Articles & Essays

Shavuot and Chaos Theory



Plato’s theory of ideas, and Aristotle’s more empirical approach, are the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition.1 Both wanted to achieve an ideal understanding, categorization and explanation of the world we inhabit and our position as humans within it. These intellectual giants have influenced Jewish Medieval thinking as much as Christianity and Islam. If Philo of Alexandria was a Platonist, Maimonides, of course, was an Aristotelian.2

The result of this patrimony has been the search for truth, even absolute truths, which I believe have tended to constrict our way of thinking. Whether the Kantian (or Hegelian) pursuit of the idea, or the Marxist simple reductionism – all reflect the desire to find the solution.

In our times, we have at last realized that there is such a phenomenon as fuzzy logic and fuzzy mathematics which are, to put it simply, more approximate and less definite than the Greek, Aristotelian assumption of certainty, of monism. In a similar vein, what is called “Chaos Theory” offers a different way of looking at empirical data that does not require fixed, definite theories or solutions but allows for paradoxical, different ideas interconnecting.

Many of us are in a sense conflicted between valuing the text of Torah we have as whole, seeing it as the primary link between us and the Almighty or between us and our history while wanting to preserve an open mind and academic approach to sources. The assumption is that we must choose; that there is only one “truth.” A fuzzy approach recognizes that various possibilities might co-exist. One can so to speak “have one’s cake and eat it.” One might not need to choose one specific theory or solution or answer.

The Fuzzy Logic of Shavuot
I have always sensed an affinity to the fuzzy and making use of such fuzziness, for example being rational on some issues and non-rational, mystical, on others. I try to bridge different worlds. In writing this piece, a collection of “riffs” on Shavuot, I am intentionally trying to break out from any straightjacket and bring together different points of view, approaches and disciplines. My aim is to illustrate the variety of perspectives and to express the conviction that we should be able to respond to different approaches simultaneously rather than think that each of us must be loyal only to one. Can one look at the Torah as a human phenomenon and still feel a sense of its spiritual Divinity? Can one embrace several approaches simultaneously and find satisfaction in both? The Festival of Shavuot offers us a range of names, ideas and customs that illustrate this conundrum.

First Example: What’s in a Name?
The Torah says nothing about the connection between Shavuot and “Matan Torah,” the Sinai Revelation. The festival is described first as Chag Hakatzir (Exodus 23.16) with mention of Bikurim, the First of the Harvest (23.19). Then Chag Shavuot (Exodus 34.22) together with the command to bring the First of the Harvest. In Leviticus (33.16-17) the festival is referred to only as the culmination of the 49 days of the Omer although the term Bikurim is once again used. In Bemidbar (28.26) again the name HaBikurim appears but as Yom instead of Chag. And in Deuteronomy (16.9) it is Chag Hashavuot as in Exodus 34 but with the definite article.3 Why does the Torah use different names in seemingly random fashion?

Academic Response
The academic response is to suggest that the Torah was compiled from multiple sources, edited or collated. The strength of the academic response is that it explains the facts. There are multiple names for the holiday because different communities or authors used different names. The weakness of the theory is that it doesn’t explain the Torah as we have it no or the thoughts of the editor/compiler. What is the average reader of the Torah supposed to call this holiday?

Traditional Response
The traditional apologist has several responses. The most obvious one is to dismiss the question and say that the Almighty makes the decision as to how to express Himself according to altogether different criteria than that of human readers. Another approach follows b. Gittin (60a) suggesting that text of the revelation was not written down immediately but extended over a forty year period. Just as our own vocabulary and usage varies over time so too will that of Moses.

Alternatively one might suggest that the festival is intended to be a combination of different elements that either combine to make the whole or allow for varying emphases depending on circumstances and location. Nature and History, Divine Intervention, combine as the alternative justifications of several festivals.

Just as Pesach is sometimes Chag HaMatzot, or Sukkot is also Chag HaAsif, so Shavuot has multiple names. Perhaps it is to record its multifunctionality. But we can only speculate. I suggest that instead of trying to find one resolution, we can accept multiple possibilities.

Example 2 - A Kid in its Mother’s Milk
The association of seething a kid in its mother’s milk on Shavuot has been circumstantial too.4 The association in Exodus of Bikkurim and “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” is one of the many reasons given for the custom of eating milk on the night of Shavuot.

The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk (Exod 23:19).5

In all the ancient versions of biblical texts, Samaritan, Syriac, Septuagint to Masoretic this association of the phrase concerning first fruits is followed by the reference to the kid. The Hassidic master, R. Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg (Alter), in his Chidushi HaRim prefers this reason for our custom over the more traditional legalistic explanation found in the Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 494:12), namely, that the Israelites were forced to eat dairy because they had just received the Torah and did not have time to ritually slaughter and prepare the meat properly.6

What is the meaning of the prohibition to cook a kid in its mother’s milk? Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed, suggest that this was an ancient pagan harvest custom that the Israelites were forbidden to imitate. This suggestion fit well with the context in Exodus and explained well the reason for the Torah even suggesting such a strange practice in the first place.

This association between the Harvest Festival and boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was spuriously reinforced for a while by an archeological misreading (or Freudian error). Excavations at Ras Shamra near the site of Ebla revealed a hoard of Ugaritic texts. Among them was a shard containing what seemed to confirm this as a common harvest ritual. For a short time, archaeology became a friend to the Rambam, confirming his understanding of the law and making sense of its context in Exodus. Alas, further examination proved this to be false reading. Nevertheless, it remains a wonderful illustration of the desperate need on the part of some to marry loyalty to the text with archeological evidence of its “validity.”

Thus, we don’t really know why the Torah forbids cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, nor do we know what the connection between this and harvest season is.7 So do we at least know why we eat dairy on Shavuot? Is the Chiddushei HaRim correct, or maybe the Mishnah Berurah? Maybe some other explanation? For example, R. Zvi Elimelech Spira, in his Bnei Yisoschor, writes that we eat dairy on Shavuot because milk is the symbol of rachamim and chesed, which is the essence to Torah and mitzvot. Is this the reason?

From an academic perspective, it has been suggested that milk is simply a spring drink, since spring is the time where the majority of kids and lambs are born and thus, the udders of their mothers are full. Thus, quite prosaically, dairy is consumed on Shavuot because it is a spring holiday. This is quite plausible, which is often the upside of academic explanations, but this does not make the suggestions of the Chiddushei HaRim or the Bnei Ysoscher any less meaningful.

Example 3: What happened on the Mountain?
The actual description of the Sinai theophany contains inconsistencies and indeed apparent contradictions, even just in the book of Exodus itself, not to mention when compared with Deuteronomy. Some verses claim the people saw God, others that they heard only a voice. In some parts of the story, the people are itching to climb the mountain, in others they are too afraid even to listen to God talk. In some texts, the mountain is called Sinai, in others Choreb. As between Exodus 19, Exodus 24 1-11 and Exodus 24.12-18 There are variations in the sequence, in the responses of the Israelites, and in what actually was received or given on Sinai.8

The “critical” explanation for the above discrepancies is well-known and similar to what we saw above with the names of Shavuot. Simply put, there are different versions of the Sinai story, and different names for the mountain, since the various authors or communities knew different versions of the story. The editor/collator/redactor put them together, but without ironing out the differences.

As before, the strength of this approach is that it deals with the textual problem in an intuitive way. The weakness is that, as readers, we are left with a revelation account that has no gestalt, parts with no whole.

The traditionalists’ response will be that the name varies to intentionally emphasize different characteristics of the site, the spiritual versus the physical.

They will add that the style of the Torah is to repeat narratives and commands in ways that add layers of complexities and nuances such as the threefold version of “No Sir she’s not my wife, she is my sister” with the differing ways in which the truth is revealed and the different responses of the rulers.

Sometimes, the traditionalist answer goes, it appears that repetitions are ways of signifying importance and dignity as with the Tabernacle or the gifts of the princes. Sometimes repletion and variation is to add something that a single word cannot, such as the zachor and shamor variation in the law of Shabbat as presented in the two versions of the Decalogue.

The argument is made that God really wishes to communicate all these ideas at once but, to use the Talmudic principal (b. Rosh Hashanah 27a), “two voices simultaneously cannot be heard.” The human ear and the human brain have certain limitations and these include the various ways in which data is assimilated. Thus, the apologist notes, there would have been no other way to communicate these ideas but in retelling similar stories in different ways.

The weakness of the traditionalist response is that, as a factual explanation of how the differences came about, it doesn’t ring true. Saying that God is complex and that God’s message has many facets doesn’t really explain the fissures and fractures in the factual layers of the Sinai accounts.

On the other hand, there is a power to the traditionalist readings. By attempting to answer the contradictions, the concept of revelation and encounter with God receive layers of complexity that they did not already have. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Isn’t a Shabbat imbedded with both zachor and shamor greater than a Shabbat with only one? This may not explain the origin of the two versions of the Decalogue, but it does give us a richer commandment and a richer Torah in the end.

Example 4: Akdamut Milin - A Medieval Alliterative Poem
The well-known piyyut (poem), Akdamot Milin, is associated with Shavuot and is read in many synagogues on Shavuot just before proceeding with the Torah reading. It is a poem in a difficult style of Aramaic, written in eleventh century Worms. Its subjects are God, Heaven, Torah and Israel.9

It is an acrostic and each line ends with a word whose last syllable is TA. Now anyone who knows Aramaic will tell you that if the author wanted a consisted ending, TA was an easy choice, since it is a grammatical ending that can be found on many words.10 Thus, the use of this ending may simply be a stylistic and linguistic artifice. As explanations go, this is no doubt reasonable, but isn’t there more to say about this haunting poem?

Some commentators have suggested that TA (תא) stands for the alphabet, as it incorporates the last and the first letters. This, in turn, is reminiscent of the concept in kabbalah of the ten Sefirot which, together with the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet were used by God to create the world.

TA could also be a reference to the chamber behind the Holy of Holies in the Temple of that name. A reminder of the lost past and the hopes for a rebuilding in the future. I have even heard it said that the significance of the title is a play not on the Aramaic for “beginning”, KDM but also the Greek Academy; i.e., that the Torah is the Jewish equivalent.

Even if all of these more mystical explanations are a stretch (and in this case, who knows, it is a piyyut after all), these kabbalistic and philosophical interpretations add even more color to the already polychromous hymn, something its pious author would have almost certainly smiled upon.

Summing Up: Is Academic Study the Enemy?
I the above four examples I have tried to demonstrate that whereas the academic perspective has an explanatory power that is difficult to deny, the traditional response has a power of its own. Does the former take away from the latter? Does allowing for unfettered and open academic exploration of our holy stories and customs ruin our appreciation of and attachment to traditional Judaism and Torah studies? For me, the answer is a resounding no.

When I try and understand the visceral initial objections to Wellhausen’s “Documentary Hypothesis”, the most potent form of academic Bible study, I believe it was less because of his attempt to describe the Torah as stemming from different styles and authors, but rather to his antireligious agenda of trying to disrespect and supersede one text with another.

If we jettison this (unacademic and unfair!) disrespect for texts and traditions—and I believe that most modern academic Bible scholars have done so—we have little to fear, in my view, from gaining new insights into the origins of our tradition.

Derrida and the Subjectivity of Interpretation
How we understand what it means to read and interpret a text has gone through radical changes in modern times. This is true in general, it is not just a feature of the world of biblical criticism, but academic Bible scholars have begun to deal with this as well. Thus in addition to the “classic” approaches of source/redaction criticism or tradition history associated with luminaries such as Kaufmann and Gunkel, newer academic fields such as reception history and reader response theory have come into their own. These latter are not meant to contradict the academic study of the origins of the text, but are meant to complement this study by dealing with other questions, such as how readers react to the text before them and how the text has been understood by readers and communities over time.

One of the theorists that has made this kind of breakthrough possible is Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). The school associated with Derrida and “theory” seeks to clarify the nature and the reliability of how we approach texts. It rejects the notion that we can find an intrinsic meaning and it rejects the idea of absolute truth. This question of what we can know, of whether there is a single “truth” is a universal problem of literature as well as religion. Just as the phenomenological approach of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) led to the appreciation of individuality of experience, so Derrida allows for this in the way we engage intellectually with texts and ideas.

To me, an ideal balance in Torah study would allow for both critical study of the text as well as traditional study, perhaps even putting the two in conversation with each other. For this reason, I enjoy reading and support the work of Project TABS. This site exists to maintain respect for tradition while simultaneously encourage enquiry and an open minded approach to understanding the Torah in the various ways it expresses itself. "Our minds are all different” (b Berachot 58a) and so inevitably is how we as individuals relate to, regard and respond to texts.

1See: Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization (Random House, 2013).

2Christian theologians in the main preferred Plato or Neo Platonism, largely because of the larger emphasis he placed on Logos or/and Spirit.

3Nowhere in the Torah is there a direct association with Matan Torah, only circumstantially in the rabbinic calculation of days from the Exodus until Ma’amad Har Sinai (all the Torah says is that it occurred during the third month.) One might well understand the shift in emphasis that the changes in society, urbanization, migration (forced or by choice) away from Israel’s agricultural land- based roots will have had. The harvest aspect would no longer have been primary. Further, as Rabbinic emphasis shifted towards study as the acme of Jewish self-identification, the focus on Sinai and Torah would have made intuitive sense. For more on this issue, tracing the history of it and offering further explanations, see the TABS essays …

4For more on this, see Alan Cooper’s essay, "Once Again Seething a Kid in its Mother's Milk." See also Zev Farber’s TABS essay, "The Prohibition of Milk and Meat: Its Origins in the Text," and my blog post, "Shavuot - A Kid in its Mother's Milk."

5 :רֵאשִׁ֗ית בִּכּוּרֵי֙ אַדְמָ֣תְךָ֔ תָּבִ֕יא בֵּ֖ית י-הוה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ לֹֽא־תְבַשֵּׁ֥ל גְּדִ֖י בַּחֲלֵ֥ב אִמּֽוֹ

6ואני שמעתי עוד בשם גדול אחד שאמר טעם נכון לזה כי בעת שעמדו על הר סיני וקבלו התורה [כי בעשרת הדברות נתגלה להם עי"ז כל חלקי התורה כמו שכתב רב סעדיה גאון שבעשרת הדברות כלולה כל התורה] וירדו מן

7Unless one follows R. Joseph Bechor Shor’s suggestion that the verse doesn’t really mean cooking. See Zev Farber’s essay (referenced above) for details.

8Going through the verses and annotating the details would be its own piece; luckily, TABS has a number of essays that do just this. See: Baruch Schwartz, "What Really Happened at Sinai?", Benjamin Sommer, "The Source Critic and the Religious Interpreter," and Marc Zvi Brettler, "The Multi-faceted Revelation at Sinai."

9For more on this piyyut, see Laura Lieber’s TABS essay, "The Piyyut (Poem) Akdamut Milin: The Enigma and Perseverance of Tradition."

10“T” is the grammatical sign of the feminine, and “AH” is the Aramaic version of the definite article. A similar strategy is used by the author of Yetziv Pitgam, which ends in “IN”, the Aramaic plural marker.