Susannah Dainow

Shavuot: In Celebration of Interpretation

This year, for the first time, I joined the oldest book club in the world and made a mostly successful attempt to read the parsha every week. I was a little late to the party: I started well after Simchat Torah, when it occurred to me one day that I had never read the Torah in full and would like to. That week I caught up and began Genesis with ardour. The familiar poetry of the first chapters is enough to inspire anyone.

But my appreciation changed along the way. The beauty of the writing gave way to some nonsensical interpersonal, and supernatural, dramas. Or at least, they read to me as nonsensical with my post-Iron Age eye.

One of the miracles of Judaism is that it has found ways to sustain itself throughout the millennia while working with a very site- and time-specific core text. That miracle has been made possible by the shift from a Torah-based civilization, to one of rabbinic interpretation with the loss of the Second Temple to the Romans in 70 CE. The practice of rabbinic midrash continues in contemporary Judaism, although there is no modern document as authoritative as the Talmud; furthermore, there are many rabbis who posit that all Jews hold their own unique piece of Torah, or wisdom and understanding of the tradition, to be shared with the Jewish people.

However, the challenges of the core text to a modern audience remain. We are commanded to celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai on this upcoming holiday of Shavuot, and it is the written record of the genesis (and Genesis) of our peoplehood and faith. Yet the confusion awaiting a modern reader is rampant: why does G-d forbid mixing fibers in clothing? Why is all fat of the sacrifice G-d’s? Why did G-d choose us in the first place, when G-d doesn’t seem to like us very much? Why does G-d repeat sets of rules multiple times, using up valuable tablet (or parchment) space?

This confusion is especially the case for the contemporary reader where issues of patriarchy come into play. The first time I tried to read the Torah, on a kibbutz with the earth of Ha’aretz under my fingernails, I didn’t get further than Genesis 12:10 because I couldn’t understand a pre-feminist world. I couldn’t read to understand a world that was no longer mine, so old as the Iron Age. It was the same rigidity that had led me, nearly a decade earlier, to beat my copy of The Odyssey, required reading in my high school, until the spine broke down the middle against my desk. It was a worldview I didn’t understand, raised steeped as I was in second-wave feminism, and moreover didn’t want to. But I didn’t realize what I was losing in the process of my rigid modernism.

Although I am still a feminist, and certain patriarchal aspects of our inheritance are nothing short of anathema to me, I like to think I have become more able to learn about the different outlooks of different times, and thus to view Torah as a system both of its era, and able to speak to current realities. The fact that I and millions of other Jews worldwide still study it means it also speaks to the contemporary era. With its myriad contradictions and complications in tow, it is still timeless. We, and our partnership with G-d, have made it timeless.

According to the Shalom Hartman model of Jewish education, most modern Diaspora Jews are Jews of this interpretive tradition. We do not perform animal sacrifices; we do not take the Torah literally but rather as inspired literature whose wisdom we can decode and co-create with G-d if we study. We understand Torah as the beginning point, rather than the end point, of our tradition, onto which thousands of years of culture and history have been added.

All of this history has developed our current, diverse Jewish cultures without breaking the link to our beginnings or to each other. That is perhaps the core of what we celebrate on Shavuot: the giving of a beginning, to which we have brought to bear our own human intelligence and worship, in order to co-create with our G-d the traditions and cultures we know today. This is why we study Torah all night, to demonstrate to G-d that we are ready to live as Jews now, in the interpretive tradition whose origins started with the giving of our core text at Mount Sinai.

And there are as many ways of interpreting as there are Jews. As I read recently in the outline of a class on the Torah and disability: “The Torah contains multitudes—white fire on black fire—the written and the concealed—the revealed and the hidden.” This was perhaps my big mistake when I set the Torah aside when I was 19 on the kibbutz: I was only interested in one interpretation, the one that made logical sense to me in my context.

I would not have progressed this far in my reading of the Torah without support; we are not meant to read the Holy Books alone but to study with others who can enlighten our understanding, and we theirs. I have had as my companion this year the book Eternal Questions by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, who takes a modern mindfulness approach to classic and Hasidic Jewish texts and issues one parsha at a time. I am also deeply fortunate to have a built-in chavruta in my husband, who reads the parshot weekly with me and discusses them in the living room on quiet Shabbat afternoons. We do not shy away from the Torah’s difficulties and contradictions; in fact, we think wrestling with these challenges is part of what makes us Jews.

The holiday of Shavuot gives us the opportunity to celebrate the Torah’s multiple ways of meaning and knowing, just as we celebrate both our unity and diversity as a people. Shavuot is, most of all this year, an opportunity to stand as a unified people during a divisive time. It is the moment when the entirety of the Jewish people – past, present, and future – comes together to begin our life together as a nation, addressed by our G-d and gifted with holy writing and mitzvot. In the modern Jewish world it is perhaps an under-recognized holiday; this year gives us the chance to give Shavuot its due, to celebrate our peoplehood and common origins, even if and because they have taken us far afield. In Toronto there is an all-night series of study sessions to celebrate that takes place at a centrally-located Jewish Community Centre; perhaps there is something like this near you. Or perhaps you can gather some friends and family and good books like Eternal Questions and have an all-night jam of your own.


About the Author
Susannah Dainow is a writer and recovering lawyer based in Toronto, Canada. She writes fiction, essays, and poetry, often with a Jewish lens. Currently, she is at work on Aliyah, an intergenerational Jewish family story that explores Israel-Diaspora relations.