Revelation, Multiplicity and Receiving the Torah
If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...
Shavuot is light on ritual but affords a weighty unique opportunity in our annual festival cycle to consider how a modern community understands its relationship with the Torah and Judaism itself.
The Talmud mentions a perplexing aspect of the Torah system – the existence within it of conflicting views on almost every topic. How, asks Rebbi Ela’zar ben Azariah, can a single Torah include ‘those who forbid, those who permit, those who invalidate and those who sanction’? This question uncannily presages a modern frustration with Judaism – why can’t the rabbis agree with each other? Rebbi El’azar offers a fascinating allegorical response – ‘make your ear into a funnel and acquire an understanding heart for yourself’ to accept what may be the most difficult facet of the Torah – its multiplicity. A full and sophisticated understanding of revelation involves accepting that divergent, even conflicting, views can co-exist within a single revelation.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the Kotzker Rebbe, asks why the festival liturgy describes Shavuot as the time of the ‘giving of our Torah’ rather than the time of the ‘receiving of our Torah’. He answers that only the giving is universal, hence its inclusion in a communal prayer; the receiving of the Torah, however, is an individual experience – the divine perceived through the lens of one’s own vision and perspective. And while, of course, the Torah is not infinitely elastic, the voice of God is certainly heard differently by each of us. It is only this that enables members of a modern and diverse community to be transformed by an ancient revelation, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the inspirational.
Professor A.J. Heschel notes that ‘A Jew without the Torah is obsolete’. It is neither synagogue attendance nor even observance which guarantee that our Jewish lives remain vibrant and future-proof, but Torah. Yet Heschel points out that revelation must also instil ‘a new creative moment into the course of natural events’. Shavuot is not just the anniversary of Sinai; it is also the time of year at which we should affirm our belief that only an authentic, multi-chromatic Torah will be relevant for those grappling with the voice of the divine.
Respect for a range of equally authentic positions lies at the core of our approach to Judaism. When the Talmud allegorises the ultimate reward of the righteous, it describes a ‘dance circle’ in the Garden of Eden: God ‘sits’ in the centre while the righteous dance around Him ‘pointing’ in His direction. A circle is a collection of points equidistant from a single locus; each dancer occupies a different position from the others, but all are equidistant from God. The righteous perceive God at close quarters, while simultaneously authenticating the approaches of others. And, of course, the righteous are not stationary – instead, they move around the circle, enjoying not just their own view of the divine, experiencing and celebrating the perspectives of each of the other dancers.