Judaism as Rational, Judaism as Truth
Passover, now upon us, apart from being an occasion for family reunions and indigestion is the right time for a more serious activity:
I mean, reflecting on the claim that our religion is highly rational and even the claim that Judaism is “true.”
Far from being ethnic chest thumping, this assertion of truth can be defended with a straight face.
I realize I’m inviting controversy, not least among Jews. We live in a funny world, as I’m frequently reminded when speaking to audiences at bookstores and synagogues about my book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus.” The book addresses Christian proofs of the Christian faith, and yet it’s often Jews who bristle at being told their religion is “true.” At one large suburban Conservative temple where I spoke, the organizers brought on a professor from the Judaic studies department at the local university to dispute me.
But before we get to truth, let’s discuss rationality. What makes Judaism rational is the reality that Passover, the most widely celebrated of all Jewish festivals, is incomplete without the holiday that follows 50 days later, Shavuot, one of the least celebrated or observed by American Jews. Passover recalls the Exodus from Egypt. Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Torah to Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai. Without Shavuot, Passover would be meaningless.
The reason has to do with whether the principles of Judaism are to be believed because of long-ago miracles. The Passover story of liberation from pharaoh’s slavery, told in the haggadah, is studded with miracles. There are the 10 plagues, called down by Moses, which devastated Egypt while leaving the Jews unscathed. There is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, which Moses parted, allowing the Jews to pass between walls of water — which then drowned the Egyptian army that tried to follow.
Yet in Maimonides’ epic-length distillation of Jewish oral and written tradition, the Mishneh Torah, that arch-rationalist sage explains that the people “Israel did not believe in Moses our teacher because of the signs he performed, for he who believes because of signs is subject to doubts in his heart.”
In the story of Shavuot, no miracles figured in the Jews’ acceptance of the Five Books of Moses. And were it not for Sinai and Shavuot, the newly freed Jews would have wandered off, disappeared into anonymous history, never becoming the eternal Israel.
Only at Mount Sinai, where the escaped slaves personally encountered God and heard His voice for themselves, did they come to believe as Jews. It was that personal experience of God that created the Jewish people — not any miracles, however impressive, conjured through a human being. To reinforce that connection, each generation of Jews serves as a witness to every subsequent generation in an uninterrupted succession down to today.
Had that unbroken chain passed down only the testimony that signs and wonders happened, those wonders could be dismissed as sorcerers’ tricks or natural occurrences. There is a radical difference between hearing God speak the Ten Commandments, on one hand, and seeing a human being apparently split a sea, on the other. Someone who believes the main claim of Judaism — that God gave the Torah to Moses — does so on the basis of eyewitness testimony regarding the main claim, a more rational standard of belief than testimony about miracles.
So Maimondies teaches. And based on the Bible’s narrative, he makes a strong case. At Sinai, God told Moses, “Behold! I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever” (Exodus 19:9).
From then on, future prophets who followed in Moses’ footsteps were to be accepted not simply on the basis of miracles they might perform. Though miracles were one criterion for establishing a true prophet, the main factor was faithfully upholding Moses’ prophecy, the Torah.
Future miracles only mattered in establishing new prophets because Moses said they did (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). The experience of Sinai, through which the Jews came to believe in Moses’ connection to God, serves as the guarantee of future prophetic authenticity. Maimonides writes, “If there arises a ‘prophet’ who performs miracles and wonders but seeks to deny the prophecy of Moses our teacher, we need not listen to him.” Indeed, such a person is to be executed (Deutronomy 18:20).
Jesus comes to mind — a man whose claim to authority is based on miracles — from feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes to reportedly being resurrected. And by dint of these miracles, he and his followers dispensed Jews from following Moses’ Torah.
The odd thing is, when I explain such matters to groups of mixed Jews and Christians, even as the Jews grumble, it’s the Christians who are uniformly encouraging and cheerful about a Jew asserting the truth of his faith, even when that assertion contradicts their Christianity. At Passover and year-round, it is, as I say, a funny world. n
Fill in the Blank
When I began to study Torah seriously as a college student, I was introduced to its spiritual depths. I found that the meanings of the holidays went beyond the agricultural and historical sources, and often had complex spiritual teachings woven in. I remember that, back in those days, I could find little spiritual or poetic meanings of Shemini Atzeret. It was blank, or more accurately, a cipher.
I discovered the key when I learned that the holiday of Shavuot, where we celebrate the giving of the Torah, is known in the Talmud as “Atzeret.” The word means something like “stopping time.” Shavuot, which falls seven weeks after Passover, concludes a long period of spiritual work. For those clued into the spiritual study of the calendar, Passover is not only a time of remembering the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt; it is also a time to learn how we exit from the slavery of bad habits, destructive thought, emotion, behavior. Right after Passover starts, we have that seven-week period called the counting of omer, where, instructed by kabbalah, we thoroughly examine all parts of our lives that are resistant to the light of truth. On Shavuot, we hope to be so cleansed of impediments that the light of Torah can shine into us on that day when we recall the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. And then that holiday period comes to a “close” — Shavuot is called atzeret (the closing).
With this in mind, I looked at Shemini Atzeret, shemini meaning “eighth” or “eighth day” — it falls eight days after Sukkot begins, and concludes Sukkot. But did it also have a sense of the “Atzeret” of Shavuot, of a closing day where we celebrate freedom and the giving of Torah?
The Jewish calendar, with the aid of Chasidic texts, takes us on a deep journey. We are taught in the Torah that the first Shavuot, with all its promise, failed at some great level. Moshe went up the mountain after the Ten Commandments were spoken on Shavuot, but when he came down 40 days later, the people were cavorting with Molten Calf. The tablets were broken — symbolic of the broken heart of God and the broken spirit of Moshe. Only the penitence of the Jewish people could repair the break.
We repented all that summer; we wanted to be worthy of the name God gave us in Exodus chapter 19 just before that first Shavuot — a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Moshe went back up Mount Sinai to receive the second tablets, according to tradition, on the first day of Elul. He was to stay 40 days. Ten days before he was to return, we recommitted ourselves to becoming a kingdom of priests. On that day we accepted God as our sovereign — that is Rosh Hashanah, the day we celebrate the sovereignty of the divine in our lives. On the 40th day, when Moshe finally returns, he finds us in disciplined, contemplative, quiet fasting — that was Yom Kippur, the the culmination of our atoning for the calf.
In the Torah, the Jewish people immediately begin to build the mishkan — a habitat in which the tablets of the covenant would be housed. We symbolize that building with our construction of the sukkah, a habitat that represents the new habits we assume, so that our lives can house the new spiritual self born during these holidays.
At the closing of this period, on Shemini Atzeret, we step away from the sukkah, but not fully back into our lives. It is as if God were saying: exit from all these holidays, from all these observances, but spend a last day with me. There is no special observance on Shemini Atzeret — no matzah, no historical commemoration, no fasting, no shofar — a blank. The blank is to be filled in by each of us, as a community, in our unique individuality.
The ancient rabbis showed amazing reticence around Shemini Atzeret; they usually fill all the holidays with interpretations and historical allusions. I believe this rabbinic reticence is intentional; their quietude helps define the holidays. The tradition quiets down for a day and says: you, individual Jew who has been doing so much spiritual work, you fill in the meaning. God gave us a Torah and a tradition — let’s see what we make of it.
Of course, such reticence could not last, but the way the tradition finally filled in the day is another stroke of genius. Sometime in the post-talmudic period, the celebration called Simchat Torah was born and the second day of Shemini Atzeret took on its own meaning. Since that time, the second day of Shemini Atzeret is when we end the book of Deuteronomy and begin Genesis amid singing, dancing and celebration.
Take a deeper look. A holiday called Atzeret, in which Jews sing, dance, cavort, make merry? Is this not a second chance at that original atzeret, the first giving of the Torah when we were cavorting with the calf? We failed God and ourselves in the aftermath of Shavuot — when Moshe tried to give us the tablets, we had already rejected him.
But on Shemini Atzeret, after all the reflection, contemplation and joy we have gone through from the High Holidays through Sukkot — and then our own private day of reflecting on the whole process — we burst into joy. On Shemini Atzeret, through our quiet putting together of the whole process, we have finally learned what to dance for, what music to dance to and, on Simchat Torah — when we reenact Moshe coming down the mountain — we finally get the giving of Torah right.
Happy quiet, happy dancing!
Mordecai Finley is senior rabbi and co-founder of Ohr HaTorah.