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Why I'm Skipping Shavuot

I'm a rabbi. But I won't be observing the Shavuot holiday this weekend. Not because I don't have the time. It's because the traditional message of Shavuot doesn't speak to me.
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I'm a rabbi. But I won't be observing the Shavuot holiday this weekend. Not because I don't have the time. It's because the traditional message of Shavuot doesn't speak to me.

My non-observance of Shavuot makes me like the majority of Jews. Many don't even know what Shavuot is. If you fall into that category, here's the primer on one foot: tradition says Shavuot commemorates the day that God gave the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

As a proud Jew who does not believe that God gave the Torah to the Israelites, the holiday doesn't do much for me. It may sound like I don't care about Torah. Far from it. I believe Torah is one of the most important reasons to care about Judaism.

But I don't look at the Torah as a description of actual events. The Torah is not a history book or science text and should not be read like one.

What speaks to me from Torah is that our ancestors took amazingly radical steps to create a document that would survive against all odds. And their efforts resulted in a people who would survive against all odds. The Israelites twice survived the destruction of their temples. When other groups faced such annihilation, they simply assimilated. But not the Jews.

That's because the writers of the Torah designed the text in such a way that it literally built a community in ancient times. And it created a Jewish people who lasted.

While today I do not use Torah to guide my life, I recognize the power it had for our ancestors, and I am inspired by their boldness and creativity.

Legend has it that when the 18th century French writer and notorious anti-Semite Voltaire discussed the possibilities of miracles with Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, the king challenged Voltaire to point to one authentic example of a miracle. "Sir," Voltaire is reported to have said, "it's the Jews."

But Judaism's survival was not a miracle in the sense of a divine act. The miracle is that a group of people banded together and said something like, "We have something worth preserving, something we are willing to stand for, even in the face of despair."

These Israelites had a vision that transcended every notion of peoplehood and culture up until that time. Instead of focusing on land and kings, they focused on relationships. Because their vision so boldly broke from the past, they would need to sustain it through stories.

Through the stories of the Torah, the Israelites would define themselves as a community.

Not only were the Torah's storywriters brilliant, they did an incredible job of marketing the scroll. In their willingness to fabricate the truth -- with the myth that God gave Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai -- they found a surefire way to "sell" the story.

To me, the claim that God wrote the Torah diminishes its revolutionary character. Fraught with inconsistencies and filled with stories borrowed from neighboring cultures, it would be a pretty mediocre work for an all-knowing all-powerful divine being.

I am far more interested in the idea that a group of Jews sat around and decided to create a document that would give meaning to their lives. With stories that gave voice to their ideas and values, the biblical authors were able to think beyond themselves, to break from the past.

So while some will celebrate the myth of God giving Jews the Torah on Shavuot, I'll be doing other things that evening. But I hope to take a moment to appreciate the creativity of my ancestors -- the authors of the Torah's remarkable fables. Perpetuating the God-as-author myth not only serves to deny our ancestors' creativity; it pushes many Jews further away from Judaism. Today, many Jews want a Judaism that is intellectually sound and historically accurate. A Judaism that reflects how we live and think today. Teaching myth as fact is insulting and self-defeating.

The Torah's authors felt empowered to engage in an act so radical, so creative that it would ensure not only their own survival, but that of of the Jewish people for centuries to come.

As I reflect on Shavuot, I honor the writers of the Torah's myths. They are my inspiration. They weren't afraid to challenge the past to create something new. To ensure our Jewish future, we need more people like them today.

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