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A Jewish Perspective on Revelation and the Word

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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Revelation lies at the crux of Judaism


Movements have defined themselves by how they interpret the experience or idea of revelation, and its result has formed the focus of Jewish life for millennia.


Traditionally Judaism has considered the revelation that occurred at Mount Sinai (when Torah was given to the Israelites) to be a core, people-making moment. All of the Israelites were considered to have been there, and the rabbis included in that the souls of all Jews to come: whether Jews by birth or Jews by choice. This was such a seminal moment that no Jew is denied access to its importance. It is celebrated with its own festival, and revered as a crucial moment of formation in the Jewish people's story, whether or not one believes it actually happens as it is written.


Today we can distinguish different types of Judaism in part by their interpretation of what happened at Mount Sinai when Torah tells us Moses received revelation. In Orthodox Judaism revelation occurred as it is recorded in Torah. Other traditions have been added on to it through Midrash (stories told around the biblical text) such as the one above about everyone being at Sinai for all generations, but essentially it is held that God revealed the Torah to Moses who wrote it down for the Israelites. This was a crucial part of the covenant between God and the Israelites, and keeping the law of Torah remains a crucial part of that covenant, which continues unbroken.



Interpretations of revelation and Torah


Reform Judaism, a movement which began in the nineteenth century at a time when enlightenment values and emancipation were popular in Europe, absorbed into its theology and ideas Biblical Critical Scholarship which suggested that the Bible was very much a human document with human error and layers of authorship and textual development. How to make this a part of a continuing Jewish life was the challenge. For Orthodox Jews, Reformers who held such ideas to be true were beyond the bounds of what was Jewishly acceptable and placed themselves outside the community. For Progressive Jews, the idea of a Torah with human error did not mean that Judaism itself had nothing positive to offer. Indeed it was generally accepted that some of the Torah (and this revelation) remained a central part of Judaism, and was either divinely inspired and/or was the weaving of a people's history and understanding of the world around them over millennia.


These different interpretations of revelation and Torah have meant that the way the law is understood and interpreted in these different movements also varies, although there has always been discussion and variation in different parts of the Jewish world through the centuries. Nonetheless for all Jews the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai, whether considered real or not, has become a part of collective memory, celebrated and wondered at.


Revelation and the Covenant


Revelation and Covenant are closely intertwined, and Jews have, through the ages, often been despised or criticised for using words such as 'chosen people' or 'special relationship with God'. There's a Jewish joke where Mr. Cohen goes up to heaven and asks God if we are the chosen people, and God replies, 'Yes, you are'. 'In that case,' continues Mr. Cohen, 'would you mind choosing someone else for a change?' Jews do consider this revelation to be special and distinctive. Yet that is not to say it is the only special relationship. Far from it. The Jews were chosen to receive Torah and to live in that way as best as they could. Other faiths and peoples have their own tasks and duties to perform in the world. There are times when Jews have wished to express some kind of superiority over other nations, usually because they were very disempowered, and some of our prayers and texts do reflect this. However in the past I asked an interfaith group to examine one such prayer, and the Muslims and Christians in the group were amazed that I would worry about how such prayers would sound to them – they reasoned (I think correctly) that all faiths have such texts, what is important is how we live with each other and those texts.



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