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The historicity of revelation

I've really been enjoying my Biblical History & Civ class this semester. That's a testament to Reb Leila, who is a top-notch instructor. She's very organized, she lectures well, and she's structured the class in such a way that most weeks we're doing the teaching, which is a great way to ensure that we're internalizing the material. My familiarity with Biblical history and early Israelite civilization was pretty limited before this, so I've been devouring this material pretty avidly.

We've spent a lot of time lately with Bernhard Anderson's Understanding the Old Testament, John Bright's A History of Israel, and Yehezkel Kaufmann's The Religion of Israel. These are solid scholars and their books are valuable to have on my bookshelf (both literally and metaphorically), though what's especially fascinating is the extent to which they disagree. That's intentional, of course. We're learning as much about the meta-story of how our history has been understood (by Jews and by non-Jews, over the course of time) as we are about the history itself.

But none of these writers lend themselves to pithy blog posts. They're a little on the dense side. (I contemplated trying to turn my in-class presentation on the United Monarchy into a blog post, but concluded that it just wasn't likely to appeal.)

But this past week we read an article that struck me as bloggable -- and even germane to the time of year we're entering. It's an article by Dr. Edward L. Greenstein called Understanding the Sinai Revelation, which takes a fascinating approach to questions about the historicity of Sinai (which strike me as parallel in many ways to questions about the historicity of the Exodus; suddenly this material feels appropriate for the period leading up to Pesach, and even more for the period between Pesach and Shavuot.)

We should learn to read the biblical text not as a literal accounting of historical fact -- which we have no way of testing -- but as an expression of our ancient Israelite forebears in which we find enduring religious truth.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that that isn't a radical point of view to most of y'all reading this, but it still bears repeating. Every year I see the J-blogosphere blossom with questions of whether the Exodus "really happened." We talk less about whether the revelation at Sinai "really happened," maybe because Shavuot isn't the cultural juggernaut that Peach is (and maybe because we're less inclined to read the Torah's account of an essentially mystical experience as something historical, while the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the Israelites' escape from slavery seems like something we ought to be able to prove or disprove.) But I'm with Dr. Greenstein here: what the Torah tells us about these events isn't a matter of history, but an expression of religious reality.

Each of us has a different notion of what God is and is not. Very likely, a person will change his or her idea of God from time to time. Then, we must be open to a variety of possible understandings about what the Sinai event means.

The Biblical account of the theophany at Sinai is framed in terms that may distance us: God's appearance as fire in the midst of smoke, the sound of God's voice within the thunder and lightning, etc. These aren't likely to fit how we understand God in today's world. But Greenstein cautions us not to get too hung up on the details of how the experience is described:

We should not get caught up in whether God actually resembled fire in a physical way. Rather, we ought to consider what ideas about God that the Torah implies by likening God's presence to fire. Following the lead of the Midrash, we may ask: what are the qualities of fire that are comparable to God? Fire is real, present, and perceptible. It can be seen and felt. The closer we are, the brighter it appears. The nearer we are, the warmer it feels. And yet, fire has no concrete, permanent, or fixed form...

In other words, it seems to me, he's suggesting that we read the story of what happened at Sinai the way we read poetry. To say that God appeared in fire is metaphor; it says something about one way of imagining God's presence. Ditto the thunder and the lightning. These aren't meant to be read literally. They're meant to tell us something about ways of understanding God.

Greenstein talks about revelation in terms of a sender, a message, and a receiver. God is the sender; the message is revelation itself; the receiver is us. Revelation, in his framing, is a bit like that famous koan of the tree falling in the forest; it's necessarily an I-Thou experience, it requires a receiver in order to fully exist. He likens it to a meeting of two persons. "Without both parties present, there is no meeting."

The most compelling part of Greenstein's article, for me, is an extended metaphor about music:

When a person experiences God's presence in an event it may be somewhat like listening to music. There must be some agency to produce the music. This agency is God's acts in history. The Exodus from Egypt, the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage, is for Israel God's greatest act. It is great "music" for all Israel to hear. But one who has been trained to listen to music and one who is attentive to it does not merely hear notes. One is moved by the music, affected by it. The listener experiences something new and different. The music in a sense conveys a "message," but that "message" will be interpreted differently by various listeners.

I've been working lately on reading Torah through the lens of poetry, which frees me to relate to the text in a creative way: not through argument, but through creative response. It seems to me that when he talks about God's presence as being like music, he's talking about exactly that: the sense that something's coming through, something which moves me and to which I respond, which may not be easy to express in words. (Or: which expressing in words inevitably limits.)

The Exodus is indeed great music. The more we awaken ourselves to its sounds, the notes and their emotional tenor, the more we'll be moved by them -- and that's when the music comes fully to life. When we experience it on all levels, body and heart and mind and spirit. When we understand ourselves -- not our literal or metaphorical ancestors, but us -- to have been liberated from bondage in Mitzrayim. The music is still being played, and our hearts and minds are both the instruments and the chambers in which the notes resonate.

In the latter part of the article Greenstein focuses on mitzvot and halakha as the necessary response to revelation. It's not enough just to hear the music of revelation; the brit (covenant) established at Sinai demands active response. That honestly merits its own post. But I like his way of thinking about revelation and the historicity thereof, and especially the musical metaphor. I'll carry those with me into the festivals of this spring.

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