November 18, 2018

The Mystery Encountered, or, “Literalists Don’t Go to Heaven”

Shabbat Bamidbar 2015 – Thoughts on Shavu’ot

Judaism is not founded on the Bible; it is founded on the understandings of the Bible shaped by the Sages of the Talmudic period, who founded their readings on the generations who came before them. Even that rabbinic foundation was shape-shifted in the medieval period, when scholars tried, generally speaking, to bring Jewish thought into accord with the Greek philosophic tradition (as did the Muslims and Christians). The medievalists also attempted to systematize the contents of faith into creedal statements of faith.

A characteristic of modern/post modern religiosity, that is, religion as understood by those who are serious about religion but who are not Orthodox or Evangelical, is the refusal to be limited in their thought by creed. We tend to want to reflect on religious experience as opposed to required beliefs, to experience the tradition without the confines of creed.

Think of the upcoming holidays of Shavu’ot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah, which begins this coming Saturday night. From a biblical perspective, God spoke the 10 Commandments on that day. From a creedal perspective, one is required to believe, generally speaking, that the entire five books of Moses were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, or to Moses at other places before his death.

The rabbinic tradition, however, reflects on the event and its meaning, more than it tries to supply any creed. That tradition of reflection, of philosophizing, extends through medieval thinkers (when they are not worrying about creed), to the mystics, and shapes our religious lives up until today.

Instead of asking what exactly did God say, we might ask ‘what does it mean to be addressed by the Soul of Universe.’ We ask, ‘how does a human being absorb the speech of the divine?’ ‘And once it enters us, how do translate the experience of having been addressed by the Soul of the Universe into words that can communicate this experience to another human being?’

The rabbis of the Talmud encountered a mystery. They understood the Five Books of Moses as a poor reflection of the Upper Torah, the divine wisdom. They understood our written Torah as a doorway into Divine Mind. They uttered poetic images – the Torah in the Divine Mind is “black fire written upon white fire.” They saw the event at Sinai as God revealing something of the essence of the divine existence, carried in the vehicle of Divine speech.

Maimonides teaches us how to read a metaphor. The speech of God does not imply vocal chords. Hearing God does not happen with our human ears. We use these words all the time metaphorically; “that painting really speaks to me” we say. When finally understand what someone is trying to tell us, we say “I hear you”, which often means: I understand your pain.

Problem is, when moderns come to the Bible we turn into shallow literalists. We forget what speaking and hearing mean. We don’t have the benefit of having been immersed in the Talmud and Midrash, of having studied the brilliance of Maimonides, of having gazed into the enchanted orchard of the Kabbalah. That is understandable.

What is harder for me to accept is that when approach our religion, we tend forget our capacity for poetry and metaphor. If anything, the talmudic rabbis and their legatees taught that one cannot understand the Torah if one reads it literally. The Zohar teaches that if you confuse the real Torah-as-mind-of-God with the literal meaning of words written in the Five Books of Moses, that your bones should burst and you will have no portion in the world to come. “Literalists Don’t Go to Heaven”. It would be like thinking that music is dots and squiggles on a lined page.

Shavu’out, therefore, cannot be understood literally as the holiday of the “giving of the Torah”, as if you can be given white fire on black fire, the structure of the universe in the divine mind, the substance of the existence of God.

A non-literal meaning of Shavu’ot, and therefore a truer meaning, might be, ‘the holiday when the portal into the divine mind was opened, a portal that can re-opened to those willing to encounter a mystery.’