Shavuot, Torah, and Humanity
The rabbis of the first century decided to make Shavuot the anniversary of the Mount Sinai revelation. They added this cerebral, constitutional dimension (nowhere mentioned specifically in the Torah) to the holiday’s earlier agricultural significance.
In many ways, Sinai is the most important image in Judaism. It represents the specific way we are expected to live — our values and a comprehensive religious system. A constitution for a society and a structured way of living for individuals. Sinai is what differentiates ours from all other religions. What happened at Sinai? What was given and what were the mechanics of its transmission?
The Torah is a unique document in many ways. Nothing in the Torah can or should be taken at face value. Everything has to be considered through the different prisms, categories of prose, poetry, law, and narrative. It is not a classical Western document of law or history. It has its own integrity and agenda for its time and far beyond it. For thousands of years, different Jewish commentators have interpreted it both in the light of an Oral Tradition and their specific contexts and experiences.
You can look at it academically and critically, as you can any book. Some might say it is just a product of great minds, maybe inspired, trying to figure out what God wants. Some say it is an accumulation of different texts from different times, collected by one or several authors. The traditional answer is that it is a coherent text given to Moses by God on Sinai. And others add that it has a mystical, numerical, and alphabetical matrix that proves its supernatural source.
The Torah is described as the “Torah from God” and sometimes as the “Torah from Sinai.” Sometimes the term Torah is applied to the Aseret Hadibrot, the Two Tablets of Stone. And sometimes it is the Five Books of the Torah, with all the laws and rituals. There are two versions of the Tablets in the Bible, Exodus Chapter 20 and Deuteronomy Chapter 5.
The Torah says that in addition to the Tablets of Stone that Moses received there was also the Book of the Covenant, Sefer HaBrit ( Exodus 24:7). The Torah itself gives several different versions of the process of transmission, each slightly different, in Exodus Chapter 19, Exodus 20:16, and Exodus 31-34. In one way this is not unusual. The Torah often repeats narratives and events in different ways. Each time, like an artist’s different coats of paint, it adds an extra layer of meaning. We need to bring these different events and ideas together to create an overall story and experience.
How was the Torah written? In cuneiform? With what alphabet? The script we have nowadays was initiated by Ezra almost a thousand years after Sinai. The Talmud calls it the Assyrian script. Was it dictated by God, and Moses simply wrote it? And if he wrote it why did he just descend with two tablets? And indeed, the Talmud in Gittin 61a has different opinions as to when he wrote it all down. We know from documents found from the Dead Sea sects that each one had its own version of what books constituted Torah from Moses on Sinai. The rabbis of the Talmud accepted that many traditions may have been lost over the years.
Despite all these fascinating issues, it has been a fundamental principle in traditional Judaism that the Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai both in its written and oral forms. The Talmud reinforces this view. But it was through Maimonides that these ideas were turned into theological principles of faith rather than ideas.
Maimonides wrote with two audiences in mind, the ordinary Jew of simple faith and the philosopher who examines ideas. In his Thirteen Principles, he includes, “I believe with complete conviction that all the Torah that we now have in our hands is the one given to Moses.” Yet the philosopher will ask what he actually meant. What is more, many authorities at the time of Maimonides and later did not agree with him. Dr. Marc Shapiro has written an excellent book called The Limits of Orthodoxy, in which he lists all the other points of view. Even so, this idea remains deeply embedded in our tradition. So how are we to respond?
My position is that when we say that Moses received the Torah from Sinai, Sinai is more than an experience on a mountain. It is another way of saying that something unique can be seen as coming from God even if we do not know the precise mechanism of transmission. The Mishna says that anyone who denies that the Torah comes directly from God is excluded from the afterlife. It doesn’t actually say in the positive — “you must believe.” But it does say, “you cannot deny.” We must be allowed to explore and find our own ways towards the Torah and God, even if we have a blueprint in the Torah of how to live and behave.
This distinction makes a lot of sense. To be sure of something is very difficult. One has to lay oneself open to a range of ideas and experiences, and one cannot be sure at what point one may reach certainty. To deny something involves an act of faith far more certain and arrogant than to accept the possibility of something. One is not allowing for doubt. One is saying absolutely that one knows for certain that something is not the case.
My purpose here is to point out that acceptance of Divine revelation on Sinai was more a matter of accepting the authority of the tradition than it was an actual statement about the historical event of revelation. About this, we cannot speak. We were at the bottom of the mountain, not on top to witness the actual transmission. Once again, the rabbis show genius in not expecting a theological formulation. They are concerned with the practical commitment to a way of life and a particular way of understanding and interpreting the Torah. The issue is not what happened, so much as what is — and how authority is perceived and protected.
What matters is the preservation of a coherent tradition that is the basis of Jewish religious life today. The principle is that at a moment in history, a people were granted a gift. The result of this becomes its religious constitution. In other words, this is how I bring God into my life. That is what makes it holy.
The Book of Ruth which we read on Shavuot has three core themes. The story is predicated on the biblical laws of redemption and charity. Feeding the poor regardless of their origin. If one sold land under duress or poverty, the next of kin had the right and obligation to redeem it. Secondly, and relevant to the Torah on Sinai, Ruth willingly accepts upon herself the life of Torah with her remarkable statement, “Where you go, I will go, where you live, I will live, your people are my people, your God is my God, where you die, I will die and be buried. Only death will separate us.” There can be no greater commitment to God and Torah than that.
But finally, there is the concept of hesed. Going beyond the law to be kind to others. This word is repeated throughout this short book — Ruth’s kindness to Naomi, Boaz’s kindness to Ruth. Being a good kind human being is as much a part of the Torah as carrying out its other instructions. The world is in desperate need of hesed.
Jeremy Rosen is a writer and rabbi, currently living in New York.