“Limdu hora techilah,” advises Rabbenu Bachya ibn Paquda in Chovos Halevavos. “Study evil first.” There is much to learn by first considering the alternatives to truth.
Around tens of thousands of our Shabbos tables last Friday night, we traded thoughts about the defining moment of Jewish and human history – Revelation at Sinai. Heeding the exhortation of Deuteronomy to keep the events of Revelation fresh in our minds, we consumed luscious morsels of insight with the same gusto as the carefully prepared Shabbos delicacies that graced our plates.
Ashreichem Yisrael! We are more fortunate than we can realize.
For too many of our brothers and sisters, the issue of Sinai is not what happened there, or even whether something happened there. For all too many Jews, carefully weaned away from their precious legacy, the issue of Sinai is the assumed impossibility (rachmana litzlan) of any real communication with G-d taking place at all. Those of us fortunate enough to understand the opposite have even more to be thankful for than we knew.
My own awakening to this realization took place at Harvard Law School a few years ago, at an event that ordinarily should not have taken place. Do you ever find representatives of Agudah, Young Israel, and the OU sitting down at a public panel discussion with the rabbinic head of the Reform movement, a department chairman at JTS, and a spokesman for the New Israel Fund? When the Jewish students of Harvard Law ran their yearly event around the issue of “Who is a Jew,” organizations that never officially speak with each other bent the rules for a single venue, and sent representatives to the all-day event, intent on making their voices heard. The format was so openly combative, that the usual objections to implied recognition of heterodoxy melted away. Somehow, I wound up as the OU voice on that panel.
The Orthodox chevra all met together and strategized before our presentations. We did a pretty good job, from what the audience told us later. So did the others, at least to the people in their cheering sections.
The most remarkable presentation came last. Although we had jockeyed for the position of last speaker, the JTS faculty member did an end-run around us, and changed the order to give himself the wrap-up slot. He used it well. He was animated, fiery. He broke all the rules of civility that the rest of us paid homage to while launching broadsides at each other.
Eventually the sense of the futility of this entire program sinks in and which liberates me from having to even make an effort to be persuasive or to be balanced or to be understanding or nice. Since my basic approach is not to be any of those, I feel totally liberated and free to do what I do naturally and intuitively in the classroom , which is to go on the attack.
Attack he did. We were all wasting our time talking about tolerance, despite our differences. “Tolerance means, I think you are wrong, but I won’t kill you. Pluralism means there is no truth with a capital “T,” there are multiple truths.”
We should not be fighting, he claimed, about whose conception of Torah was accurate. The heart of the matter was that there could not be a single conception of Torah, because humans simply cannot comprehend the Divine. We don’t know Who He is; we can certainly not know His Will. All we can do is guess.
You either believe, then, that G-d spoke at Sinai and that Moses wrote it down, and that is what we have: at least in the first… in the Chumash, with the possible exception of the last few verses in Deuteronomy [it] is the explicit word of G-d – or we don’t…I don’t. It is hard for me to imagine that G-d speaks words. I think what it means to me, I think speech would apply to G-d as a metaphor. … I don’t believe that Exodus 19-20 is a journalistic or a historical document. I …[believe] therefore, that the Torah is what our ancestors understood G-d wanted from the people of Israel…We don’t know what G-d wants. I don’t know what G-d wants. G-d knows what G-d wants…Is it possible for a human being to understand the nature of G-d? To express in thought and language, who G-d is what G-d wants? We have human perceptions.
He was correct to say that we should not have been speaking about tolerance alone, that theology is what it boiled down to. As painful as it is to admit, this gentleman did not believe in the same G-d that we do. His G-d is muted by His own transcendence; ours made it His business to create within our souls the capacity to understand His Will. Prophecy is one of Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith precisely because without it, there is no accurate way for humans to know what He wants. Because He created us so that we might know Him, He created the modalities through which He could reach from the Infinite to the finite. He loves us enough, cares about us enough to insure that there is a common language that binds us.
How much more meaning the words of Maharal took on after that day at Harvard! Shavuos, he teaches, is really two holidays conflated into one. It marks two distinct realities, each one calling for commemoration and observance. G-d’s willingness to speak to Man, to give us the Torah, merits a holiday. That Man was ready to receive it deserves its own.
I had never really considered the second holiday outside of the context of our voiced alacrity in embracing the Divine commandment, our uttering the words that stunned the angels themselves: Naaseh venishma – We will do, and we will listen. Suffering through the tirade of that last speaker, I did gain something. His answers were antithetical to Judaism, but his basic question had validity. Why should we be able to understand anything about a Being Who is inscrutable at His essence?
Within our appreciation of the event of Revelation we must leave room to thank HKBH for having created us with the capacity to understand what otherwise would be inexplicable. We are fully aware that we cannot grasp the essence of what He is. But those of us who stood at Sinai not only encountered G-d’s presence, but heard Him, understood His instruction. By the time we were ready to accept His offer of the Torah, He had created within us the capacity to respond to His voice. Our certainty of that capacity is part of the unbridgeable chasm between traditional Judaism and the heterodox movements. (That certainty is also one of the reasons that considerable parts of the Christian world relate to Orthodox Jews, and welcome their help in unraveling some of the convoluted moral questions of our times.)
By following Chovos Halevavos’ advice, Parshas Yisro will never look the same to me. I will appreciate that in a world – even a Jewish world – consumed with cynicism and self-doubt, many can unfortunately only guess at G-d’s Will.
We, B”H, can know.