The Festival of Shavuot marks the day when God appeared on Mt. Sinai and spoke words of Torah to the Jewish people. Now imagine that three friends sat together to discuss their experiences. Despite having all heard the voice of God, each was surprised to learn that no two of them actually heard the same thing. For one the sound was painfully loud, while another said that it was a whisper he could barely hear. The third said that the sound was fine, but the words were not clear. Another said that he definitely heard God say that He would mete out punishments on our children and grandchildren. In response another said that he didn’t hear that, but that God would extend love to a thousand generations–how not unlike the ways we often find competing claims on the Divine Will among our friends, families, and neighbors today.
We live in a world in which people are quite convinced that the voice of God that they hear is the true voice. Our energies are spent attempting to persuade others to the truth of the voice we hear. Yet for thousands of years we have known that even at Sinai there was no one voice of God.
The Midrash (Ex. Rabbah 5:9) teaches that every person at Sinai heard God according to their own individual capacities, even Moses. And today, each of us continues to hear God’s voice in a different way: loud and commanding; barely a whisper; clear for some, garbled and confusing for others. Our personal experiences with the voice of God can vary in not only form, but also in contents. People will hear the same words of Torah and process them differently – in the words of the Midrash – each according to their capacity.
This may be all well and good for the individual spiritual experience. Yet how do we share our experience and in what way can we unite to teach our children and grandchildren? How do we come together to be a people of God when everyone hears a different voice?What role do our leaders have in shaping this creative tension between personal experience and community life?
I have the privilege to train rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators at the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) in Yonkers NY. With over 80 students, we are a seminary dedicated first and foremost to pluralism. Our students are of all ages and backgrounds. All are called by the voice of God, but each hears that voice differently. We enjoy a large and diverse faculty each of whom has devoted their lives to a personal divine voice. As teachers and role models, we are challenged to hear all of the voices and create harmonies worthy of the Holy Blessed One.
Together we delve into the classic texts of Jewish life. Yet mastery of the text is not the end. We learn to listen to the different ways that God speaks to us, both personally and collectively. We encounter the religious experience of each other with intentional curiosity, seeking a sense of God that we might not have heard or appreciated before.
AJR is not a new seminary. Indeed, we are planning our 70th anniversary. But in truth, the work that we do was articulated 2000 years ago. The Talmud teaches (Haggigah 3b):
You (a rabbi) must make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.
Two of the courses that I teach at AJR speak to how we take the funnel to our spiritual ears. In one class, we take an in depth look at the psalms which clergy use often. No book of the Bible shares as many voices of God as does the Book of Psalms. As we learn, it becomes clear that the students hear the Divine Voice differently. As we discuss, we listen carefully – the funnel – to each impression and harmonize them into a deeper understanding. Students often comment that as a result of our experience, they use the psalms with a more intense spiritual expression.
In another class, we study the role of clergy in the various life cycle events of Judaism. All courses like this cover the practical rituals. Yet at AJR, we take the time to appreciate the place and the voice of God. How is God speaking and what is God saying at a birth, B’nei MItzvah, a wedding or a funeral? By taking the funnel and hearing different voices of God, students capture the meaning of each ritual in a deeper way. This approach enables them to consider which voice will best suit the capacities of the person or the family involved. Our graduates often comment on how their training prepared them to meet the needs of different families.
It is not easy. It is humbling, for sure. Yet at AJR, we learn to reach for the funnel. Wide as it is at the top, it receives many different voices. And as it narrows, we learn to hear the harmony of those voices. Often, the plural perspectives of our students challenge us to reshape how we listen and respond to the voice of God. Through this, we grow in our capacities to be spiritual leaders and educators who will bring depth and meaning to God’s words. We continue to build a community in which we and our children will thrive.
This is the blessing of training our next generation of Jewish leaders. May we all share in that blessing as we celebrate the moment when God spoke to all of us – each according to our own capacities.