How a Traditional Shavuot Practice Could Revive American Civil Religion

In our times, respect for—and knowledge of—the Constitution and founding principles of the United States is sorely lacking among its citizenry, as are feelings of national solidarity and civic duty. But perhaps the Jewish practices related to the holiday of Shavuot, which begins Saturday evening and celebrates the giving of the Torah, can inspire ways to revive the American national spirit. Stuart Halpern and Tevi Troy suggest looking to the book of Ruth, traditionally read on the holiday, and its tale of immigration and mutual support—as well as its message of optimism. Meanwhile Dore Feith looks to the ritual of tikkun leyl Shavuot, or midnight-to-dawn study session, usually held on the first night of the holiday:

The study can be solitary, in pairs or study groups, or in lectures. It is intellectually enriching and socially fun. Usually-quiet neighborhoods buzz with activity deep into the night as celebrants stroll between lectures, see friends, and compare notes on insights they have picked up. At daybreak, the students of Shavuot eve become worshipers, migrating from study halls to synagogues for holiday prayers. Taken together, the studying and worship demonstrate the Jewish people’s recommitment to their covenant with God and His Law.

Recently, especially in Israel, secular Jews have also participated in Shavuot-eve study. They may not focus on religious texts, but they attend lessons on Jewish history, debate in public-policy salons, and stage music concerts (though Jewish religious law prohibits such concerts during the holiday). Secular Jews have transformed a religious ritual into a civic one that highlights texts and cultures, religious and secular, that have sustained the Jewish nation for millennia.

Americans could benefit from their own version of Shavuot eve—an annual rite of rededication to America’s principles through the reading (and rereading) of foundational texts.

Call it “Founding Night.” Once a year, bars, cafes, think tanks, and museums could stay open late into the night for lectures or texts study. Topics may range from one of the Federalist papers to the role of churches in early American political life and the music of that era. Love and veneration can also be expressed through criticism. Sessions could cover the founders’ accomplishments and sins, and their deliberations on slavery and the Native American tribes. Throughout the night people could drop into music concerts, receptions, and parties happening around town. Coffee would flow. It would be non-partisan. Founding Night could host a wide range of viewpoints while still being a clear celebration of the spirits of 1776 and 1787.

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Read more at First Things

More about: American founding, American society, Civil religion, Judaism, Shavuot

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy