What Really Happened At Sinai? Honestly, Why Should We Care?

I assume that some readers may be puzzled or even mildly scandalized by the title of this essay. After all, what religious Jew – especially one who is a rabbi – would write such a cavalier and dismissive rhetorical question about the most important religious event in the history of the Jewish people, and perhaps the world? What rabbi would be so dismissive about the revelation of the Torah so close to Shavuot? Therefore, permit me to explain my question.

The Torah, provides us with a richly detailed narrative about the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, which commenced subsequent revelations of commandments by God to Moses and the Jewish people. All of that detail notwithstanding, how the revelation initially took place was subject to a great deal of debate and theological reflection among our ancestors. For example, from a surface reading of Exodus 19 we could infer that God spoke the Ten Commandments directly to the people or that Moses served as their intermediary. An ancient rabbinic tradition asserts alternately that the first two commandments were spoken by God directly but that Moses delivered the last eight commandments to the people. Which version is correct? Another example is that Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 record two versions of the Ten Commandments whose significant differences present great difficulties of interpretation for later generations of scholars.

In pre-modern eras, what essentially united Jews (and Christians) in their debates about the revelation was the underlying conviction that God somehow gave the Torah, “in discrete words and letters,” to quote Rabbi Norman Lamm. Modern critical scholarship of the Bible unhinged that conviction for many Jews because of evidence that the Bible is a human cultural document as much as it is God’s direct will. This has led some contemporary Jewish theologians to question the literalness of the Bible’s report about revelation and others to actively ignore modern Bible criticism in order to preserve the Torah’s literal divinity. For so many Jews, traditionalists and modernists alike, what actually happened at Sinai and how it actually happened are more than intellectual exercises. Their answer to my rhetorical question, “Why should we care?”, is quite clear: what we believe about Sinai has a direct impact upon our commitment to the Torah and to all of Jewish religion.

I suggest that this is not necessarily the case. In its most traditional framework, the report about the giving of the Torah is shrouded in mystery. In its most modern framework, the report about the giving of the Torah is shrouded in skepticism. Discussions about the literal truth of the revelation certainly enrich our study of Torah, but ultimately they are inconclusive. Further, they miss the more important point that how God gave us the Torah is far less relevant than the fact that God gave it to us. Like the Exodus, in which God chose to liberate us from slavery, at Sinai, God chose to make us a holy nation whose great mission is to perfect humanity under God’s kingdom. The theologian, Will Herberg, referred to this as the scandal of particularity: the radical – and for some people, threatening – idea that God can and does choose to love all of humanity by singling out one tiny nation for a loving and demanding relationship, with the Torah as our joint blueprint for healing the world. Herberg emphasized that this is what we Jews mean when we talk about chosenness. God made a covenant with all living things at the beginning of creation. God then made a covenant with all of humanity, when God promised Noah’s children that God would never again destroy the earth. God’s covenant with the Jewish people is unique in that, unlike other Western monotheistic religions, we do not believe that every person needs to accept our covenant to be loved and redeemed by God. Nonetheless, our covenant of partnership with God is what identifies us and makes our life as a people and as individuals meaningful.

The beauty of God’s revelation of Torah to us is that it defies theological and ideological rigidities. I might be an Orthodox traditionalist who believes that a personal God revealed the Torah directly and literally to the Jewish people. My neighbor might be a liberal Reconstructionist who does not believe in a personal God and that the Torah is the result of our people’s gradual discovery of Godly values. So what? While our understandings of how to apply Torah might diverge widely, we are still united by our recognition that we possess this greatest of gifts belonging to us and to the world. It is this gift, Torah, that broke onto the scene of the human race with the relentless insistence that morality is not merely a personal preference, but an eternally compelling way of living founded upon the sanctity of every human life. It continues to force its way onto the scene of our world that is desperate for kindness, peace, and hope. Like the shofar that was sounded at Sinai, the Torah’s voice continues to grow louder and more insistent, demanding to be heard, however we may hear it.

A very happy Shavuot to all.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.