Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
Ben Gurr/Times Newspapers
Published at 12:01AM, May 31 2014
The festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which begins on Tuesday night, was once the most neglected of the major Jewish festivals. But the ancient custom of staying awake all night absorbed in the study of Torah — the Five Books of Moses and the core sacred text of Judaism — has regained popularity among Jews of all denominations. It has become “cool”, an exciting way to prepare for what the morning of the festival commemorates — the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, God’s revelation.
How that revelation is understood goes to the heart of key debates within modern Judaism. Judaism has traditionally taken the Torah as God’s word, literally. It is sacred and immutable, though subject to the rich, creative and fiercely discursive process of rabbinic interpretation through which its meanings are refined and redefined, often radically, and applied to every domain of life. Thus, to the 12th-century philosopher and jurist Maimonides, the Torah comes “entirely from God” through Moses, who, in an inscrutable process, “acted like a secretary taking dictation”.
Many modern scholars would uphold Maimonides’ conclusion but not his premise. Since the 19th century scholarship has been shown that the Torah itself has a history and that the composition of its text cannot be understood independently of the social, literary, legal and moral context of the ancient Near East. The integrity of empirical inquiry represents a commitment to truth that must not be supplanted by doctrinal loyalties. Hence, in the words of the great Anglo-Jewish rabbi and scholar Louis Jacobs, the Torah needs to be understood as revelation through — as much as revelation to — human beings. Yet its words remain holy nonetheless, because they express the human endeavour to understand God’s will, the quest to find God, as much as God’s quest to find us.
In this debate, my head is with the rationalists — but my heart is with the mystics. To them, the precise history of the Torah is not the issue. What matters is God’s presence in every atom and leaf, in every breath of life. For, parallel to God’s revelation in the Torah, is God’s revelation in creation. The sacred energy of the first “Let there be” through which God spoke and the world came into being still reverberates in the deepening of the twilight, the flight of a swallow, and the stillness of the heart. The true meaning of the declaration “God is one”, wrote the Hasidic teacher Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, is that everything is a manifestation of God. We can therefore find God “through the holiness which exists in every single thing”.
The impact of experiencing the world in this way is as significant for our ethics as it is for our spirituality. It requires us to recognise at all times the unique and sacred value of every human being. It demands that we treat not just each person but all living beings with reverence. Nature cannot be taken to exist simply for our expropriation and exploitation but commands our respect because it, too, is the repository of God’s energy, and any wilful damage represents a desecration.
It was such an understanding that inspired Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro to write in 1942, from the Warsaw ghetto, that, since God’s revelation permeates all creation, a person can hear God’s voice “from the chirping of the birds, the mooing of the cows, the voices and tumult of human beings”. It is audible, he said, even within evil, though in a deeply distorted manner. His writings were found buried in the ruins of the ghetto, a testament to spiritual courage and the indestructible tenacity of faith and hope.
Shavuot celebrates not just the giving of the Torah, but also our acceptance of it. To the mystics this means more than consenting to comply with key principles and rules, essential as these are; for if no one ever murdered, stole or coveted, our world would be entirely transformed. To accept God’s revelation means also to keep our hearts and minds open to the sacred and the tender in all life, and to act towards it always with reverence and respect.
Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi, Masorti Judaism UK, and Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue