The Christian festival of Pentecost also celebrates God’s presence among His people. This time the gift is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, that same Spirit which animated Jesus. It was the gift given to the disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection. It gave them the courage to continue his mission and live according to his way. It turned fearful men and women into courageous witnesses to the life and message of Jesus. The Holy Spirit was the continuing presence of Jesus in his community, not in a physical way but in a spiritual way. And to live according to the Spirit is to keep alive God’s presence and influence in the world today – in a sense to do for Christianity what the Torah does for Judaism.
The two festivals are connected but it’s possible to understand the difference as one faith being focussed on the Law with the other on Spirit, giving rise to the anti-Jewish tropes which suggest that Judaism is legalistic as is the God of the Old Testament while the God of the New Testament is loving and merciful. This is to misunderstand the Old Testament which has some of the most beautiful and moving passages on the love of God in the whole of the Christian bible. It is also to misunderstand the Law which for the Jews is more like a contract within the context of a covenantal relationship in which both sides bind themselves to one another to live together in a loving relationship.
I was able to witness just how much the physical representation of the Law in the Torah Scrolls is a symbol of the loving and joyful presence of God amongst his people a few years ago. I so happened to be in the town of St Andrews and the Scrolls of the Law were being transferred from a synagogue in Dundee to a specially designed Ark or resting place in the university chaplaincy. The joy and delight with which the Scrolls were received, passed from one to the other in an atmosphere of song and dance showed how significant the law is to the Jewish community. Within the Orthodox community the Scrolls are only held and passed on by the men of the community though in the Reform community both men and women can handle them. Because it was a mixed congregation, I was handed the Scrolls and able to embrace and dance with them. It was a sacred moment for me, and I felt very privileged to share these moments of intimacy. The sacredness of the moment was brought home to me when a woman from the Orthodox community told me that it was like sacrilege for her to touch and carry the Scrolls. She wouldn’t presume to do so because they were so sacred. I wonder if she was shocked that I had had the temerity to carry them and whether in any way that seemed to devalue them.
This awe and wonder inspired by the Torah is something we Christians must learn and appreciate. Only then will they have an insight into the heart and beauty of Judaism. But many Christians see Judaism as narrowly legalistic. This is to forget that Jesus lived by the Law, never suggested doing away with. Rather he saw himself as fulfilling it. It is to forget that the gift of the Spirit was given to Jesus’ followers as they gathered to celebrate Shavuot. In the recent newsletter of the Christians and Jews Prof. John Barton, emeritus professor at Oxford University is quoted:
'The 'law' that some Christians since Paul have opposed is not the Torah as Jews affirm it. It is a Christian construct, found in over-scrupulous and legalistic branches of Christianity that need the liberation that Paul proclaimed. Christians projected this legalism on to Judaism, but there are many varieties of Christianity that affirm, with the Psalmist, that 'your law is a lantern for my feet and a light upon my path'. Even Paul did not preach 'freedom from the law', if 'law' is understood like this, as a joyful vocation rather than as a set of forbidding demands.'
Understanding Pentecost from the perspective of Shavuot allows Christians to appreciate the significance of Law for their Jewish brothers and sisters. It can also help them deepen their understanding of the gift of the Holy Spirit and rejoice in the presence of God in both Law and Spirit, something that surely unites rather than divides us.