Note: the following is a verbatim transcript for accessibility to the hearing-impaired. It has not been edited for general publication.
Hi, everybody. Thank you for joining the call. Just so you have the sense of the setting, I’m sitting in a room on the second floor of RRC, with Dan in the room, and some of our staff members, so when they laugh and smile, I’ll assume you guys all think it’s funny. This is a great place to be teaching about Shavuot, because I’d argue that Shavuot may be one of our first Reconstructionist holidays. As a lot of you know, at the biblical level, Shavuot has nothing to do with the giving of Torah, it has nothing to do with Revelation, it has nothing to do with Mount Sinai, it’s an agricultural festival that involved a pilgrimage to the temple and the offering up of first grains and first fruits.
However, by the time we get to the Rabbinic period, the meaning of Shavuot has been reconstructed. In addition to this agricultural significance, it’s now being shopped around as the day where we celebrate Z’man Matan Torah, the time of the giving of Torah, especially the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. Now, if you can put yourself back historically and think about what it takes to convince people that there is an additional meaning to a day or a time than what they originally thought, you realize that there’s a fair bit of education that needs to go on, a fair bit of selling, a fair bit of spin. It’s not easy to change a community’s notions of what a holiday is about.
One of the strategies that the Rabbinic sages had in their toolbox was the ability to designate what texts from Torah, what texts of Tanakh were going to be read on holidays. And this was a strategy for letting people know what at least those Rabbinic sages thought the holidays were about. At a pretty early stage in the Rabbinic period—we see it first in the Tosefta—we see that Exodus 19 and 20 have been designated as the parsha for Shavuot. Makes a lot of sense. If the rabbis were identifying Shavuot with Sinai as the place and as the event of matan Torah, it would make sense that they would want communities to hear the central narrative telling of Israel arriving at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments.
One might think that they would pile on other texts that also have to do with Torah, versions of the giving of Torah. We might imagine that they would pick as a haftarah, Josiah’s finding of the Book of the Covenant in the temple, or I don’t know, a prophetic text that talks about the great importance of observing the Commandments. But when we look at the other texts of Shavuot, we see something kind of surprising, because the other two texts designated for Shavuot don’t deal with matan Torah at all. They don’t deal with Sinai, they don’t deal with covenant. Rather, they pick up on the piece of the Sinai event that isn’t about the revelation of law, but is actually about the revelation of God and God’s identity.
Already in the Bavli, we see designated as one haftarah possibility, Ezekiel 1, which is the one that lasted, the one that becomes the haftarah in Ashkenazi and Sephardi rituals. And then later on by the eighth century, we see the custom, or the minhag, to read Ruth also as the Megillat for Shavuot. It’s a wonderful anthology of texts that we get on this holiday, and texts that when pulled together, really give us a triptych, an anthology, a variety of perspectives on the question, how does God reveal God’s self? What we’re going do for the rest of our time together is explore these three texts as different takes on that question.
Now, my current academic work (and it’s seeped in to my teaching here at RRC) is thinking about the ways that Torah actually gets transmitted to Jews. And the premise of my work, and as I say it’s been seeping into my teaching, is the idea that most Jews through most of history received Torah because somebody told it to them. They recited it, they explained it, but most Jews then got Torah through some sort of Torah performance. It’s this notion of Torah performance that’s going to underly the format of what I’m going to do. Because what I want you to imagine for the next 15 minutes is a panel. You can picture it as a CNN kind of panel, an academic panel, a morning TV panel. But represented on this panel are going to be three different perspectives on revelation: The first, Exodus 19 and 20; the second, Ezekiel 1; and the third, Ruth.
Our first panelist: Exodus 19-20. For those of you who’ve spent time at RRC, I need to share that as I was thinking of this, I really keep picturing David Teutsch as my first panelist for Exodus 19-20. This panelist has had a pretty big impact on the Jewish communal imagination about what God and God’s revelation is like. And I’m going to actually read you the story that this panelist tells. I’m going to read you Exodus 19, a text that is familiar to most of you, but really I think sets the stage for what most of us think about when we think about Shavout.
“On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain and Moses went up to God. Adonai called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel. You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to me. Now then, if you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is mine, but you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you will speak to the children of Israel.’ Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded. All the people answered as one saying, ‘All that Adonai has spoken we will do.’ And Moses brought back the people’s words to Adonai.”
And then it goes on. Adonai explains that God is going to appear in a thick cloud and that the people should wash themselves. And then there’s some negotiation about who can go up on the mountain and who can’t. And ultimately in Chapter 20, Adonai spoke all these words saying, “I, Adonai, am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” And the Ten Commandments unroll from there.
If we think about this first take on Revelation, a couple of things pop for me. First, it is highly national, communal, and corporate. I don’t mean corporate there in business terms, I mean corporate in communal terms. The whole people is there and although Moshe is the go-between, the relationship that is struck is clearly the relationship between God and the entire community, as a community. The focus of God’s revelation here, the purpose of God appearing before the people, is for the formation of the Covenant. God isn’t there just to introduce God’s self, but is there to enter into this arrangement with the people. Third, and I think this is something that we tend to emphasize pretty strongly on Shavuot, it’s this moment in Israel’s imagined history where the people are fully committed to this agreement. There’s something about the kind of oratorical oomph of “everything Adonai has said we shall do,” that invokes, I think, for us a mythic and Utopian moment. Could you imagine we all got in the same room and actually said that? So, this sense of full commitment.
The choice of Exodus 19 and 20 focuses on the founding of the relationship between Israel and God and the terms of the deal and culminates in the Ten Commandments. As I think many of you know, the presentation of God here is quite oral. You hear God’s voice, but you don’t see the divine presence. God identifies God’s self as a historical actor, as a redeemer, as a king and covenant maker, and all that in the service of getting Israel to entering to this covenant. It’s rather presidential. It’s highly orchestrated, and as I say, it culminates in the Covenant and in the Commandments.
Now, I need to offer this post-modernist caveat. If I were to have read you the whole narrative, it is not as seamless and monolithic as it seems. For reasons that may have to do with different sources or some form of literary genius of subversion, this scene is… Moshe is entirely peripatetic. He goes up the mountain, he comes down the mountain. You never quite know where he is. You never quite know where any of the people are. All these constant movement gives this kind of undertone of a little bit of chaos to this scene. And also as many of you know, there is a particular fluidity around the notion of what God said or didn’t say. There’s an elaborate game of telephone that goes on between Moshe and Adonai, in which Moshe’s influence on shaping the word of God comes out more strongly than we might expect on first reading. I do think this is a text that subverts itself, but at the same time, especially that the way this scene has come down in the Jewish imagination…The seams are pretty tight. You have God, you have the whole nation. They kind of unanimously enter into this agreement around the giving of Torah. That’s your first panelist.
Your second panelist is Ezekiel. Very different looking guy. Here, I’m picturing something more out of Bill and Ted, right? He’s got a wisdom, he’s got a glint in his eye, but he’s been around the block a couple of times. And his presentation starts out as follows. “In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of fourth month, when I was in the community of exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month, it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin, the word of Adonai came to the priest Ezekiel, son of Buzi by Chebar Canal in the land of the Chaldeans. And the hand of the Lord came upon him there.”
He then goes on to recite a multi-part vision that in the written version of the text takes that back 20 verses and begins as follows. “A huge cloud and flashing fire surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of it, the center of the fire, a gleam as an amber, and in the center of it were the figures of four creatures.” And then he goes on to describe these creatures, their appearance, their movement, the strange psychedelic fire that flashes between them. And when he’s done with the creatures, he goes on to explain, to describe the wheels of the chariot that are, if possible, even weirder than the creatures. They’ve got these freaky eyes all over them. And then when he’s done with the chariot, he goes on to describe the expanse above these creatures, and then, the movement of the wing,s until about 20 verses after he has said, “I saw visions of God,” we finally get the vision.
And it comes like this. “I saw one, in appearance like sapphire and on top, upon the semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form. From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam of amber, what looked like a fire encased in a frame. And from what appeared as his loins down, I saw what looked like fire. There was radiance all about him. Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the presence of Adonai.” And the Hebrew there is, “Hu mar’eh demut kevod Adonai.” Amazingly different vision of what happens, our imagination of what happens when God reveals God’s self.
Ezekiel is very much alone. This is a private experience. Sinai in its own way was supernatural. There was lightning, and there was earthquakes and maybe something volcanic. It was nature at its biggest, but not really supernatural. This imagining of what it’s like when you see God is really supernatural and really, really weird. If Sinai is our experience kind of ramped up to 10, this is radically unlike anything any of us experience in our natural experience. It’s not auditory, it’s visual. When God reveals God’s self in this imagining, it comes through the eyes, not through the ears.
Unlike Sinai, which is so pedantic, God says, “Here’s why I’m here, here’s what we’re going to do, now we’re going to do it.” This vision is remarkably unsignified. Ezekiel tells us what he saw, but he doesn’t interpret what it means. Additionally, this is not a covenant text. There’s no law, there’s no covenant, there’s no setting of norms. This isn’t revelation for the purpose of pedagogy or for the purpose of behavior management, this is merely an experience. And ultimately for me, what’s so paradoxical about this vision, is that ultimately, the vision is really, really attenuated. He doesn’t see God, he sees the mar’eh demut kevod Adonai. There are kind of three qualifiers, three words in there that tell you this isn’t God, this is “the like the like the like the God.” But even with that, it’s extraordinarily overwhelming. You can’t imagine having had this experience and it not change your life, and you’re still three degrees of separation away from God.
What I noticed this time as I imagined this in performance was also, it was funny, I have read this text a lot and it cracked me up this time in a way it never had before. There was something kind of shaggy doggish about this story. That he starts out saying, “I saw a vision of God,” and then you get this multi-part vision, each part more extreme and extraordinary than the next. And none of them are God, like you think each part of it and then, and then, and then but those were the creatures. And then, and then, and then, but that was the expanse. And then, and then, and then, until boom, you think you’re going to get the grand finale, and you get the semblance of the appearance of the sort of looked like the divinity. There’s something about that kind of stringing of us along and the anticipation of that, that also sets this one apart.
My third panelist, who only has three minutes, is Ruth. I must say here, I’m really perplexed about how this text got into this anthology. As you’ll see, my reading of it is pretty post-modern, or is at least pretty modern, and as far as I know is not foregrounded by the rabbis. [The midrash commentary] Ruth Rabbah does not really identify Ruth with Shavuot and with Revelation and with the other issues of the anthology. The first piece in Ruth Rabbah makes the connection, but in a way that’s pretty tenuous. I’m kind of perplexed about why they included her, aside from the fact that her story happens at the right time of year. But that being said, our third panelist is a woman. She’s pretty unassuming, and she starts off by telling her story, and that story begins with a Judean family who moves to Moab. The adult sons of the family marry Moabite wives, and then everything goes south. The patriarch dies, the sons die, leaving the Moabite women and their mother-in-law in Moab.
You thought that was bad? Things get worse. There’s a famine, so there’s not a whole lot of food. And they hear that there’s food back in Bethlehem, back in Judea, and the mother-in-law says she’s going to turn back; she tries to leave her daughters-in-law in Moab where they belong, but one of them, Ruth, insists on coming with her. They go back to Bethlehem and up until now, it feels like we’re more in Jane Austen than we are in the Bible. This is about women, the relationships among them, the way the presence and absence of men affects their relationship. But then when they get back to Bethlehem, there starts to be this kind of creep-in of theological language, when Boaz appears on the scene. In fact, the first thing that Boaz says is, “Adonai imachem.” “May the Lord be with you,” he says to the reapers. And they responded, “Yeverechecha Adonai.” “And God be with you.”
After greeting his workers, Boaz notices Ruth, and he goes over, and he affirms her right to glean and offers her water and advice for protection. And the conversation that follows gets even more thickly infused with theological language. Boaz says, “I’ve been told of everything you did, how nice you were.” And he says, “May Adonai reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from Adonai, the God of Israel under whose wings (and the Hebrew there is ”kanafim”) “You have sought refuge.” And she says, “You are most kind, Adoni, my Lord, to comfort me and speak gently to your maid servant, though I am not so much as one of your maid servants.” Story goes on, she goes back to her mother-in-law, who advises that she go and essentially seduce Boaz on the threshing floor. And she goes, and when he notices that she’s there, she says, “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your robe, your kanafim, over your handmaid, for you are a redeemer. You are a go’el.”
In this scene, that theological language that was starting to kind of simmer earlier in the book has now come to a full boil. The same language that was used of God’s protection is used of Boaz, and the terminology that’s used to say that he is a kinsman who has the power to marry her and make her financially stable is the language of go’el, the language of redeemer, that elsewhere is strongly inflected theologically.
For our third panelist then, God creeps up, God is neither on Mount Sinai nor in the psychedelic vision, but…starts to percolate in the relationships between human beings. Relationships of kindness, but also relationships of social obligation. What happens at the end of Ruth, as many of you know, is that Boaz acts out the part of her go’el, he marries her through the system of levirate marriage, and the baby that is born of that union becomes an ancestor of the Messianic King. What I would argue is that for Ruth, God reveals God’s self in two places, both in the relationships of hesed, but also in those social systems that are designed to protect the disenfranchised. The system of levirate marriage, through which Boaz acts as goel, and which leads to the birth of the Messiah, is in fact the place where the divine responsibility of sheltering under kanafim, folks like widows and orphans and disenfranchised folks, gets worked out.
Our third panelist has read some Buber, she’s hung out in our social action program here and has answered that question about revelation in a deeply humanist, and I think, deeply social way and in a way that has great confidence in the powers of human communities to figure out how to enact those responsibilities that other parts of our tradition are going to put firmly with God.
Our three contestants have had their moments. I invite you to hear them separately as separate options or simultaneous truths. Or you’ve got a long time on erev Shavuot to think about how these might actually be three parts of a single theological vision. With that, I thank you. Chag sameach, everybody.