Academic journal article Shofar

Say It with Flowers: Shavuot, Confirmation, and Ritual Reimagination for a Modern American Judaism

Academic journal article Shofar

Say It with Flowers: Shavuot, Confirmation, and Ritual Reimagination for a Modern American Judaism

Article excerpt

Over three days in November 1885, a group of rabbis assembled in Pittsburgh to determine a set of principles that could chart a course for reform in American Judaism. Led by Kaufmann Kohler,1 the relatively radical rabbi who would enjoy a long career at the helm of the Reform movement, the platform that the rabbis assembled at Pittsburgh declared a decisive departure from practices and beliefs that they considered to be incompatible with modernity. The third article of the platform asserted that Jewish ritual life-its holidays, ceremonies and customs-need only be maintained if it served to advance the cause of personal, spiritual fulfillment. "We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine," the authors of the platform declared. "Today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization."2

This paper will focus on one such ceremony, the celebration of the holiday of Shavuot, at the turn of the twentieth century as local leaders of American Reform synagogues wrestled with the question of what "elevate and sanctify" might mean for their communities. Shavuot has historically commemorated the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai and the creation of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.3 It has also been celebrated as an agricultural festival, marking the time when the first fruits, the bikkurim, were bought to the temple in Jerusalem.4 By 1885, however, the idea of a holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah on Sinai had been seriously challenged by the findings of biblical criticism. Biblical critics had persuasively demonstrated that different strands of the Torah were written at different times in Israel's history. Their scholarship gradually permeated the American Jewish community. As a contributor to the American Israelite had recognized in 1885, "The Mattan [giving of] Torah is no longer considered in our Jewish households as a Mattanah [gift]."5 Why should American Reform Jews commemorate the giving of a Torah that few continued to believe was given at all? Leaders of Reform communities were thus forced to confront a profound theological question: could modern Jews honestly celebrate Shavuot? Or had it become religiously redundant?

By the end of the century however, the celebration of Shavuot was being described in the American Jewish press as the highlight of the Jewish calendar. It would draw the biggest crowd that a synagogue would see all year. Non-Jews were regularly invited to witness the celebrations. Synagogues lavished vast sums of money to decorate the sanctuary in honor of the day. Shavuot services were so popular that the press customarily reported that at any given synagogue there would be standing room only, usually resulting in a lady or two swooning or fainting due to the heat and the crowds.

Shavuot became the most popular holiday in American Judaism through a process of ritual reimagination that aligned it with the intellectual demands of this newly modern era. Shavuot became celebrated as confirmation day, a ceremony that American Reform synagogues had introduced as a replacement for the traditional Bar Mitzvah. On Shavuot, the boys and girls of a synagogue's religious school would parade to the front of the sanctuary, recite speeches, and confirm their commitment to Judaism. The themes of both the giving of the Torah and the presentation of the bikkurim at the Temple became ancillary to the new focus of the day: elaborate and decadent coming of age ceremonies. Children provided the ritual center of the celebration and a symbolic currency that legitimated new religious rationales for this historic holiday.

Shavuot in the nineteenth-century Reform movement offers a case study of the reworking of a ritual tradition to align it with the intellectual demands of the times. …

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