Hearing God’s Voice on Shavuot

Perched at the edge of Shavuot, Jewish thoughts turn to the meaning of ma’amad Har Sinai, the singular event of revelation, as described in Exodus 19. For all its grand drama, the mystical absorption, the thrilling pyrotechnics … is there anything here contemporary heterodox Jews can believe about revelation?

Speaking for myself – and I expect almost all members of our community would agree – it seems to me beyond dispute that the text of even our most sacred books have human history. They come from particular cultural contexts, from specific places and times; they reflect polemical arguments and multiple authors; they have major contradictions and minor typos. If one wishes to ask a quasi-factual question: “did the Torah’s text emerge immaculately from the mind of God?”; the only answer is “No, it did not.”

At the same time, a religious Jew must ask whether there is nothing transcendentally special about the Torah. Is it just our favorite book among many books for the People of the Book(s)? Does contemporary liberal Judaism privilege the Torah – spending thousands of dollars to maintain hand-written scrolls, standing and kissing when they pass, quoting its authoritative words – only because we prefer its undeniable literary depth? That’s probably not a good enough answer.

Judaism’s religious coherence demands revelation, some communication between heaven and earth. And heterodox Jews need a theory of revelation that does not insist on a false version of divine biblical authorship nor shrink the Torah to be merely one of the many terrific texts Jews have produced. Tall order.

Recently I read a sharp and brief work, the Good and the Good Book, by Samuel Fleischacker, an ortho-prax Jew and a philosopher at University of Illinois-Chicago, full of interesting ideas. (You can read the first chapter here, and some more writing by him here.) As with any smart book, there will be plenty that any reader can disagree with, but also plenty that will make you think.

Fleischacker clearly thinks of himself as a highly traditional Jew, but it would seem to me that his ideas would not be much welcome in Boro Park or Breuer’s. Like me, he is wrestling with an obviously ancient text full of dubious history and science, but also with the Judaism’s sense of divine grace in the gift of the Torah, our reverence for it and loyalty to it.

Fleischacker begins from the premise that Judaism is best understood as a “revealed religion” – that is, based upon a commonly-held text that emerges from beyond ourselves – rather than as a religion based mainly on human reason or centered on individual human spiritual experience. That text points its adherents to a vision of the good life people would not arrive at without its trustworthy guidance.

Along the way he makes interesting observations about the difference between basic humanist “morals” [e.g. don’t steal, lie or injure] upon which almost all people would agree, and religious paradigms of “ethics” which articulate a particular sacred vision – challenging, obscure, but intelligible – for the meaning of life [e.g. maintain cycles of work and rest, and most importantly avoid idolatry]. Revealed religion demands the latter. These are the central elements for a sacred culture that aspires beyond basic human flourishing. We seek not only to find food, keep warm, avoid the rain, bring children to adulthood, but to be holy.

For this, he says, we need guidance from beyond ourselves – God, sacred texts and trustworthy teachers, themselves paradigms of goodness. “I chose to take the Torah as my telic authority … above all because I found in it a sublime presentation of the evils of idolatry and a plausible solution to those evils. I understood idolatry fundamentally to be worshipping ourselves. … It made eminent sense to me, then, that God’s true revelation would take the form of a story in which the true good can be seen only when one comes out from under spiritual and physical slavery and takes on an uncompromising commitment to break oneself of idolatry [77-8].”

Fleischacker insists that these visions for the good life be expressed in language, in specific words. He finds nothing appealing in those modern versions of revelation [e.g. Heschel, Rosenzweig] which sense God’s presence beyond language. It’s not an abstract feeling for him. The song must have lyrics. I will leave you now with Fleischacker’s definition of a revelation-worthy text: kind of prolix and clunky, but suggestive:

“It will be (1) a poem that (2) purports to have a supernatural source and (3) presents us with a path by which we can grasp and realize a vision of our highest good that is deeply mysterious but (4) fits in with what else we believe about goodness and (5) offers us a plausible explanation of the errors about our good that come of approaching it naturalistically. [66]” OK, that last clause is a little confusing. But I found this argument a worthwhile approach to hearing God’s voice in Torah, carrying us beyond ourselves.