Hearing God's Voice: Two Models for Accepting The Torah
Under Sinai or in the Jerusalem Square?
The revelation at Sinai, as described in the Torah, provides an immensely appealing model of what it might be like for God to speak to us. We experience there uncanny thunder and lightning, perhaps synaesthetically, above which a voice with no discernible human source addresses us; the voice tells us that the Speaker has carried out our recent redemption from great oppression, and that that redemption has prepared us for a covenant with our Redeemer. We then receive a series of commands that fit well with what we might expect a divine being to ask of us. This, surely, is how God should speak to us, if God speaks to people at all. Here, if anywhere, is the kind of experience we want to have as a ground for our religious commitments — a moment of contact with God that we can immediately and wholly recognize as contact with God. It is the sort of moment that mystics and meditators seek, and that some in our tradition have urged us to try to achieve by way of hitbodedut (meditative solitude), or all-night study, or lengthy and heartfelt prayer.
But in the end this model of religious grounding is untenable. Many philosophers over the past two centuries have argued persuasively that direct experience, and the certainty that accompanies it, need not yield knowledge. And indeed we recognize this in ordinary life. How many times have you felt certain that you perceived something only to realize later that you were mistaken (your eyes fooled you, or what you saw was misleading, or you have mis-remembered it)? Nor does the group character of the experience at Sinai necessarily correct for such errors: prejudice and illusion can mislead entire populations (in the perception of witchcraft, for instance). Moreover, the Torah itself seems to teach us that direct contact with God doesn’t have a lasting impact on people: consider how the people run out, shortly after Sinai, to worship the Golden Calf.
A better model for the ground of religious commitment, I suggest, is the assembly of the people to hear Ezra and his entourage read the Torah aloud in the book of Nehemiah.
The assembly in Nehemiah presents itself as a sort of “re-do” of the assembly at Sinai. On both occasions, the people gather together to hear God’s word. On the first occasion they say “We will do and we will listen,” but then proceed not to carry out the law they receive; on the second occasion, they do not say anything quite so noble, but they ask to hear the law, and they set out to fulfill one aspect of it (Sukkot) immediately after the recitation (Neh 8:1, 14-17). There are also subtler parallels. Ezra had led the people out of a captivity in Babylonia, at the behest of the (arguably miraculous) goodwill of the Persian king Artaxerxes. That Persian king also admonished him to set up a judicial structure (Ezra 7:25) much like the one Moses had established on the advice of a non-Israelite— Jethro — just before the Sinaitic revelation (Exod. 18:17-22). And the Ezraitic exodus began, like the Mosaic one, with the crossing of a great body of water (Ezra 8:21, 31), albeit a non-miraculous one, and was seen as involving God’s protection throughout (Ezra 8:31). The parallels between Moses and Ezra, and between the two exoduses, are no doubt supposed to be obvious to the people in Nehemiah, and just in case they are not, Ezra recounts both histories, implicitly linking them, right after the assembly (Neh. 9).
In Rabbinic writings, Moses and Ezra are explicitly compared to one another: the rabbis say that Ezra was worthy of giving the Torah to Israel had Moses not preceded him (b. Sanhedrin 21b). The acceptance of the Torah represented by the Ezraitic assembly is indeed sometimes taken to be a freer, more whole-hearted covenant with God than the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. One major difference between the Ezraitic assembly and the Sinaitic one is that, as Ezra reads the Torah, members of his entourage explain it “so that the people understand it” (Neh. 8:7-9, 13); another, already noted, is that the people rush out afterwards to perform one of the commands they have heard.
Both differences suggest that this time the people are really taking on the Torah for themselves — which, say some, redeems the “threat” aspect of the earlier, Sinaitic covenant. A famous Midrash on the phrase b’tachtit ha-har in Exod. 19:17 presents God as holding Sinai over the Israelites’ heads and threatening to kill them if they refuse the Torah (b. Shabbat 88a). But no covenant, under Jewish law itself, is valid if accepted under a threat. So it took the free-willed covenant under Ezra — where the people asked to have the law read to them, were helped to understand it, and went out to perform it — to redeem Sinai.
I want to suggest that in other ways as well the Ezraitic covenant is a better model for religious commitment than the Sinaitic one.
Consider first the reasons why one might be inclined to dismiss the Ezraitic covenant. If Sinai is a model of immediacy and certainty in one’s relationship to God, and of love and gratitude for God’s goodness to us, the Ezraitic assembly is a model of mediation and uncertainty, and of more muted feelings about God’s role in the world.
We don’t see any clear miracles in the Ezra story, after all. I’ve suggested that we can construe Cyrus’s goodwill towards the Jews as miraculous, but that’s a loose use of the word, of the sort one might invoke when a job or love relationship works out, not a literal overturning of the natural order. The same goes for the fact that the people come through their journey safely. One could attribute this to God, but one doesn’t have to: no natural laws are broken. And the assembly itself takes place without thunder and lightning or mysterious voices. In the Ezraitic story, God is present only if you choose to see God there; in the Mosaic story, God is present emphatically and unavoidably.
Perhaps this is one reason why the people need someone to help explain God’s word to them in the Ezraitic story, while in the Mosaic story they seem to understand it for themselves. The Ezraitic story models our relationship to God as something we need to work on, think about, have explained to us, something we can, in the end, choose either to see or not to see; the Mosaic story models our relationship to God as something that comes forcefully to us directly from God, and in which we can bask, without work or choice.
If we compare our God-relationships to our erotic relationships (as many religious traditions, including our own, often do), Sinai is like the consummation of a first love, while the Ezraitic assembly is like a second wedding, or the decision of an estranged couple to patch things up and move on. If we compare our God-relationships to stages in human development (as many religious traditions, including our own, also often do), Sinai is like the wondrous first discovery of the world by a young child, while the Ezraitic assembly is like the acceptance of the world by a “sadder and wiser” adult, aware that childish innocence is no longer possible for her.
But it is all these mediated, uncertain, work-demanding, choice-demanding, sadder and wiser features of the Ezraitic story that lead me to commend it. For they are features of maturity, of the way we relate to the world once we recognize that childish innocence is indeed no longer possible for us. To come back from love and human development to our relationship with God: We may hope, when young, for a clear assurance of God’s existence and concern for us — unshakeable proofs of God, or direct experiences of Him — but we learn as adults that in fact the best we can do is make efforts to perceive God, dimly, through the veils of happenstance and triviality we encounter daily, to interpret the facts of our moral lives, and texts of our religion, in a way that allows us some fair confidence that God is there.
This is certainly the preferred view of God in the Jewish tradition — a God whose face is often hidden from us (hester panim), whose Name is unspeakable, who does not incarnate as a human being for all to encounter and who is available primarily via law and study, not mystical visions. We are pre-Messianic, not Messianic: we hope for a direct relationship with God in the future while simply waiting for it now. We have also been suspicious, generally, of Messianic — utopian — political movements. We are known for our pragmatism, our willingness to make compromises and to be satisfied with a less-than-perfect society.
In all these ways, we insist on the importance of living with uncertainty and incompleteness, working and choosing to bring out what is godly in human existence rather than expecting it to appear before us, and living with a degree of sadness or resignation rather than unmitigated joy — even if we continue to hold out, as an ultimate ideal, a direct, clear, joyful encounter with God in the Messianic era. We project a Sinaitic relationship to God as an ideal for the future, while in the present we are the children of Ezra: asking for a Torah that needs interpretation, and from whose words divinity glints out fitfully, not as a constant and irresistible light.
The Ezraitic Torah
This brings us to the question of what sort of Torah a mature believer of the Ezraitic stripe might expect to find. Here I want to join up with, but also alter, a set of points made by David Weiss-Halivni, in his Revelation Restored. Halivni supposes that the text of the Torah presented by Ezra to the people was “maculated” — blemished — and that that explains the oddities and contradictions that historical critics have emphasized in it. We received a perfect Torah from Moses, suggests Halivni, but we sinned, turning to idolatry, and in consequence, the text that came down over the generations was corrupted. Fortunately, the priestly line that Ezra inherited had preserved oral traditions that compensate for these corruptions, so we can approximate the original, perfect Torah by interpreting the written text we have in light of the oral Torah. We can, then, reconcile an acknowledgment of much that historical critics say about the Torah with the idea that it is still, at its core, God’s word.
I think the idea that the Torah of Ezra’s time was, for good theological reasons, the complex, puzzling text we have now, filled with what at least seem to be strands produced by different people at different historical moments, is a nice one. But I see no reason to call these features of the text “maculations,” as Halivni does. Rather, it seems to me that the Ezraitic believer does not expect God’s revelation to come in a transparent, ahistorical form: she expects instead precisely to have to struggle, along with her community, to bring out what God wants of her, through layers of commands and narratives that have held different meanings in different historical eras.
The Ezraitic believer expects a hidden God to communicate through hidden meanings (as both Maimonideans and Kabbalists have indeed always construed the Torah), and does not worry if the text presented to her as divine contains contradictions and repetitions and anachronisms and passages that are morally or theologically troubling: so long as all these problems can be overcome through midrash or allegory or other religious modes of interpretation. Indeed, these problems then become opportunities to seek God’s teachings — marks of God’s goodness rather than blemishes.
To return to our love analogy: the bride and bridegroom under a chuppah for a second wedding, or the first spouses who have realized how much they love each other after a great fight, do not say to themselves, “I’ll accept this person in spite of her blemishes.” They say, “She is not blemished – she is my b’sheret, my designated one, even if I need to work on myself and our relationship to make that clear to myself.” To recognize the messy, historically marked character of the Torah (if God is to speak kileshon bnei adam — in human language — God’s speech must be messy and historically marked) is not to call it blemished, to wish we had a less flawed revelation instead: it is to recognize the very effort we need to make to interpret the Torah as itself part of what God wants us to do with that book. We do not marry the Torah wishing we had a different bride or bridegroom; we marry it out of love for its very complexities.
As the reader may have guessed, I think the Ezraitic believer also need not worry about whether Moses was the author of the Torah — nor indeed about whether there ever was a Moses, or an exodus, or a miraculous revelation at Sinai. The point, for the mature religious believer, is whether God is the author of this text, whether God is communicating to us through it, not whether Moses did. And to answer that question, historical facts are irrelevant. God, after all, is not on any theological view a grand chronicler in the sky, or a professional historian who just wants us to get the past right. If God communicates with us, it is presumably for the same reason that God is presented as communicating with Adam and Noah and Abraham and Moses: because God wants us to do something, because God has ethical expectations of us.
And to communicate these ethical expectations, the history in which they are embedded need not be accurate. The history in the Torah serves heuristic purposes, after all — serves to explain the need for or purpose of various norms. The story of Pharaoh’s oppression of us and our exodus from it provides a powerful context for our observance of Torah law, and the story of Abraham’s concern for justice and Joseph’s concern for family reconciliation also illuminate that law, regardless of whether they reflect a historical reality.
Keeping the Torah Contemporary
To the people of Ezra’s time the story of the Torah as a whole may have resonated strongly with their own experience as captives in Babylon who had been redeemed to (re-)build Judea, or with their struggle to remain faithful to their ancient practices rather than assimilating to the ways of their neighbors. To us today, it may resonate with our attempt to remain faithful to a hidden, ungraspable God, amid a world of Christians, New Age spiritualists, and secular humanists, all of whom find our religious commitments remote or stodgy. But in each generation the Torah‘s narratives must speak to the situation of the people who read them then, if they are to mean something religiously at all. I must see myself as having come out of Egypt at every seder; it is not good enough to think that my ancestors did that.
This requires us constantly to re-work the meaning of the stories recounted in the Torah, and pushes their historicity out of view. The fact that they spoke to previous generations does not of itself help us now, and their being historically true, even if they are that in every detail, would not help us in the slightest. By the same token, their not being historically true, even if they are that in every detail, does not harm us, does not derogate from their being able to speak to us now. For the Torah is not a history book, but an ethical teaching, something that tells us how we ought to live. A faithful Jew today, as in every prior generation, needs to take seriously the idea that this book somehow contains his or her primary guide to how to live — contains what God wants Jews to do. But he or she does not need to take seriously the idea that the Torah also tells us, literally, how the world or the Jewish people were formed.
In the past, this was more obvious to the mainstream Jewish tradition than it is today. Neither Maimonides nor the Kabbalists took the history of the Torah terribly seriously, even if they didn’t doubt its accuracy (something that was, after all, not in serious question in their day). Both indeed thought that over-emphasizing the literal level of the Torah was a sin. A passage in the Zohar (III:152a) puts this nicely:
Rabbi Simeon said: Alas for the man who regards the Torah as a book of mere tales and [worldly] matters. If this were so, we might even today write a Torah dealing in such matters and still more excellent. … The tales of the Torah are only her outward garments. If anyone should suppose that the Torah herself is this garment and nothing else, let him give up the ghost. Such a man will have no share in the world to come. … [W]hen fools see a man in a garment that seems beautiful to them, they do not look more closely. But more important than the garment is the body, and more important than the body is the soul. So likewise the Torah has a [garment, a body and a soul]. Fools see only the garment, which is the narrative part of the Torah … Those who know more see not only the garment but also the body that is under the garment. But the truly wise, the servants of the Supreme King, those who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, look only upon the soul, which is the true foundation of the entire Torah, and one day indeed it will be given them to behold the innermost soul of the Torah.
The “soul” of the Torah, then, is not the history it tells, and that history, like the garment on a person, need not even tell us accurately what the Torah’s “body” is like. The narrative surface of the Torah is at best a clue, a guide, to the treasure that lies beneath, or a way of tempting us to uncover that treasure.
Living Midrashically in a Literalist Age
Today we live in an obsessively literal and historicist age. If a person or a document does not tell us the literal truth, we say it is not telling us the truth at all. We have lost the habit of allegorical reading, and treat midrash with a condescending smile, as if it were a game of scant importance. We don’t talk or think much about moral truth and don’t expect philosophical theories to be susceptible of truth or falsehood. Under the impact of science, we want claims that are supposed to be true to be provable, and in the realm of history, that means that evidence like eye-witness testimony, or archeological data, should underwrite them. Perhaps we recognize in literature classes that this obsession with data can be a bit absurd — does the history of Macbeth’s composition tell us its “real meaning”? — but then again literature classes are like midrash: not something to take seriously.
I have argued elsewhere that this obsession with literality, when applied to religious claims, is a form of idolatry. A God whose presence at moments in space and time could be verified or falsified would be a limited force within our spatio-temporal world, not the Creator and Governor of everything — a Jupiter- or Zeus-like being, rather than the God beyond all gods we are supposed to worship. To want to know that God is here at a certain time, or was at Sinai at a certain time, or spoke to Moses or authored the Torah at a certain time, is to try to reduce God to something smaller and less significant than God is supposed to be. But only if we want to reduce God in this way, to make the claims of the Torah susceptible of scientific proof, do we need to understand those claims as literal: do we need to dismiss midrash.
By contrast, if we adopt the more expansive, challenging conception of God I think we are supposed to have — if we recognize that God can, among other things, challenge our conceptions of science and proof themselves — we will find ourselves required to engage in midrash.
As I have also argued elsewhere, the literalist, scientific conception of truth, in which we try to verify sentences one by one with logical or empirical tests, can and has in the past been subordinated to another conception of truth. On this other conception, truth is primarily applied to people, not sentences; we are primarily concerned with whether we can trust certain people to lead us in a good direction. This sort of truth is etymologically related to “troth” — as in “plighting one’s troth” — which literally means “trust.” And the Torah uses the word “truth” (emet) primarily in this way. Moses is told to seek out “people of truth” (anshe emet) as judges and Abraham’s servant asks Laban and Bethuel to deal with him “in kindness and truth” (Exod. 18:21; Gen. 24:48-9).
But a person can be trustworthy whose individual sentences are on occasion untrue: someone who guides you to a better way of living may have to get you there via myths, gnomic sayings, and metaphor. Accordingly, a Torah that is true in the direction-guiding way — a trustworthy Torah — need not and probably cannot be literally true at the same time: especially if it is supposed to express the will of an essentially mysterious God. We will therefore need constantly to understand it midrashically.
This willingness to live midrashically, to give up on literalism, marks the wisdom of the Ezraitic believer. Only with a midrashic sensibility can we move towards a God beyond all limits, beyond the grasp of all fixed concepts and beyond, therefore, all proof or falsification. The childlike directness of a literalist mentality leads by contrast to a limited god who is less than God; it is a form of idolatry.
Interpretation and Halakha
This brings me to my final point: how, on the model I am proposing, we should understand the members of Ezra’s entourage who explain the text to the people during the great assembly in Nehemiah, and what we should take their role to signify as regards interpreting the Torah today. Clearly, these interpreters are given some authority by the people, and are presented as a model for how Jews should appropriate the Torah going forward.
In what does their authority consist? Halivni suggests that they had access to an oral tradition passed down over generations that corrected errors in the text and resolved tensions between its parts. However, there is no suggestion of such an oral tradition anywhere in Ezra or Nehemiah, or indeed elsewhere in the Tanakh, and it is implausible in any case that a group would pass down an intact oral tradition alongside a blemished written text. If we look at the language of Nehemiah — verses 8:7-8, which repeatedly use the verb mevin and talk of reading the Torah meforash and giving the people sekhel: all of which are terms for making things clear, and imparting everyday understanding — it seems far more likely that the interpreters provided commonsensical readings of the text. Perhaps they used one part of it, or its overall themes and structure, to illuminate other parts (e.g., using Exod. 25:6, as Rashi does, to understand elohim in Exod. 7:1 as “judge” rather than “God.”) Their authority would then rest simply in their greater familiarity with the whole book, in the way that someone who has read a lot of Joyce may be an authority for a new reader of Ulysses.
Alternatively, perhaps Ezra’s entourage used a knowledge of Hebrew — the people spoke Aramaic — to explain puzzling words. Or they may have employed more elaborate hermeneutical tools. It is unlikely, as a historical matter, that they were either philosophers or midrashists like the Tannaim, but it is not unlikely that occasionally they explained verses in accordance with their best rational understanding of what a morally good God would say, or by way of the subtle cues and plays on words that midrash was later to employ.
In any case, the text of Nehemiah clearly suggests that the interpreters made the best plain sense of the text they could to the people who were listening to them, that they employed methods that made hermeneutic sense in the context of their place and time, and that what they said was not necessarily supposed to hold for other generations, in other circumstances. The idea that the Torah needs a fixed mode of interpretation, passed down intact from generation to generation, is not implied by Nehemiah, which indicates instead that the Torah needs, in every generation, to make sense to the people of that generation.
This is not to throw out centuries of interpretation, or to opt for a relativistic program of the form, “the Torah means whatever we want it to mean.” Halivni rightly points out that the people in the Ezra story sought a way of understanding the law that they could implement, as a people, and that that requires some standardized way of resolving puzzles in the text. There is also an important difference, ignored or dismissed by faddish literary critics, between a mode of interpretation that makes sense of a text and a mode that makes it yield up what the listener wants to hear. Making sense has standards, if ones that are difficult to pin down, and when we try honestly to make sense of a text, we will often find that it tells us something quite other than what we want it to say.
Finally, making sense of a text that issues in moral and legal norms generally requires bringing the norms one sees in it into as much coherence as possible with the norms that have been seen in it in the past. Moral and legal norms generally should hold over generations, even if they need to be adapted to some extent in each new generation, and the Torah’s laws, often explicitly described as binding for all eternity, are certainly of that form. These pragmatic concerns are enough to vindicate a strong respect for tradition, in making halakhic decisions. But if we take the assembly in Nehemiah as our model for how we should receive the Torah, we should note that it implies strongly that the Torah must make sense to each generation that receives it. And that surely requires of us a flexible halakhic tradition rather than a fixed one.
I have presented here more an alternative picture of revelation and its reception — of what it means for God to speak to us and us to listen — than a detailed argument about how that process might work. But often we need a new picture more than we need new arguments: arguments simply work within the ambit of pictures (paradigms, models) that we already hold. If the Ezraitic picture I am proposing fits in with Jewish theology, gives us a role in receiving revelation that makes both theological and ethical sense, and endorses flexible modes of interpreting the Torah, then it is, I submit, far more attractive than a picture on which God’s presence in revelation must be obvious to us, and our role is to stand in that presence passively. It is almost an after-thought that the Ezraitic picture also allows us to recognize the Torah as a complex, historically shaped document while still embracing it as God’s word.
There is far more to be said about the implications of the Ezraitic model for both theology and halakha. But I hope I have said enough to show how it can provide a valuable jumping-off point for those of us who seek an understanding of the Torah that coheres with modern science, history, and morality.
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November 4, 2013
November 22, 2019
Professor Sam Fleischacker is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and, in 2013-14, a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. His most recent books include What is Enlightenment? (Routledge, 2013) and Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011).
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