The Revelation of Shavuot: Covenants of Solidarity

Our blog this past month featured DSA member and incoming rabbinical student Lili Mandl writing on “The Revelation of Shavuot: Covenants of Solidarity:”

Reading the Book of Ruth each year on Shavuot reminds us of the bonds that transcend the particulars of interest and advantage, of an unbreakable solidarity that sees and fights for our shared humanity, for the full realization of God’s image in each and every person . . .

Ruth stays despite everything and from her comes the great King David. Through solidarity comes hope; new possibilities; and in this case, new life. The Story of Ruth teaches us that solidarity can be tested in precisely the moments it would be most convenient to look away. In the most trying times, we often experience our own revelations when we witness who shows up, who sticks around, and who disappears altogether. This is the solidarity of socialism, the solidarity between comrades. It is the solidarity of Eugene V. Debs, echoed in his famous words that “while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” All too often, capitalists cynically fan the flames of racism and sexism, and any available sort of bigotry and oppression to thwart worker solidarity.

“I see the covenant renewed in the masses of people who have shown up demanding an end to the violence, an end to weapons sales, and an end to the Occupation. . . .On a personal level, it has been especially touching for me to see the overwhelming number of progressive Jews of all ages proclaiming loudly and proudly, “Not In My Name.” Now, more than ever before, people are manifesting the bold and uncompromising solidarity of Ruth.”

**

On the Jewish holiday of Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Shavuot can be translated in English to mean “Feast of Weeks,” because Shavuot arrives seven weeks after the first day of Passover.

For brief context, Passover marks the Exodus from Egypt, in which God freed the Israelite people from exploitation under Pharaoh, starting them on the journey to the land of milk and honey. The Exodus story has represented struggles against domination for centuries. The Israelites, newly freed, cautious, and vulnerable, had to wait 49 days to receive their covenant and 40 years before they set foot on the Promised Land. But they remain faithful to their covenant, with a healthy dose of kvetching (complaining) along the way.  

The Rabbinic tradition maintains that to celebrate Shavuot, to commemorate the covenant forged at Sinai, we read from the Book of Ruth. This story begins amid a famine ravaging the land of Judah, where we meet Elimelech; his wife, Naomi; and their two sons, Machlon and Chilyon. Desperate to escape starvation, the family flees to Moab, described most often in the Bible as enemy territory. Elimelech dies following their arrival, leaving Naomi widowed and their two sons fatherless. Both sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. When Machlon and Chilyon die, however, all three women have been left widowed and childless. The political economy of the Bible functions similarly to that of a Jane Austen novel: without the protection of men, the women face homelessness and worse. 

When Naomi gets word that food has been restored to the land of Judah, she opts to return. Orpah and Ruth seem willing to accompany her, but Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to consider their own wellbeing first. She urges them to “turn back, my daughters…. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up? Should you on their account debar yourselves from marriage? […] My lot is far more bitter than yours.” The women weep, and Orpah says goodbye. Ruth, however, insists on staying. In a remarkable gesture of solidarity, she vows, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you will die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” 

Although every odd is stacked against her, Ruth insists on standing by Naomi. In the end, Ruth gives birth to a son who will become the grandfather of the great King David. Through solidarity comes hope; new possibilities; and in this case, new life. The Story of Ruth teaches us that solidarity can be tested in precisely the moments it would be most convenient to look away. In the most trying times, we often experience our own revelations when we witness who shows up, who sticks around, and who disappears altogether. 

Today, many observe Shavuot by staying up throughout the night to commemorate the experience of those standing at Sinai, who waited in nervous anticipation for a sign that God would not abandon them. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, citing the teaching of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, describes the goal of the covenant as “the completion of being, the full realization of humanness….[the covenant] is a turning of the whole person to the other, the two are bound together in a wholeness that transcends all the particulars of interest and advantage.” 

This is the solidarity of socialism, the solidarity between comrades. It is the solidarity of Eugene V. Debs, echoed in his famous words that “while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” All too often, capitalists cynically fan the flames of racism and sexism, and any available sort of bigotry and oppression to thwart worker solidarity. Reading the Book of Ruth each year on Shavuot reminds us of the bonds that transcend the particulars of interest and advantage, of an unbreakable solidarity that sees and fights for our shared humanity, for the full realization of God’s image in each and every person.

Of course, history has challenged the covenant time and time again with horrific acts of cruelty. Where is the God of the covenant when Benjamin Netanyahu recklessly orders the bombing of the Palestinian people? In what kind of promised land do Israeli security forces tear gas Palestinians gathered in prayer at one the most sacred sites in the Holy City? What kind of democracy can exist in a land where parents fear for the safety of their children against one of the most technologically-advanced armies in the world? 

I see the covenant renewed in the masses of people who have shown up demanding an end to the violence, an end to weapons sales, and an end to the Occupation. On May 15 in Los Angeles, we saw the largest demonstration for Palestine in the city’s history. The Non-governmental Organization Human Rights Watch recently issued a report finding that “Israeli authorities are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

On a personal level, it has been especially touching for me to see the overwhelming number of progressive Jews of all ages proclaiming loudly and proudly, “Not In My Name.” Now, more than ever before, people are manifesting the bold and uncompromising solidarity of Ruth. 

Shavuot is a time of celebration. This year, let us celebrate this unprecedented wave of Palestinian solidarity—and enter into covenants with one another even and especially when it is risky, even dangerous to do so. And then, may our revelation become a revolution. 

Lili Mandl is a member of DSA-Los Angeles and an incoming rabbinical student. 

Also, our blog featured Robert Francis Murphy, a Unitarian Universalist minister and DSA member, writing “What Would the Buddha Do? Asking the Right Questions on Wesak”:

“For Wesak, many homes are decorated with lights, and some Buddhists make a special effort to use clean energy. Garden paths are often lined with solar lanterns. Some Buddhists speak about the need to protect the natural world, while others emphasize the importance of economic and social justice, but engaged Buddhists agree that energy use is always an ethical concern . . .  

“What would the Buddha do in today’s world?”

Each week at www.religioussocialism.org, we either publish original articles or lift up pieces connected to our work. Check us out on Twitter or Facebook

This Month on Our “Heart of a Heartless World” Podcast:

Our most recent episodes of Heart of a Heartless World feature:

Stephen Crouch interviewing author and professor Eugene McCarraher about the “misenchanted” qualities of capitalist society. Dr. McCarraher is the author of the 800-page tome entitled, Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (2019). During the episode, Dr. McCarraher discusses the shortcomings of Marxism and the Protestant work ethic, and suggests a better path forward through the anti-capitalist Romantic tradition with its “enchanted” view of the world.  

Colleen Shaddox interviewing Mark Colville, one of the Catholic plowshares activists who make real the prophet Isaiah’s command to “beat swords into plowshares” and is preparing to enter prison to serve his sentence for his and other activists’ protest at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. During the episode, Colville said he looked forward to reading the Bible during his sentence. After all, he says, much of the Bible was written inside a prison—what better place to read it?  

Look for these and future podcast episodes on our Soundcloud channel and announced on Twitter and Facebook

Scholar-Activist Encounter Co-Sponsored by RS Working Group

Our Religion and Socialism Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America co-sponsored with the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice a special Scholar-Activist Encounter featuring our own Rabbi Michael Feinberg and Dr. Norman Gottwald. The focus of the discussion was the continuing relevance of Dr. Gottwald’s 1979 book Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 BCE, and its central thesis regarding political and sociological dynamics surrounding the emergence of the Jewish people, including his nontraditional reading of the slaughter of the Canaanites.

They discussed how Dr. Gottwald’s thesis influenced activists like Rabbi Feinberg, how his thinking has evolved since its publication, and how these ideas are relevant for multifaith movement-building today. The event was held May 20th, but you can watch a replay of the event here.

“Building the Religious Left” Conference Videos Online

On April 24th and 25th, we welcomed the largest gathering of the multifaith religious Left in DSA’s history, perhaps in U.S. history, where we committed ourselves to working within our own traditions, in our own regions, and as a national body.

More than 700 of you registered to start telling a different story than the one the religious Right tells. If you could not join us  or missed some of the sessions, most are available to view on our YouTube channel here.

Religious Left Reading This Month

Last month saw several important, interesting articles published on religious Left topics and/or by our religious Left comrades, including:

***Our RS Working Group colleague Nicole-Ann Lobo, wrote in Dissent on “The Roots of India’s COVID Crisis”: “Much of what has rendered India a disaster zone is the direct result of Modi’s policies. Yet even before Modi, India had deemphasized the importance of investing in public health and, more recently, focused on the short-term “benefits” of privatization.”

***DSA member, “The Magnificast” podcast co-host, and Fight for 15 digital organizer Matt Bernico wrote “Wage Against the Machine” for Sojourners:

“Informed by biblical tradition, Christians cannot be neutral in matters of wages and must advocate for workers’ rights. What’s at stake in the labor/pay shortage discourse is the story we tell ourselves about the economy and how it works . . .All too often, employers even spin a rhetorical web of racist and anti-worker tropes to avoid paying a fair price for the labor they need.”

***We also want to lift up: Matthew Sitman in The New Republic on “Whither the Religious Left,”; Stephen Mattson in Sojourners on, “Why Democratic Socialism Isn’t Anti-Christian,” , Amanda Marcotte, writing in Salon on “Church Membership is in a Freefall, and the Christian Right Has Only Themselves to Blame” and a Vox article interviewing multi-faith leaders on What Does Religion Have to Say About Justice?

Get involved! If you would like to be a part of our national working group, get some guidance on starting your own area/denominational group, or contribute to our weekly publication, let us know here or by contacting maxine.phillips(at)gmail.com. We’d love to have you join us!

Invite your friends! If you have family or friends who would like to get connected to the DSA Religion & Socialism Working Group, please forward this newsletter to them and invite them to visit www.religioussocialism.org and sign up to receive our monthly newsletter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s