Hollywood,” is the belief among some Israelis and their American Jewish supporters that most footage of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israelis is faked. The meme came back to the forefront last week when many questioned the veracity of security-cam footage of the May 15 deaths of Palestinian teenagers Nadim Nawarah and Muhammad Salameh during a demonstration in the West Bank town of Bitunya. In a previous post, I examined the claim of Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen, the director of the religious pro-peace organization, the Vine and Fig Tree Project, that the way the boys fell on camera was “inconsistent” with their having been shot. Explaining that from my own experience watching films of wartime executions I know this claim to be false, I concluded that such statements are an attempt to control the narrative surrounding controversial events before a proper investigation can be conducted.

Since then, the Pallywood meme has continued in both social media and on one of America’s most prestigious TV news networks. Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen on May 27 tweeted an article alleging that Paul Hansen’s 2013 World Press Photo winning picture “Gaza Burial,” which captures the funeral procession of two Palestinian brothers killed in a 2012 Israeli airstrike, was faked. As you can see in Rabbi Cohen’s tweet itself, this allegation was swiftly debunked by the very media outlets that initially reported it.

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Brandeis Shouldn’t Cut Ties to Palestinian University

By Michael Ratner

Sari Nusseibeh in his office at Al-Quds university / Haaretz

Open Letter to Brandeis President

Dear President Lawrence:

By this letter I am resigning from the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis. While I appreciate that you were willing to reappoint me for another term, I do not feel my service on that board is compatible with your suspension of Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, the President of Al-Quds University, from that board. In addition, in light of your suspension of Dr. Nusseibeh and of Brandeis’ relationship with Al-Quds, I will not be making further donations to Brandeis. My reasons, which I am making public, are set forth below.

On November 18, 2013, at your direction, Brandeis suspended its longtime partnership (since 2003) with Al-Quds, a Palestinian university located in Jerusalem, Palestine. At the same time, you suspended the President of Al-Quds, Sari Nusseibeh, from the advisory board of the Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis, a board on which I also serve. I profoundly disagree with both of these actions. I believe that you have seriously harmed important exchanges that offered at least some hope for better understanding among the Brandeis and Al-Quds communities. As a result of your precipitous action, you have also besmirched the reputation of President Nusseibeh, a well-known scholar who has spent his life working for a peaceful solution between Palestine and Israel.

While I feel that your decision requires me to take these actions, I do so with some reluctance, because of my long association with Brandeis. As you are aware, I was an alumnus of Brandeis from the 1960’s and attended during the time of the civil rights movement and the beginning of the Vietnam War protests. The school began to open my eyes to liberal and progressive politics. It was a place of intense discussion and debate with professors like Herbert Marcuse and speakers such as Malcolm X, Allen Ginsberg and Paul Goodman. As I said when Brandeis gave me the 2006 Alumni Achievement Award, “Those years really changed my life. It’s clear that Brandeis is where I became an activist.” In 2006, I was also appointed to the advisory board of the Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life which is involved with the Al-Quds relationship.

My understanding of the background to your actions is informed by a report requested by you and issued by three Brandeis faculty who visited Al-Quds a few days after the November 5, 2013 rally which ultimately precipitated the chain of events that led to the suspension of the relationship with Al-Quds and of President Nusseibeh from the board. I note that you suspended President Nusseibeh before you even received the report.

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Why Jerusalem Day Is One Big Lie

By Emily L. Hauser

(Haaretz) — Jerusalem Day, we’re told, celebrates the reunification of Israel’s eternal capital, symbolizing “the continued historical connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem.” It’s a moment to remember that, as Prime Minister Netanyahu once said, “Israel without Jerusalem is like a body without a heart.”

So we’re told, and so the vast majority of Jews in Israel and abroad believe. Jerusalem is our heart, our soul – a small, holy spot on the map around which everything else revolves. So we’re told.

Except that it’s a lie. “Jerusalem” – as currently constituted, featured on maps, and represented by Israel’s government – is not eternal. It is not undivided. And it is certainly not holy.

The geographic location to which Jewish hearts have turned for millennia is small, corresponding roughly to today’s Old City; the holy part – the area on which the Israelites were commanded to establish a resting place for the Divine Presence – is more modest still, consisting of the Temple Mount. When we stand before the Western Wall, or orient ourselves toward it in worship, we’re weaving our prayers and longings with those of all Jews, reaching across miles and years and touching the core of that which holds us in community.

Zionism stems from that faith experience, but is not identical to it. Zionism is a modern idea, a nationalist movement which, like all nationalist movements, centers on a shared language, culture, and land. That’s why Uganda was nixed as an alternative – because the Jewish people’s shared land is anchored by our holy city.

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Shavuot, When We Became Who We Are

By David Wolpe

(JTA) — Rabbinic tradition teaches that when God spoke at Sinai, the world was silenced — birds did not sing, breezes did not rustle leaves in the trees. Out of that profound silence came the word, and were the world silent again, for even an instant, we could hear the everlasting echo of God’s voice.

In one way that is a beautiful metaphor for the holiday of Shavuot. Among the holidays, it is “silent” in that no custom imposes itself on our imagination. There is no sukkah, no seder. It slips by, for many Jews, almost unnoticed. Yet the echoing voice makes it the central moment in our history. On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, the establishment of the Jewish covenant.

The rabbis tell us that the Torah is the ketubah between God and the Jewish people. A ketubah is sometimes called a wedding contract, but it is better called a covenant. It enshrines sacred obligations. Jews are a covenantal people; we are bound to one another and to God by the idea of everlasting, mutual obligation. Sinai was the chuppah, and Shavuot is our anniversary.

On our anniversary we recall what made us a people. It is customary to stay up at night to study on Shavuot in order to demonstrate symbolically that we stand at the ready to receive the Torah. It is also a signal of acceptance and of passion.

Our tradition advises us to read the Torah as a love letter. One who receives a letter from a beloved reviews it again and again, searching each word and clause for significance, noting what is said and what remains unsaid. We read the Torah with the lens of the lover, dwelling over each word, unwilling to set it aside, certain that to study it once more will help us understand.

The Book of Ruth is read on this holiday because Ruth took upon herself the Jewish tradition in full. She accepted, as a true convert must, both the people and God. Israel embraces more than the individual’s relationship to the Divine; we are bound to one another. When Ruth declares to Naomi, “Your people shall be my people and your God my God,” she epitomizes the covenantal message of mutual interdependence, past and future, the dual covenant of faith and of fate.

There is a custom to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, given for a variety of reasons, including the inventive idea that the laws of kashrut were unclear before the giving of the Torah and eating dairy was therefore less complicated. It may also be tied to the idea of eating lighter fare, which makes it easier to stay awake for the tikkun. Symbolism and practicality are at times symbiotic in ritual life.

The great Saadia Gaon taught that we are a nation only by virtue of our Torah. For a people dispersed throughout the world, the Torah was the one precious possession — containing our history, our values and our practice — that bound us one to the other. Shavuot is the moment that made us who we are. We celebrate, on this holiday, our relationship to God and to one another. As we hold the Torah aloft, we also celebrate our identity as Jews, eternal people of the covenant.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of the forthcoming “David: The Divided Heart.”


News Quiz: The Pope and Hummus

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Herring, hummus and the Pope: Together at last.

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