In all of the storied history of the Jewish people, there was no single event that had greater short and long-term consequences than the revelation of Torah at Sinai.
The festival of Shavuot, which we celebrated this week, marked the anniversary of that extraordinary (in both the literal and figurative senses of the word) day. It encouraged us to recall, or recreate, if you will, the power, majesty and mystery of that luminous moment when God and humanity communed as one. The world would never be the same thereafter.
Chapters nineteen and twenty of the Book of Exodus offer us the Bible’s accounting of the revelation of the Bible– a neat literary feat! It is tempting, and far too easy, to read this narrative as one would read a story in a modern newspaper, assuming the story to be “factual truth.” But ultimate truth is more complicated than that. Reporters are trained to tell a story, weaving in the facts as they see them– or perhaps I should say as they see fit. Two reporters would not necessarily see the same story the same way. The biblical narrator does much the same, attempting to refract the experience of revelation through his own experiential lens.
Taking that to be true– and I very much believe it to be true– then it must follow that chapters nineteen and twenty of Exodus are not a photograph of the experience at Sinai. They are, as the late philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, more like an impressionist painting. Whoever was writing that account of Sinai was aiming to capture the awe and wonder of the experience of revelation– not to give a verbatim account of what actually happened. Of Heschel’s many memorable observations, perhaps the most significant one of all is to be found in the chapter on revelation in his major work God In Search of Man, when he stated, “As a report about revelation the Bible itself is a midrash.” We humans cannot penetrate the mystery of revelation, and when we try to do just that, we “pervert its essence.”
Needless to say, Heschel’s understanding of revelation is not the only one out there. A more orthodox (both small “o” and large “O”) interpretation of the chapters in Exodus would indeed see them as a literal recounting of the Sinai experience, and would regard Heschel’s insights as nothing less than heretical.
But I readily admit that that particular chapter of Heschel’s writing had a more profound influence on my thinking than virtually anything else that I’ve read in a lifetime’s worth of studying Torah. It radically expanded my idea of what Torah actually is, and encouraged me to understand that what we call “Oral Torah”– everything other than the Hebrew Tanach (i.e., the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings)– incorporates all aspects of the human experience, both for better and for worse.
To say it as plainly as I can, all of us who claim the revelation at Sinai as our spiritual legacy are partners with God in the ongoing revelation of Torah. We are charged with the task, in every generation, of making Torah our own, translating anew its eternal truths into beliefs and practices that resonate with our time. It is obviously the case that that process will render different understandings of what truth is, what Torah is, and how the particulars of any given time in history might or should impact the historical legacy of revelation. But to see that as a problem is to miss the point entirely. The Torah belongs to us all, and how we choose to interpret it in our own time is ours to determine.
Transplanting that understanding onto our own time…
Aside from the myriad political machinations that are behind the current controversy over the Women of the Wall and their struggle, what saddens me the most in the unhappy images that we have all seen is the hatred that is written on the faces of the Haredi men and boys who see it as their sacred task to prevent the women from praying at the Kotel. I find myself wondering– what to do you have to feel about a person to throw garbage at her, or a chair? What do you have to feel about a man to throw a stone at him, as my friend and colleague, Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Masorti movement, had done to him at the recent Rosh Hodesh service just a week ago? How completely do you have to dehumanize someone to utterly cease to care about his/her dignity as a human being, not to mention as a Jew? Is a different way of interpreting Torah for our time so dangerous to the body politic of Judaism that it warrants physical violence and total condemnation? No matter how alien to you the idea of a woman wearing a tallit might be, or putting on t’fillin, what kind of love of God would suggest violence and intimidation as the appropriate response?
The sad truth is that I’m not at all sure that I know the answer to that question, because the Haredi way of looking at the Women of the Wall, and, for that matter, all forms of Judaism not their own, is so alien to my way of understanding Judaism that I can barely understand it even as an intellectual exercise. I lay no claim to “getting it.” I am a Conservative rabbi with well-defined stances on substantive issues of Jewish law and life. On many of these issues I differ in consequential ways with my Orthodox and Reform colleagues and friends. But in my wildest imagination, I cannot imagine becoming so infuriated by something they might say or do that I would become physically violent against them.
The reason is a simple one. They have their understanding of Torah, and I have mine. The legacy of Sinai belongs to us all, and it will speak to us in different ways. I understand that, and accept it. Not for a moment do I begrudge my Orthodox friends and colleagues the right to believe as they believe, and practice as they would practice. But I do begrudge them the right to prevent me from practicing as I would practice, or the Women of the Wall as they would practice.
In the spirit of Heschel, I would suggest that we are all writing our own new chapters of Midrash on what Torah means in our time. Torah belongs to us all. We should celebrate that as a unifying force, not fear it as a betrayal. And most of all, we should all remember the words that we recite– or sing– every time we return the Torah to the Ark after reading it: D’rakheha darkhei no’am, v’khol n’tivoteha shalom; Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
Would that it be so…