These two festivals could be seen to reflect what Christians once perceived to be the difference between Judaism and Christianity. Judaism, attached to and bound by the Law, was considered to be legalistic while Christianity had been liberated from the Law and was alive with the Holy Spirit. Law and spirit were seen to stand in opposition to one another. This was of course to misunderstand the nature of the two festivals, particularly the place of the Torah within Judaism.
The Torah and the Torah Scrolls are, for Jews, the symbol of God’s presence, the most sacred object of their faith and to live according to the Torah is to keep alive God’s presence among them. Last year I was privileged to be at an event in St Andrews University in which a Torah Scroll was given a new home in an Ark specially adapted to hold it. For me it was a privilege to see not only the respect and reverence of the Jewish community as they welcomed the Scroll to its new home but the joy and festivity expressed in their dancing as the Scroll was passed from person to person. I was very privileged to be part of this and humbled especially as some Orthodox women friends wouldn’t touch the Scroll because of its holiness. It seemed like sacrilege to them to do so.
In the light of this it’s easy to see how important the festival of Shavuot is, what a joyful thing it is to remember and celebrate the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt Sinai. But to understand the Torah it’s important to understand the spirit behind it. And this is perfectly illustrated by the fact that the Book of Ruth is the scripture read in the synagogue at Shavuot. This is the story of Ruth, a gentile, whose kindness to her mother-in-law Naomi, whom she refuses to leave after the death of her husband, results in kindness being shown to her by Boaz, who marries her and cares for her and Naomi. The story is about love and concerned caring for others – chesed, loving kindness, an important virtue within Judaism. It is chesed that characterises Judaism’s relationship with God and with others and is at the heart of Shavuot. The giving of the Law was the moment when God made a covenant with His people, best described, suggests Lord Jonathan Sacks, in the words of the Prophet Hosea. “I betroth you to me forever, I betroth you to me in justice and righteousness and kindness and compassion. I betroth you to me in faith, and you will know the Lord.” This is the Spirit in which the Torah is loved and lived and which renders daily living an act of worship.
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 resurrection. It gave them the courage to continue his work and live according to his way. It turned fearful men and women into courageous witnesses. It brought peace and joy and, above all, love. All else seemed to be unimportant in the light of this overpowering gift. But it did not do away with Law. To live by God’s Spirit is to live in love, to seek justice, to care for the poor and marginalised, to have a concern for the common good – all the concerns that are at the heart of Torah. Of course it’s always possible to live according to the letter of the law, an approach which can result in inflexibility, judgementalism, self-righteousness. It’s also possible to live in a spirit of freedom that is in fact a cover for selfishness, self-seeking, a lack of commitment and a refusal to conform or adapt to those around us. Both Judaism and Christianity have seen both approaches throughout their history for the gift of the Spirit didn’t prevent Christianity from developing its own inflexible laws and structures.
The Torah for Jews is like a sacrament, a tangible expression of God’s presence amongst them. It can be respected and revered by Christians. The Holy Spirit on the other hand is intangible. Like the wind it can only be seen by its effect – fidelity, kindness, compassion, courage, justice, peace, joy, generosity, care for one another and creation – bringing about all that is best in human nature. And wherever these are present there is God’s Spirit, a Spirit that blows where it wills and cannot be contained by any law or tradition, even while present within them. It is God’s Spirit amongst us that gives hope to our world and evident in the goodness and generosity around us.