Rethinking the Holy Days

by Rabbi Donald Kunstadt

I’ve come to the conclusion we need to change the date of Simchat Torah.

Our Jewish festivals must be re-envisioned as inspirational community gatherings of joyful spiritual Jewish celebration.  Every single festival needs to be a time of great community involvement and meaning. To not maximize that possibility is a mistake that can easily be fixed.

Here are the basics. Though the pilgrimage festivals originally had agrarian roots, we are no longer an agrarian people. Exactly how many Jewish farmers do you know? With all due respect to the kibbutz movement in Israel, and to the fact I have my own garden which I tend to fastidiously, and to our temple garden that inspires our member families with the beauty of nature, we are no longer an agrarian society. There was a time when Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Sh’mini Atzeret were all one interconnected holiday celebration tied in with the fall harvest.

Now if you’ve ever spent time picking produce – and I actually have experience working for one week in a kibbutz in Israel picking pears – you know there is great celebration when you are done with the terribly arduous labor. No question, concluding the harvest is reason for great celebration. Indeed, Sukkot was considered the greatest of all celebrations and festivals in the Jewish liturgical calendar, called “The Holiday” – and having worked 10 hours a day picking those pears, I can certainly understand that.

Today in our congregation, we have made Sukkot an inspirational festival, not one based on our concluding the harvest, but rather rethought as a time of Thanksgiving for our own personal harvests and the beauty and fragility of our lives in the shadow of God’s goodness. We make it a true festival, from rock music to great food and fellowship. Similarly, Chanukah, though not a biblical festival, speaks to our people and brings out large crowds for a festive service and dinner.  Passover touches the hearts and souls of our members.  Shavuot has already been rethought by our early reform leaders and re-created as Shavuot confirmation.

But Simchat Torah is a different, and much later Festival.  Its origins only date to the 11th century CE, so in Jewish history it is a new holiday.  Furthermore, for many reform congregations it is a celebration of consecration when we formally welcome our young people into the cycle of learning.

Torah and the love of learning are two of Judaism’s greatest values and gifts to the world.  This is a very big deal.  We need to be celebrating properly, joyously, maximizing our attendance, and letting the world know the beauty and genius of Torah.

Let us move the celebration of Simchat Torah to a date 30 days after the conclusion of Succoth, well separated from the High Holy Day season. Haven’t you heard what they did with Presidents’ Day?  We can celebrate the Torah in November by creating a huge family and even community celebration.   Five years ago we started an innovative tutoring program to help one of our local public schools by our members regularly reaching out to underachieving children, to help them develop a love of learning.  Judaism’s love of Torah, education, and knowledge needs to be shared with the world, and this too can be recognized on Simchat Torah.  Truth be told, we must create exciting, and well attended meaningful Jewish holidays.  If everyone just came to Temple for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and a Succoth festival, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to return one week later.  So solve the problem, let’s move the date and honor the celebration of Torah and Jewish learning with as many people as possible in a way that it deserves.

Rabbi Donald Kunstadt serves as the rabbi of the Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile,  AL, a position which he has held since 1987.

Originally posted at Finding Meaning

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5 Responses to “Rethinking the Holy Days”

  1. avatar

    Maybe while we’re at it we could move Shabbat to Sunday. That’d be more convenient for lots of folks, right?

    Rather than changing our received tradition to fit better with our preferences, we should be adjusting our preferences and behavior to give weight to our Jewish tradition and values, which include celebrating holidays on the holidays. Yes, it can be inconvenient to take so many days off of work in such a short time, but people do it. If we relegate Jewish observance to “what we do when there’s nothing more important to do”, we should not be surprised when that makes the problem worse and not better.

    We should be celebrating torah and learning throughout the year — weekly on Shabbat, and on Shavuot, Simchat Torah, perhaps the beginning of every book, during Jewish Books Month, at every bar or bat mitzvah, and so on.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    Among all possible ways to tear apart the Jewish people, this one surely belongs at the top of the list. Consider the implications.

    1. We flagrantly violate the teaching from Pirke Avot, Do not separate yourself from the community.
    2. We play fast and loose with 1000 years of Jewish history, given Rabbi Kunstadt’s assertion that the holiday is relatively new — although in fact, it is only the name and not the yom tov that is the late arrival.
    3. We take ourselves off the cycle of finishing Devarim and starting Berishit along with the rest of the Jewish world.
    4. We have no aasurance that any more people will arrive in the synagogue to observe the artificial holiday than arrived on the historic dates. After all, our track record is not so good for attendance on Passover and Shavuot when there is no Confirmation ceremony.
    5. We invented Consecration as a way to give the added meaning of celebrating the beginning of Torah study (and to produce a bigger audience than might otherwise have been there). November is rather late to celebrate what actually took place in September.
    6. Rabbi Kunstadt sugggests an analogy to the combination of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays into Presidents’ Day. I respectfully suggest that both George and Abe got lost in the shuffle of what has become an amorphous “day off”.
    7. Similarly, the repurposing of Shavuot as the time of Confirmation has proven ephemeral, as Confirmation has proven not to have the staying power in the face of competition from the centuries-older celebration of Bar Mitzvah.
    8. A better analogy than the fusion of two presidential birthdays might be FDR’s changing the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. Since the last Thursday was a totally arbitrary choice, and since often enough the fourth and last Thursdays are the same, it somewhat mitigates the idea of selling the birthright for a mess of pottage; and the relocation has worked — which provides the only possible support for Rabbi Kunstadt’s latest foray into re-branding.

  3. avatar

    Certainly it is important to be part of the community, to find a place of religious support and inspiration. My goal is to bring more people to the community and to make it a more vibrant one. Clearly Reform has already separated itself from the fundamentalist Jewish community and for many in that community we are not even counted as Jews.

    People have voted with their feet, and we need to be counting the footprints carefully. Festival Judaism works: everywhere it works for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We have made it work for the other festivals, but Simchat Torah has become the lame duck, unfortunately the Festival that represents among our greatest gift-Torah. Every festival needs to be an event the majority of the congregation attends. They need to be events people cannot wait to attend, and eagerly look forward to, in the same way people buy tickets to a concert months in advance.

    As for moving the celebration of Holy Days, for my entire career we celebrate festival days on the Shabbat Evening closest to the calendar date-it works. This is only an incremental step. I would not suggest changing the Torah reading cycle. Rather for the celebration night we would just role the scroll back-not really too difficult.

  4. avatar

    Simchat Torah is our best-attended festival in my congregation. I’m sorry it’s not that way for you, but what you are seeing isn’t universal. I don’t know which of us has the more typical experience, but from where I sit it’s way too soon to consider writing off this festival.

    We celebrate all the chagim and other holidays on their designated dates, not on a conveniently-placed Shabbat. As you would expect, the evening services get larger turn-outs than the morning ones (except for Pesach, of course — people are at sedarim then).

  5. avatar

    Larry Kaufman eloquently wrote in August on this blog, “let’s put our Friday night emphasis back in the home.” The perfect corollary is, “let’s put the festivals back in the synagogue.” In its origin Judaism has been festival oriented with mass gatherings of the people powerfully committing themselves to Judaism. From the theophany (Ex. 20) to Deuteronomy (28-29), and from Joshua 24 to Josiah’s reading of the law to the people (II Kings 23), these mass assemblies have been centerpieces of our faith. We must not forget Ezra’s reading of the law to all the people during a revived Sukkot, (Nehemiah 8:18). Furthermore in Temple times, the Pilgrimage Festivals were exactly that: people were expected to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem for these special Holy Days-they could not be expected to come to Jerusalem regularly on Shabbat. What worked in ancient days can work again if we strive to make all the Festivals the focus of our communal religiosity.

    In response to Monica Cellio, writing off Simchat Torah is certainly not my goal, but rather putting it in the limelight because of its great significance. Precisely because in my congregation we have made Sukkot such an exciting and well attended festival, Simchat Torah attendance has been, not surprisingly, attenuated. That is what I am striving to change.

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