Shavuot reflection: ‘We will always be on a quest to know more’

9 June 2024 – 3 Sivan 5784

Shavuot Reflection

By Rabbi Alexandra Wright (Co-Chair of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors) and Rabbi Kath Vardi (Co-Chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Cantors)

Somewhere between the pre-Darwinian fundamentalists and the ‘new atheists’ with their unsophisticated distaste for religion and God, lies Progressive Judaism: post-Darwinian in its acceptance of evolution, scientific in its critical scholarship of the Torah, caught in the currents of modernity, post-modernity, existentialism, autonomy and radical theology. The real question for Progressive Jews at Shavuot, z’man mattan Torateinu – ‘the season of the giving of the Torah,’ is not how we interpret the commandments which point the way clearly towards social and ethical ideals – the preciousness of human life, regard for the property of others, truth, rest on Shabbat, honour of one’s parents, and the need for restraint and control to limit our desire for acquisition. The real question for progressive Jews arises from the preface to those Ten Words – Aseret Ha-Dibrot – Va-y’ddabeir Elohim et kol ha-d’varim ha-eleh leimor – ‘And God spoke all these words saying…’ (Exodus 20:1).

Where do we place ourselves in our understanding of revelation? Are we to understand these words literally: that at some given time in our history, three months after the Israelites left Egypt, at an appointed place on Mount Sinai in the middle of the Egyptian desert, God spoke these words to Moses, instructing him to write them down and teach them to the Israelites? And if God did reveal Him or Herself, how did she or he speak? How were these divine utterances heard? Did God speak, as Rashi indicates in his commentary to this verse, b’dibbur echad – ‘in one utterance’, by-passing the inclination to understand it literally by qualifying it in a metaphysical way: God spoke in a way that is impossible for human beings to speak (Rashi ad loc)?

Or do we simply dismiss the account as myth, a story composed by an author or authors to account for the presence of a group of tribes who made their distinctive appearance in the land of Canaan some three and a half or so thousand years ago? Do we eschew the metaphysics of revelation and take the view of the sceptical rationalist who would argue not only for the improbability of divine revelation on Sinai, but its absurdity? Richard Dawkins would argue that the probability of the Torah being dictated by God on Sinai is as unlikely as a Boeing 747 being assembled by a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard or ‘assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts…’ (The God Delusion, page 138).

Herbert Loewe, an Orthodox Jew who compiled A Rabbinic Anthology with Claude Montefiore – a Liberal Jew, warned against ‘giving a blank cheque to all that goes by the name of modern scholarship. He quotes Solomon Schechter who ‘once spoke of certain aspects of biblical criticism as ‘the Higher Anti-Semitism’. The remark,’ says Loewe, ‘is sometimes justified, for certain well-known tendencies are both destructive of the idea of Revelation in general, and, in particular, are also intended to demonstrate that no ethical good can come out of Israel.’ There are few today, he writes, ‘who would deny that Moses existed and that he was a recipient of Revelation in some form’ (p. lxvi). But Loewe’s view of revelation may not be radically different from a progressive Jewish idea, or at least from Montefiore’s. ‘The case which we would set out is simply that our attitude towards Holy Scripture must be based on the acceptance of Revelation and be guided by the teachings of history and archaeology.’ This is a matter of degree rather than difference – ‘Some Liberals,’ he goes on to say, ‘may prefer to stress the development rather than the source’ (p. lxvii). In other words, revelation is seen as a daily occurrence rather than a single, historic event in the past.

Where do we stand in relation to the sceptics, to those who would argue for the improbability of God and scientific impossibility of revelation on Sinai? Many people, argues Abraham Joshua Heschel ‘reject the Bible because of a mistaken notion that revelation has proved to be scientifically impossible’ (‘A Preface to an Understanding of Revelation’ in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 185). ‘At best it is regarded as a fairy tale on a par with the conception that lightning and thunder are signs of anger of sundry gods and demons, rather than the result of a sudden expansion of air in the path of an electric discharge.’ There is no argument say those who decry the ‘truth’ of Revelation – it is simply humanity’s mistaken illusion for a supernatural event.

The problem for us today, says Heschel, arises not from the authenticity of prophetic experiences, but from our rather vague and confused conception of God. The question what does God demand of us has ‘gone out of the world.’ The divine voice is ‘alien to our minds, to our hearts to our souls’ (p. 186).

The complex issue of revelation presupposes certain assumptions about the existence and nature of God who communicates His or Her will to human beings. For the prophets – an Amos or Isaiah, Jeremiah or Hosea – the voice of God is immediate, coercive; it is the voice of moral indignation and anger, or suffering, pity and lament. There is no probability about the existence of God for these men, not only do they believe, but they know to the very core of their being, that God exists, and that God speaks to them and through them.

But does God speak to us in the same way? Even if the high probability of God’s existence creates an assumption that God is present in some way, what are we to believe happened at Sinai?

Judaism does not create the acute polarisation of belief or absence of belief in revelation that might occur in certain other religions. It is by no means clear that the Rabbis, when they speak about the giving of the Torah on Sinai, regard this as an historical moment in time. Consider this midrash on Exodus 19:1: Ba-chodesh ha-sh’lishi l’tzeit b’nei-Yisrael me-eretz Mitzrayim ba-yom ha-zeh ba’u midbar Sinai – ‘On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on this very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.’ The Rabbis ask: why does it say ba-yom ha-zeh [and not ba-yom ha-hu] – on this day, rather than on that day? The answer does not locate revelation at some historical moment in the past, but rather gives it an immediate significance in the present: ‘Because, when you learn Torah, let not its commands seem old to you, but regard them as though the Torah were given on this day. Hence it says, ‘On this day’, and not ‘on that day’ (Sifre Deut., Va-etchanan, 33, f. 74a). Revelation to the authors of this midrash is not an event in the past, it is what we experience now when we read the Torah, when we study its meaning for ourselves, today and every day.

For the Rabbis too, it was not only the Written Torah – the Five Books of Moses – that was said to be given on Sinai. The Oral Law, too, was also believed to have been conveyed to Moses on Sinai. But did the Rabbis believe word for word that these two bodies of Law, the Written and Oral, were really dictated by God to Moses on Sinai? In a midrashic commentary on Numbers (Num. R. Naso, 14:10), the focus is not on the mechanics of revelation, how it happened, but is rather a refutation, or a polemic against Christian appropriation of the Five Books in the Old Testament. It is the Oral Torah, say the Sages that distinguishes the Israelites from the other nations. ‘It was not given in writing so that the nations should not falsify it, as they have done with the Written Law, and say that they are the true Israel.’

This may be a distasteful interpretation to us, but setting aside the polemics, can it tell us anything about the Sages’ understanding of revelation? Sinai may not be a historical moment in chronological time for Jewish exegetes, but it is a symbol of religious authenticity, of a living covenant between God and the Jewish people. It isn’t only the Torah, the Five Books that distinguishes us as a singular people, but Mishnah, Aggadah, Talmud, for God spoke all these words, as it says in the preface to the Ten Words, even the answers to questions which distinguished scholars in the future are destined to ask their teachers did God reveal to Moses (Tanhuma, B., Ki Tissa 58b).

There are times, mostly in the classroom, when progressive Jews must approach the Torah with all critical faculties alert, with tools of knowledge and scientific enquiry. But there are other times – when we are immersed in the week to week reading of the Torah, in our celebration of festivals and in the silence of prayer and reflection, when Sinai and the Torah yield different questions about our faith, about how God addresses us, how we address God, about the strength of our loyalty to the covenant today.

The question for progressive Jews is not whether we accept the factual truth of Sinai versus the fairy-tale, whether Moses is the author of the Torah or a procession of priestly narrators, codifiers and redactors, but whether we can adopt Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ and immerse ourselves in a narrative about revelation, a code that makes certain moral and other demands on us, that connects us with questions about the mysteries of life and death, of good and evil, of suffering and joy, faith and doubt.

And even if we dismiss the myth with its hidden meanings, we are still left ultimately with the unanswered question: where did the idea of Sinai come from? And for as long as that question remains unanswered, we will always be on a quest to know more about the origins of our people and their ongoing, on and off relationship with the Unseen Presence, the deepest part of ourselves, that some people call God.

  • Picture courtesy of the Union for Reform Judaism, America.
  • A shortened version of this piece will be featured in the Jewish News.

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