The Quilmes, a nation indigenous to Northern Argentina, built an advanced civilization with a unique religious and cultural character. The ruins of a Quilmes citadel, hundreds of years old, can still be seen today and it shows a level of sophistication matched only by the big empires of the time. In pre-Columbian times, the Quilmes successfully resisted and halted the expansion of the Incas. When the Spanish conquistadores showed up, the proud Quilmes resisted for much longer than the Incas or Aztecs. In fact, it took 130 years for the Spaniards to defeat them.
When they finally subjugated the native peoples in the 17th century, the Spanish were not in a generous mood. To eliminate every possibility of revolt, they exiled the entire Quilmes population to a specially constructed town near the new city of Buenos Aires.
Today one can visit the town of Quilmes. It’s one of the most populous suburbs of the Argentinean capital, made famous by Cerveza Quilmes, a brand of beer whose lagers achieved some renown (and, by the way, it’s kosher).
But no trace survives of the Quilmes Indians. In fact, by the year 1800, Quilmes was a ghost town. The proud and fierce Quilmes nation had simply vanished. To be sure, they weren’t killed, and they didn’t die of disease or hunger; they simply melted away into the surrounding population.
How can that be? How can a people that fought off two empires for hundreds of years simply evaporate?
The answer is simple and tragic. The entire culture of the Quilmes was inextricably linked to their ancestral land. When the Quilmes were uprooted from the western slopes of the sub-Andean mountains, their identity emptied out and they ceased to exist as a distinct group.
The cruel tactic of exiling a people to dilute their identity is not new to us Jews. Actually, 2,300 years before the Quilmes were marched off to Buenos Aires, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and sent the population of Judea into exile in Babylonia. Our first exile was a brief affair; Cyrus the Persian King allowed us to return and rebuild our Temple. A few centuries later, after Jews had badly mismanaged our independence, a second exile ensued. The Romans destroyed the Temple once again, and this time the exile wasn’t short.
But why did the Quilmes vanish and we didn’t? Why haven’t we, too, become nothing more than a brand of beer?
You may say that Judaism is not as centered in the land, but that argument fails to grasp the importance that the Temple had in Jewish Life. Many Jews believed that it was the actual residence of God; the animal sacrifices marked the beginning and the end of every day; and three times a year Jews were commanded to ascend to Jerusalem in pilgrimage. Many of the Torah’s laws are related to the land, and many mitzvot take effect only in the Land of Israel. What, then, was the secret sauce? How did we survive without that central element of our religion?
This holiday of Shavuot offers clues.
Most Jewish holidays have a dual subject: on one hand, they are linked to the agricultural cycle and on the other they celebrate an event of historical and spiritual significance. Pesach commemorates the Exodus and it also celebrates the barley harvest in spring. Sukkot commemorates our sojourn in the desert, but also celebrates the collection of the last fruits and the beginning of the rains.
But Shavuot is, arguably, the most land-centered holiday in our calendar. We celebrate the wheat harvest; we bring bikkurim (first fruits) as an offering to the Temple and, more generally, we celebrate our attachment to the land of “milk and honey”. Yes, Shavuot is also “Zman Matan Toratenu”, the time of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, but that association appears nowhere in the Bible. In fact, the first mention of that name dates to the 9th century. When you read the sources, the linking of Shavuot to the Giving of the Torah seems rather tenuous, almost like an afterthought. For starters, there’s debate in the Talmud as to when exactly the Torah was given, and no less important, there are questions about what was given. Was the entire Torah given in one day or just the Decalogue? There’s no unanimity among the rabbis on those points. And if you think about it, why didn’t the Torah, which legislates in such detail the bikkurim and other agricultural aspects of Shavuot, prescribe any specific rituals to celebrate such a momentous event?
Scholars indeed believe that the linking of Shavuot to Matan Torah was developed during the Babylon exile, altering the purely agricultural nature of the festival. We do have some evidence that in the Second Temple Period Jews were already linking the two meanings of the holiday and the association really took hold after the destruction of the Temple. It’s not hard to understand why.
Shavuot is the most blatant example of an historical and spiritual process by which Jews — having lost the land — managed to provide new meaning to their land-based traditions. Whenever the holiday had both a historical and an agricultural component, like Passover, rabbis had flexibility to dial up the historical meaning and downplay the other. In cases like Shavuot, in which the historical element was virtually absent, they added one. That allowed the Jews to keep the holiday relevant despite the loss of the land, and also, paradoxically, keep the Jewish relationship with the land alive, even from the exile.
That doesn’t make our current celebration of Shavuot less “authentic” or less faithful to the original. Rather, the opposite. It shows that Judaism had the flexibility to adapt to dramatic changes in its historical circumstances. The secret of Judaism’s survival is precisely that adaptability, the possibility of reinventing ourselves in the face of changing realities. To be sure, adaptability doesn’t mean bulldozing the old and bringing an entirely new set of contents and practices. That would be easy, but it would also sever any semblance of historical continuity. Jewish adaptability means entering into a delicate dance between the old and the new, a careful dialectic of change and permanence, a renewal that is anchored in foundational values.
Having adapted twice to the loss of the Temple, this particular type of dance with change became ingrained in Jewish cultural DNA. Over the centuries, Jews managed to reinterpret our traditions in light of new realities we faced—from Maimonides’ reinterpretation of Judaism using Aristotelian philosophy to Theodor Herzl understanding Jewishness within the modern category of nationalism.
This capacity to adapt is both a blessing and a responsibility. It dumps onto the lap of every generation the titanic task of reinterpreting Judaism so as to keep it fresh and relevant. That task demands that we distill the values we need to preserve and infuse old rituals with new meanings. It requires both openness to the world and respect for tradition. It needs deep knowledge of our tradition and being attuned to the changes in our environment.
The Jewish world we live in today is a result of successive adaptations to an evolving world. All the Jewish ideologies that exist today, from Orthodoxy to Reform, from Zionism to Haredism, from Conservatism to Humanism, are, to some extent, 19th century creations that sought to keep the relevance of Judaism amid the changes of modernity. Our ideological landscape differs greatly from the one that existed a couple of centuries ago because the genius of our ancestors created different responses to the challenges that modernity confronted us with.
But as previous generations needed to rethink their Judaism, so does ours. The world today is different from the world of early modernity, as that world was different from the medieval one. We are seeing momentous changes in society, in science, in social relations, and in technology. These changes are not merely incremental; they are redefining the very essence of what it means to be human; they are changing the basic ideas upon which modern society is built. Ours is a world that requires new spiritual responses and new communal forms.
So our dance with change can’t stop. Rather, we need to learn new moves and adapt to a new music, played with instruments hitherto unknown.
Shavuot proves that it’s possible to do so; that careful changes and judicious adaptation enrich rather than destroy our traditions; that by knowing our sources we can find new meanings and novel sources of relevance. These adaptations have made it possible for every generation of Jews to access the wellsprings of meaning and comfort in Judaism.
It’s our turn now to wrestle lovingly with both our tradition and the world, to discover new ways of expressing and actualizing timeless values. We can pick up that gauntlet—we can accept the challenge that our tradition bequeathed us—or, instead, we can become a can of beer.