Shavuot and the Culture Wars

May 25, 2023 by Jeremy Rosen
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As far as the Bible was concerned, the festival of Shavuot ( Pentecost) that we celebrate this weekend was no more than a harvest festival. 

Jeremy Rosen

Pesach, Shavuot, and Sucot were all harvest festivals originally. The barley and wheat in the late spring, early summer, and the final ingathering at Sucot in the autumn. Only Pesach had the added theme of national independence and freedom from slavery. But as the Jewish people began to spread around the world, and the ties with agriculture in the Land of Israel were loosened, new themes and significance were added.

Shavuot became the anniversary of the Sinai Revelation. If you like our Founding Constitution, which allowed for amendments and innovations. To reinforce this connection, the custom developed to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. But why pick on this story of Ruth? What is its connection to Mount Sinai?

To recap the well-known themes.  A leading Israelite family emigrates from a famine-stricken Land of Israel and finds a preferable life in the diaspora where the sons marry local Moabite women. But things do not go well. The husband and sons die, and the widow, Naomi decides to return home. One of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, decides to go with her even though they return as paupers. In her moving words “Where you go, I will go, where you live, I will live, your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” This declaration is one of absolute faith and it mirrors the acceptance by the Children of Israel of the Torah at Sinai. And it contrasts with those who were born into a tradition and might take it for granted and those who voluntarily adopt it. We are not told what it is that led her to this commitment. Perhaps the character of Naomi, her standards, and her way of life? But surely, it is intended to stress that no matter where a person comes from, what matters is how they choose to live religiously. Everyone can make choices.

Naomi and Ruth return to the Land of Israel. As destitute, regardless of their background, they were entitled to join the reapers at harvest time, the Moabites as much as the Israelites. The theme of the importance of charity and responsibility for other human beings. Ruth randomly chooses a field to gather in. She labours throughout the day. Her devotion is noticed by Boaz, the wealthy landowner who praises her and ensures that she is given preferential treatment. But he goes beyond the financial obligation of charity with words of encouragement and kindness. The Hebrew word for charity is Tzedakah, but the seven times repeated theme of the book is Chesed, kindness that extends way beyond just giving.

Another Biblical law was that if one sold land out of economic necessity, the nearest family members had the right and the obligation to redeem the field. And this law seems at the time to have been connected to the idea of the Levirate marriage, under which the childless widow married the next brother to maintain his name. When Naomi reveals that Boaz is a member of her family and a redeemer, she tells Ruth to go to him and offer herself as a wife. Ruth, ever obedient, finds out where he is sleeping on the threshing floor and presents herself to him. In those days, cohabitation was apparently enough to seal the deal.

But Boaz wakes up and tells her that there is a nearer relative with priority, so she will have to wait till the morning to clarify the position. The Talmud comments on how much self-control Boaz exhibited to underline what a good man he was not to take advantage of her. The following day Boaz contacts the anonymous near relative. Initially, he is willing to redeem the field until he learns he will have to marry Ruth.  He is worried about appearances and his existing family. Boaz can marry Ruth and redeem the field. They have a child who will be the grandfather of King David.

The plot contains the themes of the failure of leadership and the lack of faith. The dangers of removing oneself from the community. Finding faith and returning. Charity and kindness are what define a community rather than depravity. And having a legal system based on justice and kindness and open to all.

But there is a subplot. The Torah specifically objects to the Moabites (Deuteronomy 23:4), the descendants of Lot’s incest with his daughters because they used sexual immorality as a weapon for defeating their enemies and almost brought about the collapse of Israelite society until Pinchas managed to stop the rot. The Torah says that as a result, one cannot accept a Moabite ( and an Ammonite) into the community. And yet from that corrupt pagan world a remarkable, moral, good woman emerged and was indeed accepted. This indicates that what the Torah wants is not just obedience but being a good person and there can be exceptions to general rules.

The Talmud says that the Torah ban was only for Moabite men, not women (Yevamot 69a). In which case it seems to me they are implying that women have an extra spiritual dimension of charity and kindness that the Torah is predicated on. Naomi was able to preserve her Jewish identity despite the failures of the men around her. And Ruth, regardless of her background, was able to distinguish between a corrupt, material society and a God-fearing ethical one.

We may think that the challenges of those times were very different from ours. But they were not. Today like then, we are caught in a battle between two worldviews. The sort of Culture War, Kulturkampf, that has always emerged in every century. The modern secular religion has its high priests, folk heroes, and idols. It seeks to evangelise and convert.  In this struggle for our souls, one is a religious culture derived from the past that revers but adapts. The other is trying to cancel the past and impose a different ideology. And most of us are caught in the middle, in danger of being steamrolled or simply capitulating to those who make the most noise. What can we do? We can try to derive the best of both and discard the dross. Just like Ruth, we have to make choices.  What kind of world do we want for us and our children? And if we can’t find it on the outside at least we can decide for ourselves what our priorities are.

Torah is the skeleton of our Jewishness-its constitution and moral guide. But without kindness and humanity, it is arid.  No book in the Bible better underlines the fundamentals of Judaism in a story of a mere four short chapters.  No wonder the rabbis chose it to be read on the anniversary of the law.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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