Shavuot: Choosing Our Tribe

May 3, 2013Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

On Shavuot, every spring, we return to Sinai. We stand at the foot of the mountain enveloped in cloud and fire, the mountain hanging over our heads as if dangling from the Heavens themselves1, and we accept the Torah that was given to us when we assembled there together in the Wilderness long ago.

Our tradition holds that all who are Jewish, in any generation, were in attendance at Sinai: the Israelites of the Exodus standing there in person and the souls of all Jews of future generations there as well, even though their bodies had not yet been created.2 We say that those included the souls of those who came to Judaism through their birth as well as those who became Jews later in their lives-both are equally considered to be children of Abraham and Sarah.

In many segments of the liberal Jewish world, we have shifted from using the term "convert" to the term "Jew by choice." But, in our age of multiple identities, all of us are Jews by choice-or, at least, we have the option of when and how to identify ourselves as Jewish and to access our Judaism. Indeed, our tradition suggests that at the time of Sinai, too, the choice to be a part of this way of life was ours. As Maimonides wrote in his famous "Letter to Ovadiah the Proselyte,"

Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy One, may He be blessed, sent Moses our teacher, the master of all prophets, who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence, us and all proselytes, and gave to all of us one law.

That is, the Israelites in the generation of the Exodus themselves were not a people distinct in their beliefs or behaviors until they learned together and practiced together. Indeed, the Torah suggests that those who crossed the Sea were not only the direct descendents of Jacob (Joseph and his brothers' children's children) but that a "mixed multitude" accompanied them,3 eventually to be integrated into B'nei Yisrael, this same family. Those who were Children of Israel by birth and those who were Children of Israel by adoption all had to make the active choice to join not only in the belief in one God but also in the identity as one nation there at Sinai, as we make the same active choice today.

Ruth made this choice when she elected to accompany Naomi into Naomi's family, community, and fortune. The Jew by choice sitting next to us in synagogue, or at our kitchen table, affirmed this choice when he entered the mikveh or when she stood before her beit din. Each of us makes this choice each time we intentionally engage in Jewish ritual, meaningfully take part in Jewish conversation, or deliberately teach the words of our tradition to our children, speak of them at home or on our way, when we lie down or rise up.4

We are given the opportunity every year at Shavuot to commit and recommit ourselves to this Tribe - this amalgamated, multitudinous, somewhat batty people, whose beliefs are not all the same, whose practices are not all the same, whose heritage is not all the same, and yet who identify as having a shared name, a shared story, and a shared lineage, by birth or otherwise. Let us turn to each other this Shavuot, this year and every year-to our spouses, our children, our friends, and our neighbors-and say with Ruth, "Your people will be my people, and your God my God."5

  1. BT Avodah Zara 2b; BT Shabbat 88a
  2. Midrash Tanhuma, Nitzvim 3
  3. Exodus 12:38
  4. Deuteronomy 6:7
  5. Ruth 1:16.

Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis serves as the Pedagogic Coach to the faculty of Mayim: The Elementary Learning Community at Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, MA, and as the rabbi of Temple Shir Hadash in Westford, MA. She lives in Natick, with her husband, Seth, who taught her by example about what it means to actively choose to become a Jew, and their son, Gershom.

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