Rethinking the Holy Days

October 14, 2012Rabbi 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.

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