Beyond Cheesecake: Social Justice on Shavuot

May 18, 2015Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Over Memorial Day Weekend, Americans will be honoring the lives of those lost in service to their country. This weekend is also known as the celebration of the symbolic beginning of summer (often with barbecues and white pants, sometimes a dangerous combination). And, coinciding with Memorial Day Weekend this year is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai (and cheesecake).

When God gave our ancestors the Torah, we received instructions for Jewish practice and belief, a code of moral and religious obligations, and a set of laws, or halacha. As American Jews, we live also by another code - secular law, established by legislatures at the federal, state and local levels. We know that courts also play a critical role in this policy making process, weighing in on challenges to the law. Yet, despite the importance of the judicial system, there are currently 56 vacancies on the federal bench, meaning that the judicial system is not operating at capacity. Twenty four of these vacancies are in districts with a judicial emergency, where prolonged vacancies or a high volume of pending cases in districts or circuits with vacant seats has created a dire backlog on filings and cases. As far back as Moses, judges were appointed to help ensure justice. Shavuot reminds us of our responsibility to justice - to ensuring that all Americans can access the tzedek (justice) they deserve.

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has crafted a holiday guide for Shavuot that highlights key social justice topics that you can include in your Shavuot observance. Check out the holiday guide here, but keep reading to learn more about the connections between LGBT equality and economic justice to Shavuot.

LGBT Equality

Shavuot marks the end of the Omer, a period in which people traditionally refrain from getting married. While the end of Shavuot will lead into a period of simchas (joyous celebrations) and wedding festivities, many same-sex couples will still be unable to marry because of marriage equality bans. Even worse, many same-sex couples who do get marry risk losing their jobs or facing other forms of discrimination due to the lack of nondiscrimination protections in the majority of states. Exodus 20:15 states that “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking.” In Rabbinic tradition this is interpreted to mean that all people from generations past, present, and future were present—which would include Jews of all gender identities, and sexual orientations. This Shavuot, we must commit to making sure LGBT Jews can fully participate in our Jewish communities as well as our larger society by advocating for LGBT equality and against LGBT discrimination.

Economic Justice

In Leviticus, Shavuot is linked with the commandments of pei-ah (leaving crops at the corners of the field for the poor) and sh’chicha (leaving the fallen grain for the poor). Even as we celebrate the first fruits and the bounty of the land, we are to remember those in need. In this way, Shavout is an opportunity for us to think about how we can help those who are hungry. According to 2013 data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), over 49 million Americans lived in a household that faced difficulty affording enough food in 2013. Shavuot is a time for us to perform acts of g’milut chasadim (loving kindness) and in doing so to combat hunger. This September, Congress will need to address issues regarding reauthorization for child nutrition programs that are crucial to helping kids stay engaged in schools. It is essential that these programs stay funded so that children can get the support that they need. Urge your Members of Congress to fund important child nutrition programs today!

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