On Shavuot: The Power of Imagination and Tradition
There’s a Jewish internet dating service (amongst the many) called “Saw You at Sinai”. I guess its name derives from the famous argument of Yehudah Halevi in the Kuzari that what marked Judaism from the other monotheistic religions, such as Christianity and Islam, was that its core constitution and inspiration lay not in a private revelation that no one else witnessed, but in public, in front of the whole people who were present at Sinai. Of course this is what we celebrate on Shavuot, coming up this Saturday night.
It is an interesting argument and it makes a very important point about the nature of our religion. But it is hardly a watertight, rational argument. Vast numbers of people have been deluded and misled before and since. Mass hysteria is a profound reinforcer of delusions. And the argument that one cannot invent a tradition out of nowhere if a whole people would have known it was false, also fails rational analysis. The Tanach itself gives several examples of whole sections, if not the whole people, needing the discovery or the intervention of a great leader or a Biblical book they knew nothing about to reinforce their commitment to a tradition they had long lost.
So you will ask me, why am I a Jew? Is it an accident of birth? The influence of my parents? Doubtless that is part of it. And why am I so committed to the Oral and the Written law together, inextricably bound together and obligatory? Is it “faith”–the word other religions love to use? A simple declaration of “I believe”?
I have often wondered why the Torah itself does not command to believe using the words “You must believe.” Instead the first of the Ten Commandments is a declaration, that God is the foundation of everything. It is an invitation to engage. So I can say I experience God and feel His presence. But is that the same thing as “knowing” for a fact? If I knew for a fact, like seeing the police car behind me when I was speeding, then neither I nor anyone else, I think, would ever do anything wrong. The fact is we cannot, even Moses could not, “know” in the same way that we know that if I put my hand in the fire it will hurt. Yet, nevertheless, for many of us God’s presence is the most dominant experience of our lives.
But we–you and I, who are living now–we were not at Sinai. Neither were we on the plains of Moab. I am not much impressed by the genetic trail that nowadays is trumpeted as proof of our common or priestly origin. Sure, there may be traces of our Middle Eastern origins. But we have 90% common genetic material with rats. From the Books of Judges to Lamentations, we have enough evidence of rape and admixture to know our specific Jewish genes have been watered down. If you add Greeks, Romans, and all the racial varieties of Christians and Muslims then by golly the amount of foreign seed implanted, mainly under coercion, must outweigh by a massive amount any purity of our genetic line. And that’s without considering all the converts. Why, go to any Rebbe’s Tisch and you can see traces of Cossack blood everywhere.
Is it perhaps that our common bond is forged by suffering, oppression, alienation, emigration, and insecurity? Not every Jew has been through all this, though most have in different forms. And other minorities such as Gypsies, Armenians, Tutsis, and Hmong have been there and felt it too! It is true the Holocaust was a predominantly Ashkenzai catastrophe, but read the history of Iranian Jews to see what they went through under Shia domination for hundreds of years without going anywhere near Germany.
I do strongly believe in our nationhood and our right to our land. But I don’t really like the idea of nationalism. Frankly, I am waiting for the Messiah to get rid of all these petty little statelets and their flags and armies and petty rivalries. But until that happens, and for so long as the world runs on national lines, it cannot be just to allow the Kosovars or the Macedonians to have a state and not the Jews.
What do I have in common with my fellow Jews? Very little, if I’m honest. Most Jews in the world are not religious. I can understand that; but to me being Jewish without religion makes no sense. They probably think I’m crazy. On the other hand, a strong minority of religious Jews are so fundamentalist they consider me a lost soul. I am a typical Brit. I don’t like extremes at either end. I am neither an unreconstructed rationalist nor an unreserved mystic. I love them both. I love much of secular culture and I love nothing more than to be lost in the Talmud (which is my favorite book and the only one I’d need on a desert island). I am an intellectual in a world of philistines, a liberal surrounded by the prejudiced, and a popularizer in a world of specialists. So where does that put me? One fraction of one percent of one of the smallest peoples in the world. And I support Manchester United. Is there ANYONE out there who matches?
Yet on Shavuot I will feel I was at Sinai in the same way that I feel on Pesach that I came out of Egypt. That is the power of imagination as well as tradition. The Torah is God speaking to me. I do indeed have conversations with the Almighty and draw strength from feeling Him around me all the time. Although I would not pay any attention to what I thought was a Heavenly voice telling me to jump off the Empire State Building. Does that mean there are no doubts? Living a religious life gives me pleasure, structure, discipline, and deeper meaning. If I had to put my finger on why I am a Jew, it is because I enjoy it. It works for me. I may be unusual, but at least I’m happy! Chag Sameach.