January 16, 2019

On Shavuot, reconsidering the origins of the Torah

Is the Torah true? 

The story itself is pure Hollywood (and yes, there have been a few movies): God sends a messenger to free a group of slaves from the superpower of the time, Egypt. When Pharaoh says no, plagues rain down from heaven until he finally relents. The slaves leave in the middle of the night; the Egyptians, suffering from liberator’s remorse, chase after them. The sea splits, the Jews walk through victorious, and the pursuing Egyptian army is annihilated. 

But that’s just the opening act. The Exodus is a prelude for the most important moment in human history, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the event we commemorate this week with the observance of the holiday of Shavuot.

But who says it really happened? In response to this classic question, which has been around for ages, some have theorized that the story was created 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian exile. Jewish refugees living after the destruction of the First Temple wanted keep the Jewish people unified in the Diaspora. They weaved the legends of the beginnings of Jewish people and created the biblical narrative. Others suggest that there were multiple authors, or that the Five Books of Moses were given on Sinai but the oral tradition was a human creation over time. 

It was this very question that King Bulan, who ruled Khazaria in the late eighth century, put to a rabbi he invited to teach Judaism to his nation. Eventually, he and many of his subjects converted to Judaism. For almost two centuries, Khazaria was a primarily Jewish kingdom located in Southern Russia near Rostov-on-Don. It was destroyed by an invasion of the Rus from Kiev in the late 10th century. 

According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the 11th century Spanish-Jewish scholar and poet who recounts this conversation in his epic on Jewish philosophy, the Kuzari, the rabbi told King Bulan that there is a profound difference between core beliefs of Judaism and the other monotheistic religions. Both Christianity and Islam are the product of one man convincing others of a prophecy and events he personally experienced. The birth of Judaism, by contrast, was a collective experience: There were 600,000 males between the ages of 20 and 60 present at Sinai. All told, some 2 1/2 million people witnessed and participated in these events. They told their children, who told their children, who told their children about the Exodus and the giving of the Torah. 

It is this collective memory that is passed down through the generations, and this is why the historical narrative of the Jews of Yemen and the Jews of Poland is the same. Separated by thousands of miles, they both tell the same story that has reached down through the generations, of momentous events that transformed the Jewish people and all of mankind. 

What the rabbi told the King of the Khazars over 1,300 years ago is that the Torah has passed the test of history. The proof we have for any event, the landing on the moon, that George Washington was the first President of the United States, is the same.  

Millions of people witnessed the event, they testified to that fact, and they told the story to the next generation. Accepting the fact that the Torah was given to the Jewish people by God is not an issue of faith — we have faith for things we cannot explain. That God gave the Torah to the Jews is a historical reality. Other historical validation does exist: Ancient scrolls of the Torah and prophets that are more than 2,000 years old, archaeology in Israel that time and again corroborates the Biblical narrative. And the greatest proof of all: the test of history. 

Believing that the Torah was given at Sinai is no different than accepting the fact that Caesar ruled Rome or that Aristotle was a great philosopher. The reason we hesitate to accept the historical proof of the Torah is that it obligates us to follow its teachings.

Today, all other ancient peoples have faded to oblivion, but the Jewish people are a living, breathing entity. We can find remains of the Persians, the Greeks, even the ancient Canaanites in museums and archeological digs. The Jewish people are a vibrant reality carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. On Shavuot, they will gather in synagogues to recall the momentous event when heavens touched earth on Mount Sinai more than three millennia ago.

Rabbi David Eliezrie is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County & Long Beach. He can be reached at rabbi@ocjewish.com.