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Parashat Yitro

February 6, 2007

Reason & Revelation
By Suri Krieger

A riddle:
5 scrolls, ancient word
Direct dictate of God heard
Moses writes it all down
On top Mt Sinai, holy ground . . . What am I?

Have you got the answer? OK
Hold that thought, and let’s try another:

5 scrolls, a few thousand years
Words of poets, priests and seers
Reworked by the hands of so many scribes
Until finally edited and codified . . . What am I?

Parashat Yitro, stands out as one of the quintessential parshiot ‘ portions – in our whole Torah cycle. It contains both the moment of Revelation at Sinai, and the giving of the Ten Commandments, aseret ha-dibrot. Based on this parashah, a debate between Revelation and Reason has been raging for centuries. (I use this dichotomy to stand for the problem of whether the traditional claims for how the Torah was given to Israel ‘ Revelation – are reasonably believable ‘ Reason.)

So who wrote the Torah? Was it miraculously signed, sealed and delivered on top of Mt Sinai some 4000 years ago, while b’nai Yisrael ‘ the Children of Israel – waited anxiously at the foot of the mountain? Did Moses come down that mountain with 2 tablets and 5 scrolls of God’s word, which has been transmitted from generation to generation, unchanged from that time until now? Or did some moment of epiphany happen in the wilderness, which then became the inspiration and impetus for the unfolding evolution of the Torah as a literary work, over the course of a couple thousand years?

The most prominent position of Rabbinic tradition is, of course, the first. Matan Torah, Revelation, happened at Mt Sinai, at which point not only the aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Commandments, but all of the Written Law, which we know as Torah, and the Oral Law which became the Talmud, was transmitted directly to b’nai Yisrael through Moses.

But liberal movements of Judaism take a different position. There is no historical evidence outside of Torah to corroborate the Sinai story. Modern researchers, archaeologists, literary critics and historians have determined that the Torah must have been written over a long span of time and by a number of people who were determined to carry out the will of God through their own writings and editing. There are too many incongruous literary styles, presentation of details and other discrepancies for it not to be so. From a non-Orthodox perspective, the Torah is not literally the word of God, but rather divinely inspired and woven together over time. This does not make it any less sacred a text, but it does put the whole notion of revelation in a different context.

One way of resolving the dilemma is to view the Revelation story, like other miraculous stories of the text, as allegorical. If we use this approach, the story holds words of truth no matter what, and lack of historical proof does not detract from its value. The historical details of the Covenant’s revelation at Sinai might differ, but the meaning and message of the commandments remain the foundational credo of our people. And even those colorful details of the story, which seem to defy reality, can hold meaning and messages for us today. For example, there are a significant number of sense perception words that are found in the narrative surrounding the Revelation event: Hearing (thunder, blare of the rams horn); sight (the appearance of God’s glory); smell (through the smoke); feeling (the mountain trembled violently); taste (they saw God and ate and drank). This recounting of the event at Sinai is highly reliant upon sense perceptions. We may not believe that 600,000 people literally stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai to hear, see, smell and taste the event. But we might understand this sense-sational emphasis to indicate that the message of Torah is meant to touch our whole beings, both biologically and spiritually.

The debate as to whether the Torah is the direct word of God through Moses or the work of various unknown authors over a long span of years will likely continue until the end of time. The rift between Reason and Revelation is like a cleft mountain that may not be surmountable. But at the very least, we should climb both sides of the mountain top to respectfully hear each other out.

A riddle:
Blares, flash, fumes, crash
Mountains tremble, nature wakes
Thunder, lightening, humans quake . . . What am I?