Can non-observant Jews like me celebrate the giving of the Law on Shavuot?
by Ruth Rosen | April 20 2021
When I think about Shavuot, I’m ready to bring on the blintzes … but studying Torah all night? Not so much. While I don’t observe much of rabbinic tradition, I am a person of faith. So, this year I challenged myself to think deeply about what it could mean for someone like me who is not Torah observant to celebrate the giving of the Law. Here are some of the reasons why I believe non-observant Jews can still celebrate the Torah.
The Law reminds us that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and that makes life worth living. Granted, we might not always agree about what actually lands in the “right” category and what lands in the “wrong” category. Still, the very concept of the Law that tells us some things are right and some things are wrong is essential. Who wants to live in a world where everyone decides what is right or wrong based on what satisfies their particular needs and wants? That’s a recipe for injustice and exploitation. What basis would we have to claim that a world of peace, justice, and the opportunity for everyone to thrive is better than a world that favors those who can control and manipulate others? The Law makes a better world possible, because it defines our idea of “better.”
The Law wasn’t given by me or by you, and that’s a good thing. Neither you, nor I, nor anyone else we know is qualified to determine what is right and wrong in every situation. No matter how stubbornly I might insist that I’m right about this or that, I don’t think I’d want to live in a world where everything I thought, did, and said was held up as the measuring stick. Most of us would admit that we fail at some point to live up to our own standards—so how on earth could we possibly set the best possible standards for everyone else? I can celebrate that Someone more righteous than I am has done that.
The Law shows us that God cares enough to let us glimpse His holiness. What if God said, “I’m perfectly holy and I want you to be holy” (which He did, several times, in the Jewish Bible), and then added, “But I’m not going to tell you what that means or how to even aim for it.” A lot of people think that being holy means being religious, so they’re not interested in the line between holy and unholy. But holiness is God’s special beauty that sets Him apart as the most loving, the most righteous, the most just, and the wisest of beings. And God cared enough to point out anything that detracts from holiness so we would not be left clueless about what He wants for us.
The Law shows that God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. It’s impossible for even the most pious human being to keep God’s Law perfectly; in fact, the Law clearly shows that God expected mess ups. So why should we celebrate it? God’s goal in giving us the Law was not to make us perfect, but to show us His perfection and to help us see where we fall short. And that’s a good thing, because God does not want that huge gap to remain between us. This is why He sent His Messiah, Yeshua, to live a perfect life in our place. His righteousness is counted before God as our holiness (1 Peter 3:18). And because of this, we can bridge that gap and connect as imperfect people with a perfect God.
The Law is about the relationship God wants to have with us. When God gave us the Torah, He wasn’t saying, “Here are 613 dos and don’ts that you have to keep perfectly in order for Me to love you.” We might think of the Law more like, “Here are hundreds of ways that I’m showing something about how holy I Am, and how I want you to reflect the beauty of My holiness. And even though unholiness separates Me from you, I love you passionately.” The God of the Torah is not a distant, uncaring deity who has nothing to say about our lives. He is also not a vending machine who will give us what we want if we push the right button. He is a God who wants to be known.
Celebrating the Torah is about celebrating God’s passion for perfection, beauty, and grace. One of God’s most amazing promises is that He would one day put His Law in our hearts. He wants to put something within us to make it possible for us to live and love more fully than we could ever imagine.