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Shavuot Theology

This article is excerpted from The Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 1. The full Guide may be ordered from the Reconstructionist Press.

The festival of Shavuot (“Weeks” or “Pentecost”) is also known in our tradition as z’man matan toratenu—“The Time of the Giving of Our Torah.” While the holiday’s origins lie in an agricultural harvest celebration, in our time it has become primarily a commemoration and reenactment of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai to Moses and the Israelites.

How are we to understand the traditional claim that the Torah is divinely revealed? And what exactly is the Torah that was revealed?

A literal reading of the Book of Exodus, chapters 19 and 20, suggests that it was the Ten Commandments that Moses received on two tablets. For the last 2,000 years, however, the rabbis have claimed that the entirety of the Pentateuch was dictated by God to Moses, so that every word, every letter, every repetition and contradiction in the Five Books of Moses (the written Torah) has meaning and significance. In the rabbis’ view, when the Five Books of Moses are correctly interpreted, they yield the oral Torah and the massive expansion of halakha (Jewish law) and aggada (non-legal teaching) that is compiled in the Talmud and the books of midrash. The rabbis were so bold as to claim that God revealed the oral Torah as well as the written Torah to Moses at Sinai, so that all post-Sinai interpretations through the ages rediscover what was already revealed at Sinai.

The belief that every letter of the Pentateuch was divinely revealed remained standard Jewish belief up until modernity. Instead of stifling innovation, however, this belief has served as the foundational premise that supported and authenticated all innovation. If the Torah is divinely revealed, prior generations believed, then it must be true. Thus, whatever one knows to be true must be contained in the Torah, which must be reread to find hidden meanings. Rabbis read apparently unsubstantiated laws and customs out of—or back into—the Torah text on the basis of intertextual syllogisms and other principles of interpretation that they established. Since Jewish philosophers assumed that Moses had access to perfect philosophic and scientific truth, they sought and often found answers to perennial questions hidden in the Torah. Kabbalists mined the divine footprints in the Torah for esoteric clues to inexpressible insights about the nature of reality.

To us it may appear as if premodern Jews were disingenuous when they claimed that their innovations were actually embedded in the text given at Sinai and for all we know, some of them may indeed have been merely abiding by cultural norms when they claimed ancient validation for their own beliefs. In most cases, however, we should trust their sincerity. If you believe that a text is divinely authored, then it is reasonable to infer that the depth of its wisdom is timeless and all encompassing. This was a nonnegotiable belief; when Spinoza questioned it in the 16th century, he was excommunicated.

In the 19th century, the academic field of biblical criticism began to flourish, originally among Protestants. Not only did Bible-critical scholars not assume that the Bible is divinely authored; they also questioned the claim that the Five Books of Moses were written by Moses, and that they were a single text at all. They studied the language, syntax and outlook of the Pentateuch and concluded that it is actually a set of documents that were once independent and that were subsequently woven together into a fairly seamless whole. Instead of assuming that contradictions were portals to divine wisdom, they seized upon them as clues to the identification of different authors. Each document they identified and isolated has its own distinctive linguistic identifiers and a coherent view of God and the meaning of life.

Jewish scholars entered the field of biblical criticism in the middle of the 20th century. While they noted and revised many Christian biases in the field, they mostly accepted the basic assumption that different sections of the Bible were written and edited by different groups of people with differing outlooks, and that the five books we now call the Torah were edited into their current form no earlier than the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE), and perhaps later.

The enterprise of liberal Judaism assumes that the Torah was not literally revealed in the sense that every letter and word was dictated by God and thus is binding upon us for all time. But if the Bible is just a book written by human beings, why do we continue to treasure it, and why do we choose to live according to its teachings?

Most of us highly doubt that a tape recorder at Mount Sinai would have recorded the voice of God, or that 2 million Israelites (assuming small families for the 600,000 adult men referred to in the Torah) stood at the foot of the mountain in a dramatic thunderstorm. How can those of us who are skeptical about those things reenact the mythic revelation at Sinai on Shavuot? First, we can acknowledge that some of our myths retain more power than others. This is not because we believe that the events occurred as they are described, but rather because our values and self-understanding are easily embedded in them. Mythic power derives from intuitive, experiential truth, not from historical accuracy.

The story of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery resonates deeply with our commitment to working against injustice and with the value we place on our own internal liberation. Biblical and rabbinic sources would not have approved of our association of Pesach with democracy,religious pluralism, feminism, or any of the other meanings of freedom we bring to the Passover Seder. Like prior generations, we ascribe our values and insights to the story. Sometimes we are aware that we are innovating; sometimes, not.

Shavuot is not as easy to reinterpret. It celebrates the revelation of the Torah, which, according to rabbinic traditions, contains the halakha by which we are supposed to live. First, we may not have had revelatory encounters with the divine, or we may not believe in their possibility. Second, if we do not regard halakha as authoritative, we may resist celebrating a narrative that affirms that God gave us the commandments at Mount Sinai.

Non-Supernaturalistic Understandings of Divine Revelation

There are strands of rabbinic teaching that may be helpful here. One of them asserts that there is a bat kol (a divine voice) that perpetually “sounds” at Mount Horeb (Sinai), saying: “Return, you wayward children.” It is the cause of our yearning for the Infinite: However stuck we are in our wayward ways, there is a whisper, a subliminal vibration that stirs within us and moves us to yearn to get closer to God. That is, revelation was not a one-time occurrence. The call continues to “sound” today, at every moment. The variable is whether we are open to hearing it.

This is an approach to divine revelation that does not require that we believe in a God who reveals the Torah with specific content at a specific moment in history. Rather, we might understand the revelation at Sinai— whatever its content—as the response of Moses and the Israelites when they discerned the divine presence there.

Another rabbinic teaching states that what was revealed at Sinai was the aleph of “Anokhi”—that is, the first letter, silent in Hebrew, of the first word of the first commandment—the “I” in “I am the Lord, your God.” The German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber understood this to mean that what transpired—and transpires—at Sinai is an I-Thou encounter between humans and God, in which we are completely open and receptive to a powerful and indefinable divine presence that we sense intuitively. Such experiences of the holy dimension can be transformational. People have new insights and feel changed; they understand the meaning of their lives differently, with new imperatives. Buber posited that the Sinai experience involved a community that had (and has) such an encounter together, the results of which are a brit (covenant), and a set of ritual and ethical norms and sacred narratives that constitute the Torah. God doesn’t speak; rather, we hear.

This connects to yet another rabbinic teaching: “The Torah speaks in human (not divine) language.” At Sinai, each individual heard according to his or her capacities. Thus, the content of revelation is filtered through the human vessel. We verbalize and conceptualize intuitions and encounters for which we have no words or concepts, interpreting them according to who we are, what we know and the beliefs of our culture. Two different people, standing side by side, received two different revelations.

None of these interpretations preclude a belief in the reality of God or divine revelation. They suggest, however, that by definition, the divine is beyond human ability to express in words, since language is a human convention that refers to things that are not God. All accounts of encounters with God must be understood as reflections of particular people who hear in a particular socio-historical context. They reveal more about those who receive the revelation than about the revealer.

How, then, can we know whether or not God exists? We cannot. That is why it is called faith. Scientifically, you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. The evidence we have consists of our own experiences and the accounts of others who describe their encounters with God, including the Israelites in the biblical period.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan understood the Torah and the mitzvot as the expressions of the highest ideals and most sublime values of the Jewish people. If you believe with a perfect faith that you should love your neighbor as yourself, or that you should not work on the seventh day, then it is what you will hear God commanding. As Jewish civilization evolved through the centuries, adapting to changing cultural and socio-historical circumstances, values changed and so did the content of what people heard God saying. From this viewpoint, the content of revelation and the interpretation of Torah will never cease to evolve because we limited humans will never achieve the kingdom of heaven on earth. Fortunately, revelation and inspiration are ongoing.

The Authority of Torah for Liberal Jews

If you don’t believe that the text of the Torah was literally written by God, and if you don’t believe that the oral Torah and the 613 mitzvot are literally divine commandments, then why would you continue to read and interpret the Torah and observe some if not all of the mitzvot?

  1. Tradition. Reconstructionists believe that belonging to the Jewish people is the basis for all other aspects of Jewish civilization. Belonging precedes behavior and belief—not only for Jews, but also for all communities and nations. What you share with all other members is citizenship or membership. In our community and our family, we become acculturated. We learn the language that shapes the contours of reality. We acquire beliefs and values. We are rendered culturally specific. The Jewish people’s narratives, rituals and practices shape us and become our spiritual home. When I fast on Yom Kippur, I’m doing what my parents and grandparents did, even if I interpret the practices differently from them, and even if I modify them or change the words. That’s okay—they were interpreting the same practices differently from their grandparents. Traditions are the constants that allow for continuity, even as they change over time. Even when we don’t want to live as our parents did, we still want to acknowledge our connection to our origins.
  2. Accrued sanctity. Using my mother’s Shabbat candlesticks and my grandfather’s tallit (prayer shawl) is not only meaningful and emotionally powerful. These material objects convey an accrued holiness because of the prayers and aspirations they have expressed over the decades. This is also true of a newly purchased tallit or pair of candlesticks because they are ritual objects that have been used to express the yearnings of countless millions over the centuries. The same can also be said of the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, liturgical blessings, colloquial expressions, melodies, recipes and texts. The Torah, however we define it, is a sacred heritage. This is the case not because it is God-given, but because it was and is produced by people who have sought to experience the deepest and richest levels of reality.
  3. Limiting autonomy. It is good to belong to a community that expects its members to show up sometimes on Shabbat mornings. I am not compelled by that expectation to show up every week, but I am somehow rendered accountable; I need to think about what I’m doing (or not doing) to celebrate Shabbat this morning. I am grateful to belong to a community that adopts Jewish texts, values and practices as a starting point, rather than to a group of individuals who are starting from scratch. In short, nonhalakhic Jews can enrich their lives by regarding the Torah as a sacred inheritance worth celebrating.
  4. Practice as an instrument of revelation. Studying sacred texts, practicing rituals, and working to effect prophetic values may be activities in which we engage because we believe them to be divinely revealed—or they may be the instruments by means of which we are able to experience what we might call revelatory moments, moments in which we are transported beyond ourselves and connected to a presence that is divine.

Ongoing Revelation

When we celebrate Shavuot, then, we need not limit the celebration to an event that occurred (or did not occur) in the 13th century BCE. If the giving of the Torah is ongoing, then new interpretations we discover at a tikun leyl Shavuot are part of the oral Torah. According to one interpretation, they, too, were actually revealed by God to Moses at Sinai. If in our study we feel transformed by an experience of the sacred, then we ourselves are standing at Sinai. Reconstructing our understandings of divine revelation and the authority of Torah enables us to see ourselves as links in the chain of tradition even though inherited understandings of those beliefs no longer make sense to us.

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