Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Post-Shavuot Thoughts on Revelation & What Happened at Mount Sinai

Passover is one of the most well-known of Jewish holidays. However, the Exodus story doesn't end there. The Jewish people cross the Red Sea and then seven weeks later, the Jewish people received the Torah. This receiving of the Torah is what the Jewish holiday of Shavuot commemorates. However, is it really that simple? Did G-d literally hand the Jewish people the text? An even better question: what exactly is revelation, and how does it play into this series of questions? What I am going to delve into here momentarily is a stream of consciousness. It is not meant to be taken as a dissertation or a final say of how I view revelation because that can always change over the years. It is a sign that even after all these years of thinking about these questions, there is still an evolutionary process in how I perceive certain vital religious concepts, and how I am still grappling with certain aspects of Judaism. With that said, let's begin:

Revelation is key to discuss because without it, Judaism is reduced to a peoplehood and culture. Revelation is the way that G-d communicates to us, the way we can understand what He expects from us. The catch about "what happened at Mount Sinai" is trickier because the Jewish concept of G-d is that G-d is transcendent, incorporeal, omnipresent, Infinite Oneness. G-d neither exists in time nor space. As Maimonides (Rambam) explains in the Guide for the Perplexed, particularly in the last chapter of the second part, anything attributed to G-d, whether it be speech, action, or thought, is metaphorical. This would mean that G-d literally did not give us the Torah. What actually happened that day is by far more complex.

Another issue is with being able to objectively verify the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai. We cannot use the Torah by itself to verify the occurrence of revelation because otherwise, it would a self-affirming, circular argument. At the same time, we can still make a more minimalist claim. Historically speaking, something did happen in the desert that forever shaped the consciousness of the Jewish people. It was the time when a covenant was established. It was when the Jewish people formed its sense of purpose on earth. That much can be said about the historicity of the revelatory experience at Mount Sinai.

To bring it back to the nature of G-d, we run into another issue with verification. We cannot use empiricism to prove G-d because G-d transcends time and space, thereby transcending empiricism. What happened at Mount Sinai is thusly indescribable, and that doesn't consider that this event took place centuries ago and is majorly complex. I do find the story more credible since Judaism is the only religion to claim national revelation, as opposed to all the other religions out there who base their credibility on individual revelation. I also can state with confidence that G-d exists because it is the most logical explanation for how the universe came into being.

Because we are dealing with matters of religion, we cannot and do not verify religious claims the same way we verify scientific claims. This is where matters of belief, faith, and religion are formed differently than that of scientific inquiry, at least in part because I am dealing with Transcendent Oneness, and I have to have the humility to utter the words "I don't know." Even if I don't know for certain, I still inquire, study, and delve deep into Torah. Why? Because questions about why we exist, sense of purpose, what constitutes happiness, and how to conduct ourselves on this planet are too important to capriciously pass up.

I look at Torah as a divine and authoritative text. It is an eternal text because it has the capacity to speak both to the Israelites who received the text at the onset, and has the uncanny ability to speak to us today. To paraphrase Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "prayer might be how we talk to G-d, but Torah is how He talks to us." Given the nuance and complexities within the text, I find the Torah to reveal a lot about what it means to be a Jew. It is not as methodical as scientific inquiry, but studying Torah, at least for me, has been such an experiential affirmation of G-d's existence. When I read Torah for the first time and each time I study Torah, I feel as if G-d is revealing something to me. Jewish tradition helps shape and form what exactly the text says, but there is always that moment when the world teaches us something to change our view of Torah. Perhaps that is why we read the Torah in an annual, cyclical fashion: because each time we read it, it reveals something new about our relation with G-d and the world. It is also no accident that when we recite a blessing over the Torah, the blessing is in the present tense of "Blessed is G-d who gives us Torah (נותן התורה)," instead of in the past tense of "who gave us Torah (נתן התורה)."

I know that Shavuot commemorates revelation at Mount Sinai. I don't diminish that moment because it was so defining for the Jewish people. Conversely, it wasn't the last time G-d revealed to us. He reveals to us through His Torah, His mitzvahs, His creations, and all the wonders of the world. Revelation is not a one-time event, but rather a process that Jews have undergone through centuries. In summation, what happened at Mount Sinai was the springboard from which the Jewish people have developed their relation to G-d and to the world, and that initial moment of revelation has shaped Judaism into the meaningful religion that it is today.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. It helped answer some questions for me.