Experiencing Moments of Torah Mi-Sinai
On the first night of Shavuot—“traditionally” (like many Jewish traditions, this one is not all that old) a night when Jews do not sleep but learn until dawn, preparing to receive the Torah once again. I will be learning too, but whether I’ll be staying up all night depends—not on how much coffee I drink, but whether or not I can find people who can teach me Torah mi-Sinai. That’s the only way I can keep awake all night. Let me explain.
Unlike many of the readers of TheTorah.com, I’m not an Orthodox Jew and never have been one. I’ve never had to grapple with the realization that the Jews did not receive the Pentateuch at Mount Sinai. (Perhaps I believed this when I was very young, in the days when I thought Elijah was drinking the wine in his cup at the seder.) So rather than have my faith shaken by academic Bible scholarship, the opposite happened. It was academic study of the Bible that led me to a belief in Torah mi-Sinai.
What I mean by Torah mi-Sinai is something different than what most people who use the phrase seem to mean. It’s frequently used as shorthand for a belief that I prefer to call Chumash mi-Sinai—that the entire contents of the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were given to the Israelites in the wilderness. (As I understand it, even the traditional belief is not that the Israelites were given the text of the Pentateuch at Sinai, but that Moses gave it to them before his death.) What happened at Sinai? We encountered God there, heard something—the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), just the first two divine utterances, or perhaps simply the first א)—and signed on: “We’ll do it! Now let’s hear what it is” (Exod. 24:7).
To me, the encounter with God, not the (unspecified) content of revelation, is the essential part of the belief in Torah mi-Sinai, and I came to it—gradually—through studying Bible in college classrooms. Learning peshat—the historical, linguistic, and literary aspects of the Bible, those that can be explained to anyone without recourse to claims of faith—drew me closer to religious observance. And the more I found myself drawn to the Bible, the more I discovered that I needed to pursue my interest in parallel: at a university, and in a synagogue. I directly encountered Torah mi-Sinai in both places—once in each.
These two specific instances, when I physically experienced Torah mi-Sinai, were spiritual as well: I was plugged into a supernal kind of energy, an energy that I imagine as being linked to the fire that, according to Deuteronomy 4:12, was all the Israelites saw at Mount Sinai. One of these occasions was at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, and that’s why I’m writing about it now.
It was in Boston, at the big Conservative synagogue in the neighborhood I lived in then. Five speakers were lined up to bridge the hours between midnight and 5 AM, when shaharit (the morning prayers) could begin. Despite a coffee milkshake in the afternoon and some cola late in the evening (better living through chemistry), I found myself drifting off as the midnight teacher discussed some topic of Jewish interest, of the kind that seems to be standard nowadays at such tikkunim. (One being held this year advertises “From Sermon Slam to sauerkraut and Piyutim to Pi.”) But at 1 AM Shai Held—now a prominent scholar and rabbi in New York—began teaching a text. It was the charming sugya on Shabbat 104a about the schoolchildren who derived all of Judaism from the alphabet.
I was absolutely riveted. It was not the presentation that was electrifying (though Shai is a fine teacher). Somehow I was connected, through the text of the Talmud, with an energy that felt as if it were coming from outside me. I was as awake and fresh as if it had been nine in the morning.
At 2 AM the next presenter took over, and my energy vanished as if it had been turned off with a switch. But an hour later, at 3, another rabbi-scholar, Shaul Magid, a rabbi on Fire Island during the summer and a professor at Indiana University the rest of the year, began to teach. Shaul too brought a text for us to learn — a teaching of Aharon Roth, the 20th-century Hasidic master known as Reb Arele—and once again I found myself plugged in to a powerful energy. At 4 AM, when the next presenter turned to some topic of Jewish interest, once again my energy drained away. I could have just managed to stay awake till the end of this talk, but not for the hours of davening that would have followed. So I went home to get a few hours of sleep before attending services at a standard holiday hour.
I’d had a similar experience just once before, not in a synagogue but on a university campus. This was in the office of Michael Fishbane, with whom I’d studied at Brandeis University. Two of my fellow students from Brandeis (one Jewish and one Christian) had moved with him to the University of Chicago. I was home in Chicago for the summer, and when I went to see them one afternoon they were eager to learn a text from the midrash on Psalms that they’d started preparing for a class session which never happened.
We had some pizza and then went to Fishbane’s office (they were working for him and had the key) to spend an hour or so learning the text before they had to go to a reception of some kind on campus. At 5, after about an hour and a half, they looked at each other and said, “Well, we can go for another 15 minutes. These things never start on time.” At 5:30, they agreed, “We won’t be missed.” Finally, around 8 PM, one of them said, “We have to stop. My wife will be starting to worry.” Almost five hours had gone by in a flash while we were absorbed in learning, powered by the energy of Torah mi-Sinai.
I can’t tell anyone how to replicate this experience; I myself have had it only these two times. There have been many times, while working on the Commentators’ Bible, that I’ve felt myself in a state of “flow” (according to the Torah of this generation, Wikipedia, the state of being “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment”), and perhaps that’s akin to Sinai battery power. It’s remarkable—but not the same as the sensation of a direct connection to the giving of the Torah.
I’m still not an Orthodox Jew and expect that I never will be. Learning through the most recent cycle of Daf Yomi made me skeptical that halakhah is indeed the will of the Creator (but that’s a story for another time). So perhaps those who are concerned that abandoning traditional beliefs about the Torah will impinge on observance have a legitimate fear. But one thing is certain: believing in Chumash mi-Sinai is not the same thing as believing in Torah mi-Sinai. If I had thought so, I might have had to reject both. As it is, my belief in Torah mi-Sinai is growing, and serious academic study of the Bible is what led me to it and that is part of what sustains it. Next week, I am looking forward to standing—again—at Sinai.
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Dr. Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast. He received his B.A. from New College, B.A. and M.A. from Spertus College of Judaica, and a Ph.D. in Bible and the ancient Near East from Brandeis University. He blogs as The Bible Guy and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
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