Shvuos began as a celebration of the end of the spring harvest season. Along with Succos and Pesach, it was one of the three great pilgrimage festivals in ancient Israel. When the Temple stood, literally hundreds of thousands of Jews came to Jerusalem on Shvuos. To the accompaniment of music, they presented offerings of loaves of bread, fresh fruits and oxen to the priests. Shvuos literally means “weeks” because it occurs seven weeks after Pesach, but was commonly known as the Festival of the First Fruits. In the early Middle Ages, the rabbis gave Shvuos new meaning. They said it was the anniversary of the day God made His eternal covenant with the Jewish people, by giving Moses the Ten Commandments and entire Torah on Mount Sinai. We know that the Torah was actually written by different authors over hundreds of years, until the High Priest Ezra created the final version in the 5th century BCE. Nevertheless, Shvuos symbolizes for us the beginning of a Jewish civilization governed by written law.
Secular Jews are unique among Jews in that we do not hold the Torah sacred. Yet we must recognize that for ages it served as a “portable homeland” of the Jewish people. Its laws and its stories created a strong sense of identity that enabled us to survive in hostile environments.
Religious Jews have a custom of staying awake the first night of Shvuos to study Torah, but what they mean by “study” is closer to worship. We too should study Torah, because it is an integral part of our culture, but in a critical spirit. While questioning its authoritarian and ethnocentric premises, we can still appreciate it as great literature and the foundation for most Jewish folklore. We can also learn from its strong commitment to social justice. "Do not oppress the stranger," a phrase repeated thirty-six times in the Torah, is a powerful reminder of our obligation to respect human rights.
For centuries, Shvuos was the day parents began their son’s Jewish education by enrolling them in religious school or kheder. Reform Jews built on this tradition, and borrowed from Catholic tradition, by making Shvuos into a confirmation ceremony for teenagers who have completed three years of post-bar or bas mitzvah education. Since Shvous usually falls in June, there is no reason why it cannot be integrated into our schools' graduation ceremonies.
In keeping with the "first fruits" theme, Shvuos is also an ideal time for "rites of passage" ceremonies. This might include community events welcoming all new babies born during the year, honoring college graduates, celebrating retirements, or recognizing the formation of new organizations.
Shvuos is still celebrated in a way that evokes its pastoral origins. It is traditional to eat dairy products (cheese blintzes and cheese are a favorites) and to decorate homes, synagogues and community centers with greenery and flowers. In the short story, Three Little Heads by Sholem Aleichem, from The Old Country, children living in stark urban poverty cherish Shvuos because it is the only time they get a taste of nature.
Shvuos is also the time of the year when the Book of Ruth is read in synagogues. Ruth is described as a Moabite, a people considered enemies of Israel elsewhere in the Bible. After her husband dies, she returns to the land of Israel with her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, solely because she wants to belong to the Jewish people. Without any conversion ceremony, she is accepted by Naomi’s family, marries a kind man, Boaz, and has children. Despite her non-Jewish origins, no one ever questions their Jewishness. In fact, her grandson is none other than King David, one of the most exalted figures in Jewish history and lore. From this beautiful idyll, we learn that a sincere attachment to the Jewish people is sufficient to become Jewish and that "Jews by choice" must be valued as the equals of those born as Jews.
The Book of Ruth is also provides the only example in the Bible of "gleaning." According to Jewish law, landowners must not harvest the corners of their fields and must leave whatever is missed from the harvesting process on the ground for the poor. Without land of her own, Ruth exercises her right under Jewish law to take grain from Boaz's fields. And as a good Jews, Boaz takes the extra step of ordering his farm laborers not to molest Ruth while she is gathering her portion of the crop.
Despite some sexist connotations, the Book of Ruth is among the most humanistic books of the Bible. In contrast, consider the Torah’s outright ban on intermarriage, and the requirement in the Book of Ezra that Jewish men married to non-Jewish women divorce their wives and send them away with their offspring in order to maintain the purity of the Jewish race. Unlike many of the other events described in the Bible, this one actually occurred.
With so many intermarried, or as we call them, "intercultural" families in our midst, Shvuos is an ideal time for welcoming them into our communities. Reading the Book of Ruth is a good place to start. Intriguing programs can be developed merely by asking those who have become “Jews by choice” to discuss their own journeys to secular Jewishness. Whether or not formal ceremonies are used, songs can help set the mood. We have a Yiddish one perfect for the occasion: Ale Mentchn Zaynen Brider, with the words written by the classic writer, I. L. Peretz and the music based on Beethoven’s 9th symphony:
All human beings are brothers, Brown and yellow, black and white. People, countries varying climates Are distinctions without meaning.
White and brown and black and yellow, Stir the different hues together, Human beings are all brothers, Children of the same parents.
Human beings are all brothers, Black and brown and white and yellow. All that's different are their colors, They're the same in their true natures.
Ale mentchn zaynen brider Broyne, gele, shvartse, vayse. Felker, lander un klimatn, S'iz an oysgetrakhte mayse
Vayse, shvartse, broyne, gele, Misht di farbn oys tsuzamen. Ale mentchen zaynen brider Fun eyn tatn, fun eyn mamen
Ale mentchn zaynen brider Shvartse, vayse, broyne, gele. Andersh zaynen nor di farbn, Di natur iz dokh di zelbe
For further reading on this subject, including testimonials from CSJO folks with non-Jewish origins, see “Conversions in Secular Humanistic Judaism,” an article by Rhea Seagull. It appeared in the December 2000 issue of Jewish Currents, and the September/October 2000 issue of Outlook, two major voices for progressive Jewish secularism.