How a Traditional Shavuot Practice Could Revive American Civil Religion

June 3, 2022 | Dore Feith
About the author: Dore Feith is a senior at Columbia University, where he studies history and Arabic.

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.

Read more on First Things: