I have written often here about how learning about Judaism brings new insights to my practice of Catholicism. The intertwining of the two faiths was very apparent this Pentecost due to the close timing of Passover and Easter, which naturally led to the same coincidence – 50 days later – of the Christian celebration of Pentecost and the Jewish feast of Shavuot, sometimes called the Feast of Weeks. Originally an agricultural festival, Shavuot called for offering the first sheaf of grain as commanded in the book of Leviticus.
As time went on and the people began to live outside the land of Israel or in non-agricultural settings, especially after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, the rabbis reinterpreted Shavuot to ensure its continued relevance. It came to be celebrated as the day God gave them the commandments on Sinai. We often think of “the law” in a negative way, contrasted with Christianity. Yet that is not how the Jewish people regard it at all. To them, the Torah is a gift from God who loves them; it shows them how to live and signifies their covenant with God. Shavuot celebrations include joyful commemoration and renewal of the covenant by studying Torah, often all night in communal gatherings; dairy foods like ice cream or cheesecake are eaten, perhaps harkening back to agricultural origins or possibly in reference to the land “flowing with milk and honey.”
An important point that was reinforced several times during my Melton School classes is that Jesus’ followers practiced Biblical Judaism of the Second Temple period, not the rabbinic Judaism of our contemporaries. I have been reflecting over the past few months that Jesus’ disciples naturally were familiar with the Torah, and in fact, it is part of our scriptures. Our designation of “Old” and “New” Testaments unfortunately implies that the Hebrew Scriptures have been superseded. I have become more and more curious to become familiar with these texts that were so foundational to the early believers. The “time of Pentecost” referred to in the reading from Acts of the Apostles on Sunday was in fact Shavuot!
I was thrilled to discover a Web site out of Australia, called Light of Torah, whose purpose is providing resources for Catholics to study the Hebrew scriptures.
“As a lay movement within the Catholic community our purpose is to facilitate a grassroots awakening to the beauty and riches of the Hebrew Scriptures (‘Old Testament’) through the study of Torah in homes, parishes and small community settings.
We do so with attention to the biblical insights and traditions of the Jewish people—our ancestors in faith and their present-day descendents—through whom God was revealed in history and through whom we have received Jesus, the Living Torah.”
That my e-mail subscription to their weekly Torah reflection began on Pentecost seems like a hopeful sign!