The Jewish Revelation

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This Shabbat, in synagogues around the world, we will read Parshat Yitro which contains the account of the Revelation at Sinai. When we think of this overwhelming historical event, we may wonder, though: what particularly happened? The text informs us of some of what occurred but, more importantly, may be the question: what happened that affects us today? One may answer: We were given the Ten Commandments. Another may respond: We were given the Torah. So, what was it – the Ten Commandments or the Torah? And what is this event’s effect upon us today?

The text speaks of God giving Moshe two stone tablets upon which were written these Ten Commandments -- in Hebrew, we should note, what was on these tablets is actually referred to as the Asseret HaDibrot, the Ten Statements. Jewish tradition, however, also does speak of Moshe receiving more, of receiving the Torah on Sinai. As tradition also speaks of Moshe being on the mountain for forty days, it would actually make sense that he was informed of more than just ten statements. Yet, what does it even mean when one declares that the Torah was given at Sinai? If it means the written scroll we refer to as the Torah -- this text, we refer to as the Five Books of Moses – this work actually consists of many events that occurred after this encampment at Sinai. So, what does it really mean when we declare that, at Sinai, we were given the Torah?
The term Torah can indeed be a reference to the written scroll which we house with dignity in the ark within our synagogues. However, this term is also a reference to the considerable body of thought -- the vast majority being oral -- that was revealed at Sinai. It is actually to this broader corpus of Torah -- encompassing an extensive system of ethics, ideas, instructions and concepts that far exceed the body of this written text – that the sources are referring to when they speak of the Torah being given as Sinai. To be more precise, at Sinai, the originating principles of the vast system of what we would refer to as Torah thought were laid out.
This uniquely Jewish understanding of Revelation lies in a further recognition of the dynamic nature of the Torah and the Revelation at Sinai. The Jewish perspective of Revelation is vastly different than how the world generally approaches this concept. To the world, revelation is perceived to be finite, explicit and clear-cut; the deity simply presenting definite facts and/or directives. The role of the human being in this type of revelation is simply passive – to hear and, simply, follow.
Within Judaism, however, the Revelation of Torah is active and demands human dynamic involvement. It calls upon the Jew to investigate, think and attempt to understand as he/she relates to the information that God presents. As such, what God presented at Sinai was the beginning of a process by which we are to expand the wisdom of Torah in this world through our continued study, investigation and creative application of its principles. All this is still to be as directed by God through His rules regarding this process, which He also included in the originating principles given at Sinai. But to uncover this full wisdom, the human being must be actively involved in the process. This is all broadly part of what we really mean when we say that Torah was given at Sinai. It was not a static Torah but the beginning elements of an ever-expanding Torah that would flow from these binding principles presented at Sinai.
This idea is most significant in understanding traditional Judaism. Revelation was not an undertaking by God to stifle human thought but it was a Divine presentation of ideas that were further intended to expand human thought. Torah was, thus, presented in a manner that would call upon those studying to question, think and apply mental effort in the pursuit of this goal of understanding its words and meanings. The Revelation at Sinai was thus not just a presentation by God of static facts in textual form but, recognizing its further extended oral nature, was also intended to initiate a Divine-human dialogue about life.
This is the essence of this greater oral nature – for this ultimately reflects its dynamic essence as an interaction between the human being and the Divine in the incorporation of Torah thought into this world’s reality. This, of course, does not mean that anything goes – that any idea that springs up in the human mind during this endeavour is thus part of Torah. There are specific rules and principles that have to be applied in the correct analysis of this body of thought. These are the necessary parameters of Torah which God also defined at Sinai. What this dynamic nature of Torah does mean, though, is that God has always demanded the human mind to be involved in placing God within the world. This is at the essence of the traditional Jewish view of the Sinaitic Revelation – and is its meaning, as well, for us today. We are an essential part of this continuing lineage of thought which began at Sinai.
  Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see and You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
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