Shavuot (Individual & Community)
Two Conceptions of Sinai
For more teachings on Shavuot, see the archive to this blog for May 2006, May 2007, June 2008, June 2009, and May 2010.
Shavuot: the festival of Revelation, Ma’amad Har Sinai—that great day when the entire Jewish people stood “as one man, with one heart,” at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. This event is the central moment, the formative paradigm of Judaism. Midrashim and other accounts describing Sinai in terms of the entire people undergoing this transcendent experience are so numerous, so widespread, that one cannot even begin to cite them—and they are so familiar that there is need to do so. To quote just a few representative sources: “’And the people camped opposite the mountain’— with one heart and one mind” (Rashi on Exod 129:2); “And all the people answered together, ‘We shall do and we shall hear’” (Exod 19:8).Moreover, Ma’amad Har Sinai was not only experienced by the entire people, but is seen as the paradigmatic, constitutive moment in the covenant of the entire people with God. Thus, one of the aggadot about Sinai focuses specifically upon Moses as representative of human beings in all their weakness. It is told that, when Moses ascended on high to receive the Torah, the angels challenged him with the words, “What business has one born of woman among us?” He answered that, precisely because human beings are mortal, and have bodily needs and human passions and emotions, they need the Torah, which is specifically directed towards the human condition (b. Shabbat 88b-89a; see HY VIII: Shavuot [=Rashi], for text, translation, and discussion).
R. Yehudah Halevi, in his Sefer ha-Kuzari—perhaps the classic work of Jewish apologetics of all time, in which he presents arguments and polemics for the truth of “a despised religion”—invokes the Sinai experience as proof of the truth of Torah. He argues that no other event in human history was authenticated by 600,000 eye witnesses (see, esp., Kuzari I.89-95).
There is an idea in Jewish mysticism (first articulated by the 11th–12th century Spanish philosopher Abraham bar Hiyya in his Megalleh Amukot) that the 600,000 Jews who left Egypt and stood at Sinai correspond to the 600,000 letters of the Torah, so that the soul of each Jew is somehow uniquely connected in its root to a particular letter in the Torah (this theory is only partly confuted by the fact that there are in fact only about 315,000 letters in the Torah).
The Talmud (b. Pesahim 68b), in discussing whether festive days ought to be devoted to study of Torah or to the pleasures of eating and drinking (concluding, rather sagely, that the best course is to divide it “half for God and for yourselves”), notes that “All agree that Shavuot, the day that Torah was given to Israel” must be a time of bodily rejoicing—paradoxically, perhaps, davka because of its spiritual nature.
Finally, to quote a contemporary theologian, Michael Fishbane:
Jewish theology begins at Sinai. This is its axial moment—the occasion when, according to scripture, the people of Israel are called to accept God’s world-historical dominion and live within the framework of godliness. … For Jewish theology, there is no passage to spiritual responsibility that does not in some way cross the wilderness of Sinai and stand before the mountain of instruction. Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 46
And yet, when we turn to the Rambam—generally considered the greatest single figure of medieval Jewry, equally renowned for his great halakhic code and for his philosophic work, The Guide for the Perplexed, regarded as the definitive statement of the Judaic–Aristotelian synthesis—we find a very different picture. In his account, the people, rather than experiencing the Revelation in its full power, are depicted receiving a rather vague, clouded sense of the Divine presence, the central role being played by Moses. In three separate places, in each of the major works of his ouevre—in Guide II.33; in Mishneh Torah, Yesodei ha-Torah 7.6—8.2; and in his Introduction to Perek Helek (=Mishnah Commentary, Sanhedrin 10), 7th principle—Maimonides presents his understanding of what happened at Sinai, and of the role played therein by Moshe Rabbenu. I already discussed this in the first year of this series in an essay entitled “’And All the People Stood Against the Mountain’ vs. ‘The Prophecy of Moses our Teacher’” (HY I: Shavuot). Here I will recapitulate the central ideas, and discuss some of their implications.
The core of Maimonides’ approach is rooted in his general emphasis on the intellect as the gate to the Divine. He contends that Moses alone experienced the full force of the Divine revelation, clearly hearing the Ten Commandments; the rest of the people only heard “the voice” or “sound” (kol) of the first two commandments, and even that not as clearly articulated words. They only received a vague, indistinct sense of something overwhelming, uncanny, punctuated by awesome sounds and sights. In support of the view that the people did not have the spiritual fortitude to hear the Divine voice for more than a few moments, he quotes the verse in which they tell Moses: “You speak with God and we will listen, and let not God speak with us lest we die” (Exod 20:16). Indeed, the aggadah reinforces the idea that they only heard the first two commandments, inferring that 611 of the 613 commandments were conveyed through the intermediacy of Moses and not heard directly from God (Makkot 23b-24a).
Elsewhere, too, Rambam consistently refers to nevuato shel Moshe Rabbenu, “the prophecy of Moses our Teacher” as the source of the Torah; in various places, he enumerates those areas in which there was a qualitative difference between the prophecy of Moses and that of all the other prophets. Indeed, the reason why an epiphany before the entire people was necessary at all was to testify to the truth of Moses’ prophecy and, by extension, to the binding authority of the Torah: “Behold I come to you in the thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and that they may also believe in you forever” (Exod 19:9).
Maimonides was led to this view by his specific philosophical approach, which identifies the highest religious experience, that of prophecy, with a cognitive apprehension of the Active Intellect—and hence of necessity confined to a small elite, and even that, only after long and rigorous training.
This idea is articulated by Rambam in several other places in his work, and not only with regard to Moses. Thus, Abraham, as the paradigmatic founder of the faith, is depicted as discovering the truth of monotheism after a long process of deep thought and questioning (Hil. Avodat Kokhavim 1.3; see HY V: Lekh lekha). In similar light, he describes the candidate for prophecy as combining great wisdom, sterling moral qualities, an iron will and control of his impulses. If “such a person enters into Pardes and contemplates these profound and remote matters… withdrawing from the society of the majority of men,” it may happen that “the Holy Spirit will rest upon him” (Yesodei ha-Torah 7.1; see HY V: Vayigash & Shemot [=Rambam]). Similar motifs appear in his discussion of the individual who loves God without any ulterior motif (Hil. Teshuvah, Ch. 10). Thus, a process of profound thinking—i.e., philosophizing—is depicted as the source of religious truth.
I noted in the past that Maimonides was a mystic, albeit not a Kabbalist. But he was a mystic of a very special kind: one who strived for Amor dei intellectualis, that love of God that can only be reached through the intellect, after a long process of thorough–going clarification and rigorous scrutiny of ones theological concepts, so as to attain a clear understanding what one is talking about, to avoid believing that a figment or projection of ones imagination so God. Hence, we have his strict discussion of the meaning of unity, his insistence upon careful definition of terms, his negative doctrine of attributes—all these in order to avoid any similarity between God and beings in the “sub-lunar sphere.” Thus, anything that smacks of personality, emotion, etc. is anathema to him. (As against this, see in recent years the learned discussion of the diametrically opposed view in the Bible, and especially the important book by Yohanan Muffs, The Personhood of God.) Hence, it ought to be stressed at this point that Rambam’s insistence that knowledge of God must be intellectually and philosophically grounded is not mere elitism, in the negative sense, but an integral part of his world-view.
Having said all this: how are we to deal with Maimonides’ approach to revelation and, by extension, to religious experiences generally? What are we to do with human differences: in intellect, in mental capacity, and in temperament? If Moses alone experienced the great epiphany at Sinai, where does this leave for ordinary mortals, and what is left of Ma’mad Har Sinai being experienced by all of Israel? And what about mysticism? Can one reach God through an emotional or intuitive path? William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, seems to think so (although he of courser writes as a phenomenologist and a psychologist clarifying and classifying human experience, rather than as a theologian venturing to evaluate the ontological reality of what these people have experienced).
My own tendency is to view “knowledge of God” in broader terms, as not only intellectual or philosophical, but as including elements that are more emotional or intuitive in nature? I have in mind here Hasidism and Mitnaggedism as two different approaches within Judaism, as reflecting different temperaments—the one elitist, the other more democratic. At times, profound religious insights may be gained and taught by very simple people. I think, for example, of an approach almost diametrically opposed to that of Rambam—namely, that of R. Nahman of Braslav. In his story “The Wise man and the Simpleton” (Ma’aseh be-Hakham va Tam), the point is that a certain utter simplicity and naivety is not only called for, but even preferable, in the religious life.
Perhaps one might argue something as follows: God is so transcendent to all humans, that differences in intellect and rational understanding pale before His transcendence and utter unknowability. This is a lesson that some of us over-educated and overly cosmopolitan urban Jews need to heed. Indeed, at times, a person on the near-genius level, filled with erudition, may make a conscious choice for the life of emotion and of a kind of adhering to a few basic, simple truths. Such is my reading, for example, of the late Rav Shlomo Carlebach. On the other hand, there may be great minds in this world who are morally bankrupt and who, alongside their insightful and at times significant contributions to their own specific fields, may be utterly cynical and debased in their personal lives, using their superior mental powers and quickness of mind to exploit and manipulate others for their own selfish ends.
Perhaps we can resolve the conflict between the two ways by saying that the experience of God and of His Presence touches upon human faculties that go beyond both the emotional and the intellectual: the “spiritual,” what Halevi calls “the Divine matter” (inyan ha-elohi), which may be experienced in diverse ways. There are passages where Rambam himself seems to allude to such experiences.
One might suggest the following synthesis: Whether or not the people of Israel clearly heard the words Anokhi and lo yihyeh lekha (“I am the Lord…” and “you shall not have…”) does not really matter: the overwhelming experience of the numinous, of the divine presence, in and of itself, was the “Anokhi” experience; the source of the strongest, surest and most certain knowledge that “I am the Lord your God.” Likewise, the concomitant fear of God, verging on sheer terror and panic in the face of His overwhelming Presence, was, existentially, the source of “you shall have no other gods before me”: they felt the quintessential fear of Him that is the root of all the negative commandments, and first and foremost the prohibition of idolatry.
I would like to quote in this context an idea propounded by the Christian theologian Jacques Maritain. In one of his books, Maritain explains that the philosophical proofs of God’s existence—he speaks particularly of the epistemological and the argument from design—are not only for philosophers, but have their counterpart on another level for ordinary people. The same arguments established by philosophers with rigorous, closely reasoned, step-by-step argumentation, correspond to basic truths that may be intuitively grasped by ordinary people. The philosopher may demonstrate logically why every existing thing must have a prior cause, working back logically until he reaches the First Cause; the simple man looks up at the starry sky, or at the brooding beauty of a deep forest or of a stark desert landscape, and bursts into praise of the Creator: “How great are your works, O Lord!” The philosopher presents the epistemological argument: the fact that we can conceive of God at all proves at He must exist; the simple man feels faith in his heart, directly. And so on. The same holds true for Sinai. The people tangibly felt the Presence and Glory of God, giving birth to a kind of intuitive, inferential faith, which led to Anokhi, the acceptance of His sovereignty—and from there to the acceptance of all the mitzvot they were taught by Moses their teacher. With these words, I will conclude, and wish all a renewed sense of the awe and grandeur of that mysterious day at Sinai long ago. Hag Sameah!