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Descending the Mountain: Questions after Sinai

Paul Mendes-Flohr reviews Revelation and Authority by Benjamin Sommer

It is said that the Archbishop of Canterbury once approached the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and in an ecumenical spirit asked him whether he could suggest the title of a volume on Systematic Jewish Theology.  The esteemed rabbi replied: “Your Grace, Jews do not have a theology, and if they had one, it surely would not be systematic.”

Perhaps the Jews do not have a theology as understood by the Archbishop but as Benjamin Sommer shows with exacting detail, they have engaged in an ongoing interrogation of the meaning of divine revelation – a theological discourse which, indeed, by its very nature resists systematization and closure.  Sommer traces this inherently interminable discourse back to the biblical record that, particularly in the Pentateuch, presents contradictory and ambiguous accounts of the Sinaitic Revelation. These contradictions and ambiguities are not only indicative – as modern biblical criticism demonstrates – of the differences between the varied literary strands that the ancient editors of scripture wove into the Pentateuchal text, but they also have engendered the Oral Torah of post-biblical rabbinic tradition, which honors and promotes differences of opinion and exegetical controversy.

Benjamin Sommer. Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. pp. 440. $30.00.

Sommer boldly suggests that it might have very well been the intention of the redactors of scripture to encourage the audience to ponder and question the meaning of the lexical and semantic ambiguities embedded in the biblical text.  In postulating this redactional intent, Sommer allows himself to transgress academic protocol and speculate that the three different scriptural reports on the giving of the Torah may have been in accord with “God’s intentional strategy.”  Presumably attuned to divine intent, the editors of scripture acknowledged the Israelites’ difficultly comprehending the extraordinary event at Sinai and hence allowed the divergence in the historical reports recorded in the book of Exodus. Sommer concludes that implicit in this divinely sanctioned redactional strategy is the supernal “gift of interpretative freedom.”   

The freedom to question and interpret the meaning of Sinai – the giving of the Torah and its Laws (תורה מתן) – is the meta-theological premise of Judaism’s spiritual journey. Marked by continuous interpretive debates, this asymptotic pilgrimage yields what is called the Oral Torah.  Observing that interpretative freedom is grounded in the very structure of biblical scripture, Sommer reads “the Bible, more specifically the Pentateuch, as a record of debate, and thus prototypically Jewish.” He compellingly argues that the separation of the Written and Oral Torah is “artificial” and that the Oral Torah finds its initial impulse, its terminus a quo, in Genesis 1:1.

The multiple, often contrasting voices one encounters from “the beginning” of the Hebrew Bible call upon the attentive reader to share in the articulation of revelation by decoding and elucidating the divine message. This divinely appointed mission is the kerygmatic core of scripture, aptly defined by Sommer as “participatory revelation,” affirmed by Judaism through the ages.  However, in the modern period the imperious quest for rational, academically validated knowledge has led to an eclipse of this foundational Jewish tradition. Sommer paradoxically contends that the academic discipline of biblical criticism might be employed to restore the intellectual credibility of the tradition of participatory revelation. By highlighting the multivocality of scripture, modern biblical scholars participate in revelation by assuming the enduring the hermeneutical task of mitzvah, interpreting God’s Word. Biblical criticism, Sommer argues, need not be understood as antagonistic to the authority of scripture. When grounded in the covenantal commitment to honor the Law of Moses, biblical criticism attains a theological significance.

He elaborates his appeal to incorporate biblical criticism in contemporary Judaic commentarial praxis and conscripts the aid of twentieth-century Jewish religious thinkers, preeminently Abraham Joshua Heschel and Franz Rosenzweig, both of whom subscribed to a “participatory theology of revelation,” which they articulated with insights drawn from biblical criticism. Sommer applauds Rosenzweig’s alignment of biblical interpretation with an affirmation of the mitzvoth, the normative ritual precepts of Jewish religious practice derived in the course of rabbinic tradition from the revealed Law of Moses.

I should like to add a dimension to Sommer’s nuanced and learned exposition of the relation between the revelation at Sinai to the exegetical authority of Talmud Torah (the study of scripture, principally refracted through rabbinic commentaries) valorizing traditional Jewish religious practice. I shall do so by briefly analyzing Rosenzweig’s dialectical distinction between Law (Gesetz) and Commandment (Gebot), which Sommer deploys to delineate the relation of the rabbinic legislation of halakhic law to the divine voice heard at Sinai, even though it remains uncertain what exactly was heard.

As a philosophically trained heir to the Enlightenment, Rosenzweig shared in the regnant of nominalism of modern culture, which holds that humans cannot have a direct knowledge of God. The concepts or names that we may assemble to grasp the Ultimate Reality are merely constructs of our making and conventional linguistic reflexes. To overcome the cognitive limits of nominalism, Rosenzweig adumbrated a negative theology in The Star of Redemption. Indebted primarily to Schelling’s proto-existentialist conception of revelation, his apophaticism paved the way for him to embrace religious faith – more precisely, Offenbarungsglaube, a faith affirming divine revelation as a historical fact and as an eternally pulsating reality. One’s entry into that reality is a subjective act of faith.  At this juncture in thought, Rosenzweig introduces the categories of Gesetz and Gebot. The terminology is Kantian but when applied to Jewish religious law, Halakhah, he reads the distinction phenomenologically. Gesetz denotes the law when viewed so to speak from without, as a heteronomous body of ritual prescriptions. In contrast to heteronomous legal injunctions, a Gebot (commandment) for Kant is an unmediated address of practical reason postulated as the motivational, rational force to fulfill ethical imperatives one may call the word of God. Kant’s God, to be sure, is not a personal God but a rationally postulated construct. Rosenzweig understands Gebot as the dialogical address of the living God directed to each individual, and one only hears that discourse from within the performance of what is viewed from without as law. Unlike Kant’s Gebot, which addresses the rational will and is thus a universal commandment, for

Rosenzweig the ritual commandments of Judaism are “heard” and thus experienced as “very personal.” In the fulfillment of the Law, the commanding voice of God is “heard” as a personal address, and the “must” of the Law becomes a compelling inner reality. Experienced as a personal, dialogical address, halakhic law attains sacramental power to quicken the presence of God. 

Rosenzweig held that it was amiss to enjoin observance of the ritual prescriptions of Jewish tradition by “pseudo-historical theories of [the Law’s] origin or pseudo-juristic theories of its power to obligate. … [For] a miracle does not constitute history, a people is not a juridical fact…, and love not social.” To cast Halakhah – Jewish Law – as a religion of obligation is to obfuscate its spiritual interior. As lived and studied, “analyzed and rhapsodized,” it is the “law of the everyday and the day of death, petty and yet sublime … a law which knows both the fire of the Sabbath candle and that of the martyr’s stake.” Rosenzweig thus reminds us that Judaism is not only a text-based religion but preeminently a rite-based, liturgical faith-community. Ritual is a form of prayer in which one addresses God and experiences oneself as addressed by God. Sinai is neither a historical nor a juridical fact. Rather, through prayer and ritual, it is a continuously renewed theophanic event in the spiritual life of the Jews. One partakes in Sinai as a synchronic, meta-historical experience not through obedience per se, but by faith, an Offenbarungsglaube, a faith primed to hear God’s agapeic commandments. From this perspective, Rosenzweig once exclaimed, “Autoritätsglaube gleich Unglaube,” faith based on authority is tantamount to unbelief. In this respect, he was inclined to point out that in The Star of Redemption he never once spoke of “religion” but of faith alone, and the performative act of engendering the sacred space in which the voice of God may be heard. Within the bounds of ritually sanctified space and time, Rosenzweig noted, it would hardly occur to one that he or she “was keeping the Law, and the Law him, only because God imposed it on Israel at Sinai.” Parenthetically, Abraham Heschel was also critical of what he called “pan-Halakhism,” or the exclusive focus on the theonomic dimension of traditional Jewish piety. He sought to shift the focus by celebrating halakhic spirituality. Jews participate in revelation not only by the grace of exegetical debate, as Sommer has elegantly argued, but also – and perhaps principally – sacramentally through the performance of ritual and liturgical prayer. Both Heschel and Rosenzweig could very well have pointed to a ritual reenactment of the crossing of Red Sea by the Hasidim of Jerusalem.

On the eve of the concluding day of the weeklong Passover festival, traditional Jewish congregations gather in the synagogue and chant the hymn of thanksgiving – shirat ha-yam – sung by Moses and the Israelites upon the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea:

I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and might; He has become my salvation.  (Exodus 15:1-18)

In contemporary Jerusalem, the Hasidim of Reb Areleh – ha-hevrah shomrei emunim (the society of the faithful) – elaborate the recitation of shirat ha-yam with a ritual dance. Several hours before the ceremony, the synagogue, which is a bare hall emptied of all seats, begins to fill up with a seemingly endless stream of humanity. At a point when it seems that the walls of the synagogue begin to bulge in order to accommodate the masses of Reb Areleh’s Hasidim, the ceremony begins with a soft humming of shirat ha-yam. Suddenly, in the midst of the tightly packed throng, there is a “parting” through which the rebbe, grasping a Torah scroll, slowly dances. Amid the undulations of his swaying, chanting Hasidim, the parting rhythmically opens and closes as the aged rebbe dances to and fro, while the chanting steadily grows stronger and stronger, and is interspersed with a melodious rendition of Psalm 114: “When Israel went forth from Egypt.”

In this ritual reenactment of “the parting of the sea,” the rebbe represents Moses, and his Hasidim becomes the redeemed children of Israel. As their song and dance meld with the cadences of a trance, they experience God’s deliverance anew. For Reb Areleh and his Hasidim the Passover is no mere exercise in historical recollection and halakhic obedience, nor is it simply an imaginative leap across time. The ceremony of shirat ha-yam brings to a height the Passover experience of sacred time, a proleptic retrieval of the primordial – and thus eternal – moment of Israel’s redemption.

As Sommer so masterfully explicates, Talmud Torah also creates a sacred space, a dialogical topos in which devout Jews study, debate, and question the biblical record of the Israelites’ encounter with God. Thus, upon the conclusion of the study of rabbinic literature, the Oral Torah,  a special doxology is recited, Kaddish d’Rabbanan, the Sanctification of the Rabbis:

… May we of Israel and our rabbis, Their disciples, and all their pupils, And all who engage in the study of Torah Here and everywhere, Find abundant peace, gracious favor and mercy, Long life, ample sustenance, and liberation Through the Lord of heaven and earth, and Let us say, Amen.


Paul R. Mendes-Flohr is the Dorothy and Grant Maclear Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual History at the Divinity School, The University of Chicago. He is Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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