Leap of faith: the questions we ask at Shavuot

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Leap of faith: the questions we ask at Shavuot

We will always be on a quest to know more

The question for Progressive Jews at Shavuot, z’man mattan Torateinu (the season of the giving of the Torah), is not how we interpret the commandments that point the way clearly towards social and ethical ideals – the preciousness of human life, regard for the property of others, truth, rest on Shabbat, honour of one’s parents, and the need for restraint and control to limit our desire for acquisition. Instead, it arises from the preface – Aseret Ha-Dibrot – Va-y’ddabeir Elohim et kol ha-d’varim ha-eleh leimor (and God spoke all these words saying…).

Where do we place ourselves in our understanding of revelation? Are we to understand these words literally: that at some given time in our history, three months after the Israelites left Egypt, at an appointed place on Mount Sinai in the middle of the Egyptian desert, God spoke these words to Moses, instructing Moses to write them down and teach them to the Israelites?

Or do we simply dismiss it all as myth, a story composed by an author or authors to account for the presence of a group of tribes who made their distinctive appearance in the land of Canaan some 3,500 years ago?

There are times, mostly in the classroom, when Progressive Jews must approach the Torah with all critical faculties alert, with tools of knowledge and scientific enquiry.

But there are other times, when we are immersed in the week-to-week reading of the Torah, in our celebration of festivals and in the silence of prayer and reflection, when Sinai and the Torah yield different questions about our faith, about how God addresses us, how we address God, about the strength of our loyalty to the covenant today.

Therefore the question for Progressive Jews is not whether we accept the factual truth of Sinai versus the fairy-tale, whether Moses is the author of the Torah or a procession of priestly narrators, codifiers and redactors, but whether we can adopt Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ and immerse ourselves in a narrative about revelation, a code that makes certain moral and other demands on us, that connects us with questions about the mysteries of life and death, of good and evil, of suffering and joy, faith and doubt.

And even if we dismiss the myth with its hidden meanings, we are still left ultimately with the unanswered question: where did the idea of Sinai come from? And for as long as that question remains unanswered, we will always be on a quest to know more about the origins of our people and their ongoing, on-off relationship with the Unseen Presence, the deepest part of ourselves, that some people call God.

Read an extended long essay version of this article on the Liberal/Reform Judaism websites.

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