The biblical harvest festival of Shavuot, which comes round again this week, is also the anniversary of the Sinai Covenant which is the defining moment of Judaism as a religious and civil system. In my opinion, it matters little whether this association between Shavuot and Sinai was implicit in the Torah if not explicit or if it was a later Rabbinic response to the loss of land and Temple. The fact is that Shavuot and the phenomenon it represents that has come to be known as ‘Revelation,’ are essential components of Judaism today.
The great medieval rabbi and thinker Josef Albo (Spain 1380-1444) wrote his Sefer Iqarim, the Book of Principles, in response to those who claimed that Judaism had a series of dogmas. He rejected the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides and instead posited that Judaism depends on three primary principles alone, God, Benevolence and Revelation ( there were, he agreed other important ideas, but they were not so essential). Much later Moses Mendlessohn (1729-1786 ) in his book ‘Jerusalem,’ repeated this assertion of Albo’s in arguing that Judaism was not a religion of Dogma, unlike Christianity. Since I have in recent months dealt with the first two on Albo’s list, it’s now an appropriate time to tackle number three.
God and Benevolence (that God cares about humans and rewards or punishes them) are common to all Monotheistic religions. So is ‘Revelation.’ But it is the content of revelation and its process that really differentiates one religion from the other. It is often suggested that Jewish revelation on Sinai was public whereas the others were private. But if, as Second Kings Chapter 22 and Second Chronicles Chapter 34 state, it was possible for the Priests, let alone the people, to lose one of if not the whole of the Torah, only to re-discover it in King Josiah’s day, then it is possible that much of the Sinai narrative was of later origin if not inspiration, in theory at least. But it certainly undermines the Yehudah Halevy idea in Kuzari that something witnessed by a whole people cannot be false (and we do not need to explore examples particularly in Catholic history of mass religious hysteria). Spinoza (who I love as a philosopher but find his anti Judaism his blind spot) argued that revelation through the medium of Law was inferior to revelation through personal inspiration and therefore Christianity was superior to Judaism (no wonder he was so popular). But I guess he forgot that the Torah claimed that Moses had both.
One of the difficulties we have in Judaism today in trying to understand what Revelation means in practice, is that there are differing versions of what actually happened and I am only talking about traditional sources, not those who claim the whole thing was altogether a myth.
The rabbis of the Talmudic era fought hard to defend the authenticity and integrity of their tradition. They argued that they were the sole interpreters of the Sinai Covenant and that every single word of Torah then and even later until the very day they lived and forever was actually heard on Sinai. But then other texts argued differently. One. in Midrash Rabah 41.6. says explicitly that only the principles were given on Sinai and not the details. The Talmud in Gittin (60a) argues about when things were actually written down. The Torah itself gives examples of Moses after Sinai going back for clarification. So even if Maimonides declares in one of his principles that one is obliged to believe that very single word of the Torah was given by God to Moses on Sinai it remains unclear exactly what that means specifically and what the mechanism of transmission from God to Moses was. And Maimonides of all people would argue you cannot believe in something you do not understand.
And this is always the problem with religious dogma. Once you demand that people believe something, you need to be very clear and unambiguous about exactly what it is they are supposed to believe. Any legal system can develop from its original principles to deal with new circumstances and remain true to the original principles but does this mean that Moses actually knew about space travel or IPO’s? And if he did why does the Talmud itself (Menachot 29a) tell of Moses not understanding what the later authority Rabbi Akiva was talking about on matters of Jewish law, when he sat in on his lectures?
The fact is that the mechanism of Revelation remains a mystery. But what we can accept is that what we have something that carries within it the seeds of the process and the initial covenant, regardless. For all the scepticism one might apply, one does not have to reject everything, completely. Some have argued that revelation means no more than great minds trying to fathom the Divine Will. I do not find this satisfying myself. I take a more engaging view. I can feel something divine in Torah even if I am using mystical rather than rational tools to detect it. To me God speaks through Torah even if the process of interpreting it to men is in the hands of other men who often disagree. It’s like kids arguing about what their father meant yet agreeing on the sort of person he was and what he valued.
This position is based on the Talmud and the remarkable incident where debating rabbis refused to heed supernatural intervention arguing that the Torah once given was no longer in heaven and it was up to humans to mediate it ( Bava Metziah 59b).
But sadly religious authority loves to simplify and survives on clichés. All or nothing the argument goes. But what is ‘ALL’? Did Moses come off Sinai with Ox carts of stones bearing all the Five Books as well as the Talmud or only two Tablets of Stone?
In the final analysis what we celebrate on Shavuot is our Torah, the ongoing tradition as well as the texts. It is logically impossible to say it is black or white, a single unambiguous tradition. It is far too complex for that. It contains certain common elements to be sure but every Hassidic movement adds its own customs and nuances. Did Moses keep every one of them? Was a Kabbalist and a Lithuanian rationalist? And when the major rabbis of our day argue over Land for Peace or not budging an inch in Israel, did Moses face both ways simultaneously? It is a failing of religious ideology that it tries to impose rigid thought lines and in the process misses the magnificence of the essential message that God can and does find ways of giving us ideas that are greater than the sum of our parts, beyond our limitations and inadequacies. When we are fortunate in our leadership these ideas can be expanded and developed. Otherwise they are used to restrict and go backwards. Revelation is a process of refinement and improvement not of retrogression. And it is ongoing and continual albeit in different ways.
So let us eat our Cheesecake on Shavuot night and remember we do so not because three and a half thousand years ago they had to change their sets of Miessen porcelain after the Laws of Kashrut were given on Sinai and they then had to have two dishwashers instead of one, but because light milky dishes, harvest celebrations and delight were the mood of the moment, when a people received a sort of constitution that was so far ahead of its time, so remarkable in its genius in the fact that it inspired religion and mankind. And it all came from a small insignificant people that stood together at the bottom of a mountain to hear something amazing, on their way to a Land of Milk and Honey. If the reality does not always much up to the dream that can be our fault just as much as Revelation’s.
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