General Topics

Shavuot, Torah, and Humanity


As rockets continue to rain down on our families in Israel, and a civil war rages with mobs of hooligans attacking peaceful citizens and neighbors, I pray for three things. That Israel will be strong, and regardless of world opinion, able to protect its citizens, its freedoms, way of life, and its State. That God will protect our soldiers entering a life and death situation in Gaza. But also, that the leaders will work to find positive and peaceful ways of resolving this impasse. Even if our enemies seem bent on destroying us, and we are divided, we should,  in the words of the Psalms “Seek the Peace of Jerusalem.” 

The rabbis of the first century decided to make Shavuot the anniversary of the Mount Sinai revelation. They added this cerebral, constitutional dimension (nowhere mentioned specifically in the Torah) to the earlier agricultural significance.

In many ways, Sinai is the most important image in Judaism. It represents the specific way we are expected to live. Our values and a comprehensive religious system. A constitution for a society and a structured way of living for individuals. Sinai is what differentiates our’s from all other religions. What happened at Sinai?  What was given and what were the mechanics of its transmission?

The Torah is a unique document in many ways. Nothing in the Torah can or should be taken at face value. Everything has to be considered through the different prisms, categories of prose, poetry, law, and narrative. It is not a classical Western document either of law or history. It has its own integrity and agenda for its time and far beyond it. For thousands of years, different Jewish commentators have interpreted it both in the light of an Oral Tradition and their specific contexts and experiences.

You can look at it academically and critically, as you can any book. Some might say it is just a product of great minds, maybe inspired, trying to figure out what God wants. Some say it is an accumulation of different texts from different times, collected by one or several authors. The traditional answer is that it is a coherent text given to Moses by God on Sinai. And others add that it has a mystical, numerical and alphabetical matrix that proves its supernatural source.

The Torah is described as the “Torah from God” and sometimes as the “Torah from Sinai.” Sometimes the term Torah is applied to the Aseret Hadibrot, the Two Tablets of Stone. And sometimes it is the Five Books of the Torah with all the laws and rituals. There are two versions of the Tablets in the Bible, Exodus Chapter 20 and Deuteronomy Chapter 5. 

The Torah says that in addition to the Tablets of Stone that Moses received there was also the Book Of The Covenant, Sefer HaBrit ( Exodus 24:7). The Torah itself gives several different versions of the process of transmission. Each slightly different, in Exodus Chapter 19, Exodus 20.16, and Exodus 31-34. In one way this is not unusual. The Torah often repeats narratives and events in different ways. Each time, like an artist’s different coats of paint, it adds an extra layer of meaning.  So that we need to bring these different events and ideas together to create an overall story and experience. 

How was The Torah written? In cuneiform? With what alphabet? The script we have nowadays was initiated by Ezra almost a thousand years after Sinai. The Talmud calls it the Assyrian script which we use to this day. 

Was it dictated by God and Moses simply wrote it? And if he wrote it why did he just descend with two tablets? And indeed, the Talmud in Gitin 61a has different opinions as to when he wrote it all down. We know from documents found from the Dead Sea Sects that each one had its own version of what books constituted Torah from Moses on Sinai. The expression was a way of giving their texts authority. 

The rabbis of the Talmud accepted that many traditions may have been lost over the years. At a later date, this is how the Talmud and Maimonides indeed, explain the various conflicts over major legal issues, even biblical ones and the different and often contentious debates between the schools of thought of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai (Eruvin 13b) and they had no difficulty saying that both points of view were Divine. But they also projected this process of uncertainty back, to the moment of Moses’s death. “It was taught that one thousand seven hundred deductions, comparisons of texts and points of the scribes were forgotten while they were mourning for Moses. Rabbi Abahu said that they were all reinstated through the logical deductions of Othniel Ben Kenaz” (Temurah 16a). 

Despite all these fascinating issues it has been a fundamental principle in traditional Judaism that the Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai both in its written and oral forms.   The Talmud goes further and says that “Even if someone says that the Torah comes from Heaven apart from one sentence that God did not say but Moses said on his own (initiative) this is as though he has ‘ Scorned the word of God ‘”( Numbers 15 ).  But it was not until Maimonides that these ideas were turned into theological principles of faith rather than ideas.

Maimonides wrote with two audiences in mind, the ordinary Jew of simple faith and the philosopher who examines ideas.  In his Thirteen Principles, he includes “I believe with complete conviction that all the Torah that we now have in our hands is the one given to Moses.”  Yet the philosopher will ask what he actually meant. What is more, many authorities at the time of Maimonides and later did not agree with his Thirteen Principles of Faith. Dr. Marc Shapiro has written an excellent book called “The Limits of Orthodoxy” in which he lists all the other points of view. Even so, this idea remains deeply embedded in our tradition. So how are we to respond?

My position is that when we say that Moses received the Torah from Sinai, Sinai is more than an experience on a mountain. It is another way of saying that something unique can be seen as coming from God even if we do not know the precise mechanism of transmission. The Mishna says that anyone who denies that the Torah comes directly from God is excluded from the Afterlife. It doesn’t actually say  in the positive “You must believe.” But it does say “You cannot deny.” We must be allowed to explore and find our own ways towards Torah and God even if we have a blueprint in the Torah of how to live and behave.

This distinction makes a lot of sense. To be sure of something is very difficult. One has to lay oneself open to a range of ideas and experiences and one cannot be sure at what point one may reach certainty. To deny something involves an act of faith far more certain and arrogant than to accept the possibility of something. One is not allowing for doubt. One is saying absolutely that one knows for certain that something is not the case. It is this arrogance that the rabbis were keen to exclude rather than the honest doubter. The priority is how you live your life rather than how you think.

My purpose here is to point out that acceptance of Divine revelation on Sinai was more a matter of accepting the authority of the tradition than it was an actual statement about the historical event of revelation. About this, we cannot speak. We were at the bottom of the mountain, not up on top to witness the actual transmission. Once again, the rabbis show genius in not expecting a theological formulation. They are concerned with the practical commitment to a way of life and a particular way of understanding and interpreting the Torah. The issue is not what happened, so much as what is and how authority is perceived and protected.

What matters is the preservation of a coherent tradition that is the basis of Jewish religious life today. If one wants to experience Jewish religious traditions and feel the integrity of at least two and a half thousand years, then one has to take the Torah as its core. 

 Authority works to preserve the sanctity of a text. And to protect it from manipulation and transience. While still having the option to interpret and innovate. Obedience and commitment do not necessarily require blind acceptance. But they do require an agreement to engage with Torah in its widest sense and to try to feel the presence of God in it. The principle is that at a moment in history a people were granted a gift. The result of this becomes its religious constitution. In other words, this is how I bring God into my life. It is as if I feel that God speaks to me and inspires me. This device of imagining one is encountering God personally is not through an image but a text. That is what makes it holy.

The Book of Ruth which we read on Shavuot has three core themes. The story is predicated on the biblical Laws of Redemption and Charity. Feeding the poor regardless of their origin. If one sold land under duress or poverty, the next of kin had the right and obligation to redeem it. And if a man died without a child, his widow had an obligation to marry the next son to keep his memory alive. Ruth played a crucial part in this whole process and thus upholding the 

Secondly, and relevant to Torah on Sinai, Ruth willingly accepts upon herself the life of Torah with her remarkable statement “ Where you go, I will go, where you live, I will live, your people are my people, your God is my God, where you die, I will die and be buried. Only death will separate us.” There can be no greater commitment to God and Torah than that.

But finally, there is the concept of Hessed. Going beyond the law to be kind to others. This word is repeated throughout this short book. Ruth’s kindness to Naomi, Boaz’s kindness to Ruth. Being a good kind human being is as much a part of the Torah as carrying out its other instructions. The world is in desperate need of Hessed.