Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shavuot: The Holiday of Nerds, Vegetarians, and Converts

Shavuos is my favorite holiday. Really! I get to stay up all night learning interesting stuff and eating cheesecake. What's not to like?? And I'm not the only convert who likes Shavuot best!

Besides the nerdy, cheesy aspects of the holiday, it is also the holiday for converts. Quite honestly, I don't understand why Shavuot gets such a short shrift in the Jewish world. It's the day when we became the Jewish people and accepted the Torah. Why do people treat Shavuot like it's just a tag-along to Pesach? I was most impressed to see it described as "the neglected stepchild of chagim."

There are two primary stories about Shavuot that relate to converts. And if you want to, you can think of the acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai) by the Israelites as the original mass conversion. Before, they were Israelites. After, they were the Jewish People.

The most common story about converts and Har Sinai comes from the Talmud. It relates that the souls of future converts all "stood at" Sinai with the Jewish people. Our souls were present just as much as the bodies of the Israelites who fled Egypt. This idea comes from Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:13-14: 
"Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this oath, but with whoever is here standing with us today before Hashem our Gd and whoever is not here with us today."
A very traditional view of this story is on the Aish website. For a very different view of this Talmudic explanation, read "Perfection": Human Accomplishment - Not a Jewish Birthright (mid-way down the page). Ohr Somayach describes the "procedures" of conversion as a reenactment of the revelation at Har Sinai.

On the other hand, there is a story that praises converts for seeing the truth of Torah and choosing Judaism without needing the awe and fear that the Israelites experienced at Har Sinai. The Jewish people required lightning, earthquakes, and even the mountain being held over their heads. But converts believe without needing any divine "nudging." Despite my awesome Googling skills, the idea of converts physically standing at Sinai overpowers any other narrative on the internet. I apologize for not giving you sources to read about this story.

Of course, Shavuos is overtly about conversion since we read the Megillah of Ruth. Someone asked me about Ruth on the blog's Facebook group recently. I never thought about it before, but I've never been particularly attached to the story of Ruth. But why? After some thought, I came to a conclusion: "Every convert's story is SO different and intricate, but Ruth's is so short. In a way, the description of Ruth's journey is the kind of description most born-Jews would give describing a conversion. [Because they have not heard her particular history.] Because I've been/am going through it, I know there must be more to the story." But every year, Tikkun Leil Shavuot allows me to hear new ideas and stories to challenge my own preconceptions and grow in my Torah knowledge.

Chag sameach! See you on the flipside!


  1. I highly recommend this video: http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/1209384/jewish/The-Milky-Way.htm
    The rabbi is really cool. Besides, he explains that eating a meat meal on Shavuot is actually halacha, while eating dairy is minhag :P :)

  2. I haven't had time to watch that video yet, but I already know that dairy on Shavuot is minhag. However, rabbis debate whether a meat meal on Shabbat and yontif is halacha. I know a few vegetarians and vegetarian rabbis :D

  3. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    There's a Yiddish saying, "On Sukkos, you can eat what you want, but not where you want, and on Pesach you can eat where you want but not what you want. That's why Shavuos is the best holiday."

    The rabbinic debate on whether or not you need to have a meat meal seems somewhat spurious if one PREFERS milchik and finds it festive. A friend of mine (who is now my daughter's jr. high principal!) is a somewhat bent Bais Ya'akov graduate. She says she and her sister used to get distressed that her father liked milchiks for Shabbat:

    "Daddy, we learned in school that on Shabbos you're supposed to be like a king, and a king is supposed to eat meat!"

    "Well THIS king," he would proclaim, "is having milchiks."

    The only real problem I see is figuring out when to eat the cheesecake if your inner king happens to prefer meat.

    Shavuot happens to be my "marker" for the anniversary of my conversion, which comes out 9 days before. This year, I mentioned to my kids that I was celebrating my "28th" birthday, and they found that hilarious and told their friends (and jr. high principal), so I got a lot of surprise mazal tovs, which as actually rather nice.

    This coming Shabbat, I have been invited to speak at the round table discussion of the Machanayim Giur Shabbaton. Machanayim is a core group of intellectual Russian immigrants who became religious in Communist Russia. They made aliya, most of them to Ma'aleh Adumim, where I live, and devote efforts to Israeli Russian outreach, and translate scores of classic works on Judaism into Russian. They also run incredibly late Shabbat dinners and evidently never sleep, not even during the week.

    Anyway, my kids, who seem to be secret Russians, are friends with their kids, and so I am nearby and low-cost as a speaker for their Conversion Shabbaton.

    Machanayim ("2 camps") sets out to keep a foot in both camps, as it were; to retain a positive Russian identity along with being religious Israeli Jews. They have a shul here, and a rav who also works in high tech. Some of them were world math champions in the Old Country, and they are all madly "bohemian frum".

    Our topic for discussion is "Conversion--'Rebirth' or Climax of Natural Growth?"