Revelation and its Discontents
By Daniel S. Brenner
A sign I saw while taking a shabbes walk read:
Hear God’s Word.
Be God’s Voice.
God is still speaking.
-First Church of Christ
The sign made me think of the Sunday mornings of my youth.
Growing up as I did, a Jew boy in North Carolina, a gefilte fish out of water, Sunday morning was about as exciting as watching paint dry. All my neighborhood friends were at church, and that left me sitting at home, feeling alone, curled up in front of the television. And what, might you imagine was on said television set in the years before cable came to Charlotte? Church. Lots of church. And the more I watched, the more I fell in love with Jimmy Swaggart sweating into his hanky, Ernest Angeley healing the deaf with the words “Baby Jesus” – pronounced deep South slow motion of course – and our local show, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and their Praise the Lord Church complete with gold plated bath fixtures. These evangelists referred to their broadcasts as an experience of revelation, in which “God’s Word” or “God’s Truth” or “God’s message for you” was miraculously beamed into your living room. I couldn’t help but be enthralled by their televised drama of passion, salvation, and transformation each week.
But I was skeptical. I was skeptical because every fifteen minutes these preachers threw a phone number up on the screen to raise money for their ministry. I was also skeptical because to me the whole gospel seemed like one big circular argument gone hay-wire. Why did I need Jesus? Because without Jesus I was damned to hell. How do we know this? Because Jesus said so. And so on and so on. I found the whole thing to be rather shallow. But I was deeply jealous of these women and men and their personal direct line connection to God. For them it was a local call.
Us Jewish folk might have mumbled a few prayers to God, but we certainly didn’t talk about God’s word as being personally meaningful, or feel God’s presence transforming our lives. God’s word had much more to do with not shaking parmesan cheese on a chicken cutlet. You’d start to shake and then an angel would call out “hold back your hand, spare the child” – wait that’s the wrong story. But you get the point. In the local Jewish day school I didn’t learn that God “revealed” his word to us, but that God “gave” a book to our ancestors and in doing so “commanded” us. They also said that all this happened a long time ago, years before the first Jews lived in Brooklyn.
So I was jealous of the evangelicals, to whom God’s word was alive and revealed from the pulpit. The Torah in comparison was an incomprehensible family heirloom, read by an eighty year old man who stooped and smelled of stale milk. No wonder I wanted God’s word to be fresh from the Creator and slipping off my
I think this divide was enforced by the centrality of the Torah scroll itself in the synagogue- The scroll is the oldest material object in most Jewish communities and it is often adorned with velvet fabric and placed in a fancy wood carved closet. As a result, God’s message seems somewhat outdated, like a guide to Soviet politics or an operation manual for a manual typewriter. This sense left me with a desire for some experience in which Torah was alive.
While attending RRC, though, a place which was alive with Jewish communal feeling and spiritual vibrancy, most of the Torah learning I did made the Torah even more dead than it already was. Identifying propretonic syllables didn’t thrill me. The minutiae of grammatical analysis that I was trained to perform on each word became spiritually nullifying. Learning the documentary hypothesis approach put me in a funk about priestly conspiracies and historical revisionism. In other classes the feminist critique against the patriarchy sunk in and by that time I was looking for inspiration in novels, not Torah. Even in my last year, when we did some fun postmodern literary criticism on the text, it ended up as a identity politics game with little relevance outside its quarters. Torah was a central text – but it was more often a punching bag than a love seat.
I think about the words on that sign and ask: Should Jews be trying to Hear God’s Word? Speak God’s Voice? Do we still think that God is speaking?
In the past two years, as part of my work at CLAL the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in Manhttan I have asked this question as a teacher of rabbinical students from the diverse seminaries that make up American Jewish life.
Of all the things I do, directing the internship – a group of sixteen exceptional senior students from Yeshiva university, JTS, HUC, AJR, RRC, Chovevi Torah – is the most challenging and engaging part of my week. I am blessed to work with David Kramer, the professor of Talmud at JTS as my colleague and each week we lead a two hour seminar for the students that teaches them to think beyond the specific movements they are immersed in.
You have to imagine the first day that we meet together as a group. The guys from Yeshiva University come in wearing nice Dockers slacks, starched button down shirts, briefcases with shoulder straps, and they do a lot of nervous twitching – the knee bouncing under the table kind. The liberal Jews, including many women studying for the rabbinate, walk in with backpacks and mocha lattes and try to use lots of Hebrew phrases to sound rabbinic. For many of these liberal students it is the first time they have ever spent more than a few minutes in conversation with an Orthodox Jew.
For the first two months, everybody is extremely nice. People look one another in the eye when they speak and smile or nod appreciatively like they work in customer service. “oh yes I understand” they say to each other. They tell their stories and why they are becoming rabbis, and then at some point, David and I ask people to talk a bit about God, Moses, and what went down at Sinai. And this is when all hell breaks loose.
The Orthodox say:
Accepting the Torah on Sinai is the essence of being a Jew. If I didn’t believe that God gave us the Torah at Sinai, there would be no point. It is from Sinai that we are commanded, and challenged to be disciplined enough to put words into action. Sinai is at the core of who I am.
The Progressives say:
Well I understand Sinai to be a metaphor – but to think that an infinite God wrote this book… that is ridiculous. God is not a writer with a Smith-Corona on high typing away. Humans wrote the Torah. It is a historical document. But we are guided by the ideals, the desire for a just society, for a holy community.
But there are competing ideas about what justice and holiness mean. Do you follow Torah or just the consensus of the psychologists, physicians and others who you see as God? Why not follow the Upanishads or the Rig-Veda or the Tibetan Book of the Dead – they might be closer to your ideas about ethics
The Torah is the book of my ancestors as much as it is of yours – I will not let you own it or be the sole authority for what it means.
But you don’t want to have any authority – you think the Torah is all a metaphor and you want each person to have the freedom to pick and choose what they want to follow anyway.
You doctrine guided Robot.
You lazy traitor to your heritage.
You can see how this can spin out of control. And see how the tension is once again between a Torah that is a relic – old and living on life support – and a Torah that never was really alive to begin with.
So I have to ask a question that goes beyond the question “What happened at Sinai?”
And that question is – Why do we need the Torah anyway?
Not only why do Jews need it, by why does anyone need it?
This may sound like the question of a heretic – of the wicked son from the Passover seder – but in fact, our own Jewish sources have long hinted at this question.
Take the following from the Talmud
If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned from the ant not to rob, from the dove not to commit adultery, from the cat to be modest, and from the rooster to have good manners. (Erubin 100b)
Just think how much could be learned from dolphins, horses or ferrets. Ok, forget the ferrets.
But that text in peanuts compared to the following Midrash – which if you listen carefully is cleverly crafted:
A few days before Shavuot, Moses gathered the Elders together and said:
“These are the words which God will soon wish to command. Do you favor adopting them?”
They answered: “Why not? Haven’t our fathers already adopted these rules of conduct before us? Jacob accepted God and removed idols. Joseph did not swear using God’s name, and he prepared a Shabbat table. Isaac honored his father and made no protest when led to the sacrifice. Judah opposed killing Joseph. Joseph opposed adultery. Judah identified before his father the bloody shirt of
Joseph and did not lie. Abraham refused to steal from Sodom. We shall be just as eager to accept God’s words as were our fathers. (Pesikta Hahadash, Otzer Midrashim 489)
Did you pick up on the reference? In this text they go through each of the ten commandments and tell God “Been there! Done that!”
So the conclusion seems to be that Torah was not necessary at all. Humans were already on the right path. The Torah just acted as a good PR message for what the patriarchs had already figured out. It was a pedagogic tool – later on Saadia Ga’on and Maimonidies would affirm this same idea. But like all PR campaigns, once they’ve been through the spin cycle, the buzz wears off. So after Plato and Aristotle, Rousseau, Locke,
Jefferson and Marx , Torah faded away. And while Rabbis have tried to stretch their interpretations and make it relevant the enlightenment is one tough contender. You want to bring more justice in the world? Study law or politics. Want to heal the sick? Study biology or chemistry. Studying Torah? That’s good for the weekend.
Richard Rorty, a philosopher at Stanford who happens to be a great defender of post-modernism has put it this way -Humanity has been through three major phases. Monotheism, in which religion offers hope through entering a covenant with a supremely powerful non-human. Philosophy, in which a set of beliefs tell us what is true about the world we live in, and literary culture – which does not care about What is True but about “What is new?”
When I think of my own family, and the attitudes of my Grandfather who was born in Poland in 1899 and remained a devout Jew, my father born in the Bronx in 1932 who left the fold when he discovered philosophy, and me, born in North Carolina in 1969 who prefers Babel over Hegel, we have evolved through these intellectual stages in the span of three generations.
Rorty sees these phases as evolutionary. Kant leveled Religion. Kirkegard leveled Kant. And now we are waiting for someone to level him.
This returns me to my initial question about Torah being alive. Maybe at one time in human evolution Torah was alive, back when people were slaughtering children to appease Molech, and the insights of Torah were necessary for humanity to move forward, but we do not need it anymore – especially in the ways we once did. We should reconcile ourselves with the fact that the Torah is a history book. It should be treated with respect, read aloud, and given a special place in our community– but not understood to be the actual words of an invisible God.
But wait one cotton-pickin’ minute! What if something about the Torah, about Sinai, about the revelation – is truly unique, and what if there is something more to Torah than simply the words, something beyond the surface content of the Torah. The voice of the mystic speaks – as I’ve read from the 13th century kabbalistic text the Zohar:
“Wo unto the man,” says Simeon bar Yohai, “who asserts that this Torah intends to relate only commonplace things and secular narratives; for if this were so, then in the present times likewise a Torah might be written with more attractive narratives. In truth, however, the matter is thus: The upper world and the lower are established upon one and the same principle; in the lower world
is Israel, in the upper world are the angels. When the angels wish to descend to the lower world, they have to don earthly garments. It this be true of the angels, how much more so of the Torah, for whose sake, indeed, the world and the angels were alike created and exist. The world could simply not have endured
to look upon it. Now the narratives of the Torah are its garments. He who thinks that these garments are the Torah itself deserves to perish and have no share in the world to come. Woe unto the fools who look no further when they see an elegant robe! More valuable than the garment is the body which carries it, and more valuable even than that is the soul which animates the body. Fools
see only the garment of the Torah, the more intelligent see the body, the wise see the soul, its proper being; and in the Messianic time the ‘upper soul’ of the Torah will stand revealed”
For people like me, who love to study Torah, who love to engage in each word and letter and read it again an again every year of our lives, each week hoping for a new insight – the Zohar’s message is loud and clear. Sure I read the New Yorker – in fact I read it each week – especially the fiction and movie reviews – but I sure wouldn’t want to be stuck on a desert Island for ten years with a stack of one hundred New Yorkers. But stick me there with the Torah and I’ll read it again and again and again. As the Talmudic rabbis said – Turn it Turn it for all is in it.
The Zohar has a parable about the pleasure of Torah study that takes this idea even further.
“The man who is not acquainted with the mystical books is like the savage barbarian who was a stranger to the usages of civilized life. He sowed wheat, but was accustomed to partake of it only in its natural condition.
One day this barbarian came into a city, and good bread was placed before him. Finding it very palatable, he inquired of what material it was made, and was informed that it was made of wheat. Afterward one offered to him a fine cake kneaded in oil. He tasted it, and again asked: ‘And this, of what is it made?’
and he received the same answer, of wheat. Finally, one placed before him the royal pastry, kneaded with oil and honey. He again asked the same question, to which he obtained a like reply. Then he said: ‘At my house I am in possession of all these things. I partake daily of them in root, and cultivate the
wheat from which they are made.’ In this crudeness he remained a stranger to the delights one draws from the wheat, and the pleasures were lost to him. It is the same with those who stop at the general principles of knowledge because they
are ignorant of the delights which one may derive from the further
investigation and application of these principles.”
What I learn from this passage of Zohar is that it is not simply the content of Torah that is important. To experience Torah is to know the appreciation of each of the baked goodies – it is not simply intellectual, it is appreciating the simple pleasures -good bread, the luxuries – cake, and the spiritual ones – the pastry.
What does it really mean to experience Torah in this way?
To do so, you have to go back and imagine yourself at the foot of Mount Sinai:
And it came to pass on the third day the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace; and the whole mount quaked greatly. (Exodus 19:16ff)
Sinai was an experience of incredible visual and audible stimulation – dream-like in its intensity. The trembling and quaking are signs of a heightened awareness of connection to the natural world. This experience was so powerful that a Midrash says:
When God uttered the first of the ten Divine words on Sinai, the souls of the people suddenly fled from them. The Torah then rushed back to God and said: “Master of the World, have you given me to the living or to the dead?” “To the living, of course!” God replied. “But they are all dead, ” the Torah said; “they look as if they are alive but their souls have run away from them.”
Shemot Rabbah 39:3
This is what we call today an out-of-body experience. Both Emile Fackenheim and Jacques Derrida speak of revelation as that sense of feeling utter surprise – total wonder at the world – a world you are seeing for the first time as if your soul just kicked in.
Shavuot is about those Sinai experiences – those moments when in a particular place you glimpse not only what is before you, but the big picture. You are, in a sense, reborn, as your soul leaves you and then returns and not only do you see the big picture, but you feel inter-connected to others, as the 12th century French Jewish sage Rashi says that at Sinai the Hebrews stood “as one person, with one heart”
When have you seen the world anew? What are the revelatory moments of your life? When have you felt connected to life in such a way? That is the question for Shavuot.
Once I stared down at the garbage below the Chicago L and saw in it an exquisite mosaic about the anguish and hope of the city.
Once I was walking through a charred section of forest after a fire and I felt like each tree was the hair on a nearly bald man’s head and the entire earth has alive.
On the night I stood in a parking lot in Jerusalem and proposed to my wife and she said yes, and the world was awash in love and faith.
Holding my premature, newborn sons in the hospital, singing a prayer of protection, I could sense my voice lifted up by a great chorus of every parent on the planet, throughout history.
Walking at Eagle Rock, a New Jersey overlook with a beautiful view of New York City on the anniversary of 9-11 looking down from that mountain, into a pit on that Island below – sensing a great circle of grief ringing out like rippling water to encompass the world.
These are all moments when I glimpsed the bigger picture, if only for a second. The connections between all those separate things that we work so hard to define and detach. And I felt in my heart beat the beat of humanity, of the planet, of the cosmos of the ultimate Source of Life.
How do we reconnect to Sinai? We open ourselves up to the signs.
The 18th century mystic the Baal Shem Tov writes:
What is the purpose of the heavenly voice that is transmitted from Sinai each day? The voice that goes forth from above does not reach the physical ear of man. “There is no speech, there are no words, the voice is not heard.” It is uttered not in sounds but in thoughts, in signs man must learn to perceive. Every day he who is worthy receives the Torah standing at Sinai.
That is what standing again at Sinai is all about. And then, drawing on those moments to affirm our ethical mission in the world. Franz Rosensweig, the great German Jewish philosopher of the early 20th century wrote that the difference between law and commandment is that you only feel commanded after an experience where you feel love.
Remembering when I sensed the forest to be connected to the earth’s health– I am deeply disturbed by an administration that advocates the deforestation of our national parks. Sitting in that hospital surrounded by fragile newborns I want to see universal access to health care. Grieving on the anniversary of 9/11 I want to advance diplomatic means of conflict resolution whenever possible.
Why do we need Torah?
Torah – and the story of Sinai is vital to how we understand ourselves as humans. It is religion, philosophy, and literature synthesized in a brilliant and cogent text. It tells us that while knowledge comes from reason, it can also come from someplace beyond the self. And that knowledge is useless unless it is applied to repairing the world in some way.
So, did a bunch of guys write the Torah for a particular historical era or did it come to Moses in a divine vision? I don’t think that I have to decide on an answer. Because for me, Torah is a recurring dream. Like other dreams, it has disturbing parts and incomprehensible parts and beautiful parts and moving parts.
So I don’t just want to analyze the myths or the metaphors from Sinai – I want to enter into the dream – to feel firsthand the experience of a trembling in the bones, see the fire and smoke, take in the signs, hear the voice spoken in the language most intimate to me, and to walk away with a renewed sense of purpose.
So – Do Jews hear God’s voice and speak God’s word?
The early 18th century Italian Jewish mystic Moshe Chaim Luzzato said about the ruach hakodesh, the holy spirit –
Occasionally an inspiration is transmitted to the heart of man which provides him with the essential understanding of a specific matter without the recipient sensing the source of it. It comes to him in the same way that a thought suddenly pops into one’s mind.
(Moshe Chaiym Luzzato (RAMCHAL) from With an Eye on Eternity trans. Lebovits and Rosen)
We do hear God’s word. Not by simply hearing the Torah chanted, by tuning in to the signal that reveals the great inter-connections and higher purposes that motivate us. It is a signal that is hard to pick up. It lies somewhere between Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh and all the other voices of mockery and ridicule looking to make a fast buck. But the signal is out there. It has been there from the beginning.
Revelation and it’s Discontents
God’s sweet lips whispering into Moses’ sunburned ears saying –
“Put away those false idols baby, I’ll be your one and only. Me, just me, I’ll be the world for you.”
“oh, that sounds sooooo good” a reply that echoed down the mountain to the six hundred thousand souls who were watching the fireworks above. And they shout: Halleluyah!
Young men leaping, women spinning with their arms spread up towards the heavens, children skipping…even the old folks were shaking their rear ends with joy.
Better than any “I do” ever uttered under a wedding canopy this was – and now the Holy Blessed One and this rag-tag extended family of Hebrews are going into partnership, the Jewish people incorporated from now and for all time, seal
that covenant baby! We’re ready to make the big commitment!
Now we know what that meant. Forty centuries of kvetching and shleping, oppression and indigestion, wandering the globe and landing up in places like Frankfurt, Fez, Fustadt, Fresno. It wasn’t easy. But I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
I can feel the wind, still. The wind as we stood under that mountain. I can close my eyes and remember that moment and feel the tingle of the eternal yes humming in my bones. I lift my arms to the heavens and say
turn on the water.