On Shavuot, there are two central themes that seemingly are disconnected. The biblical theme is Yom Ha-bikkurim and Chag Hakatzir, which refers to Shavuot as being the harvest festival and the first day upon which the farmers would bring their bikkurim, i.e. their first fruits, as an offering to the Temple (Chizkuni). The rabbinic theme of Shavuot is Chag Matan Torah, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, which is based on a tradition that the Torah was given at Sinai on Shavuot. According to both themes, we are thankful for Divine providence even though this providence also requires an effort on our part.
In order to succeed in his/her harvest, the agriculturalist needed to master agronomy. This included a deep knowledge of climate, fertilization, irrigation, and the like, combined with a knowledge of commerce. This mastery is radically different from the traits needed to celebrate the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. For this festival to be celebrated to the full, one needs to master theology and have a comprehensive knowledge of the multiple dimensions of Torah. The agriculturalist resides in the “real world,” while the Torah scholar may very well reside in an “ivory tower.”
A second disconnection between the biblical and the rabbinic themes is their locus. The biblical theme focuses on the Land of Israel; the bikkurim are brought from the seven species common to the Land. From a biblical perspective, Shavuot can be fully celebrated only in Israel. The rabbinic theme, however, is not Israel-dependent. The Torah was given at Sinai, which was outside the borders of Israel; the Torah is universal.
While the biblical and rabbinic themes seem to be disconnected, in essence they create a tension that is existentially crucial for the future of Judaism. On the one hand, Judaism is grounded in a tradition of revelation; on the other hand, it is well aware of the importance of mastering science’s modern challenges and the celebration of this mastery. A Judaism that focuses only upon revelation and authenticity is in danger of becoming fossilized and irrelevant. A Judaism that only relates to a mastery of a current reality, which is in perpetual pursuit of relevance and personal meaning, may well be popular today, but it is in danger nevertheless of being irrelevant for the next generation, which may find relevancy and meaning in other cultures.
A Judaism that focuses only on Israel loses significance for those who wish to express their Judaism in the diaspora, whereas a Judaism that is universal and does not see the importance of Israel is in danger of being detached and unable to relate to the dreams and challenges of a Jewish sovereign nation in the Land of Israel, which is so central to our tradition.
It is this dialectic that I have aspired to make a central ethos of the globe-spanning Florence Melton Adult Mini-School over the past two decades. The program is available here through the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Embracing a spirit of pluralism, we developed courses that ensure that our students appreciate the tension between these poles.
From our perspective, Jewish literacy is neither the study of dogma, nor a search for meaning. Rather, it is the embracing of a systematic set of ideas that live in tension with one another. Some ideas and precepts our students accept as binding; others they find meaningful and relevant.
The ultimate success, however, is the appreciation of the tension between these ideas and the grasping of their implications. In engaging in this process, hopefully a decision to make the study of Jewish texts will not only be a two-year journey, but a lifetime pursuit.