The following is a transcript of Episode 101 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news, ideas, and today, Torah, from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and it’s Friday, May 27th, 2022.
“And it was on the third day as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain and a very loud blast of the horn and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp towards God. And they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all up in smoke for the Lord had come down upon it in fire. The smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder, as Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.”
You know, the three monotheistic faiths have a lot in common. Like big stories or big ideas or moral commitments. And I tend to believe that the commonalities between these religions is a good thing because humanity crowdsources some of its best stuff. And then that stuff finds expression in different particular religious lanes. The exceptional pieces, the things that are really unique to each faith are oftentimes the very kinds of things you would want left behind on the cutting room floor.
That’s with a bunch of exceptions, but one particularly big one. And that is the story of the theological drama that launches the Jewish people into the world. The event that we celebrate this week in the festival of Shavuot. Wwhat I read before from Exodus 19, the story of revelation, the mass revelation, also known as the theophany at Sinai, when all the people from the woodcutters to the water drawers witnessed God revealed on the mountain. And when God gave the Torah to the Israelites.
This story of mass revelation is unique to Jewish tradition. Christianity has stories of momentary revelation, for instance, Paul on the road to Damascus, but tends to view revelation less as a major historical event for Christianity and more as the experience of truth, being known to the world through faith and Christ.
Islam treats revelation as something that comes through the prophets to the world. Judaism alone, I think, has this centerpiece of the narrative it tells about itself. This idea that there was a moment when the entire people saw the sounds. It was so terrifying that they even asked to step back a bit, not to be overwhelmed by it. Moses stands in the literal breach between the people and God, but does not intermediate the covenant struck that fateful day in the wilderness of Horev.
For all its significance, I think revelation sometimes gets a short shrift. I noticed recently that when we say kiddush on Shabbat and festivals, the liturgical prayer sanctifying the day, we harken back to creation, and we mentioned the Exodus from Egypt.
And while we allude to the Torah as the source from which our observance of these festivals derives, like in other parts of the liturgy, we tend to not talk about the act of revelation, all that much. The German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig describes these great moments as a kind of history of the divine human relationship, creation, revelation and redemption. But sometimes I feel that we skip over the revelation part.
Maybe it’s just too hard to think about. Even in the most famous observance of Shavuot, the practice called a Tikun, where a lot of folks stay up all night to study Torah, a practice which seems to have originated in the 16th century, our imitating the moment of receiving the Torah is more about the substance of the Torah than the experience.
It’s like a mystical practice that’s been rendered into total rationalism. Moreover, many of our rabbinic texts that try to process what it means to imagine a moment of mass revelation really struggled to do so. And not surprisingly. You know, if it was just a limited historical event, something that happened once.
Well, that would undercut its significance. Okay. It was a moment in history, but if it’s a big theological idea, this notion that God was capable of speaking at once to every human being that was present there in an idiom that they could understand. And the idea that all Jews then, and through the future were spiritually present at Sinai.
The idea that revelation at Sinai unites the two big stories of the Jewish people becoming a people. And at the same time, the Jewish people becoming wedded to God, covenantally. Well, that’s a lot to take in. So I can’t fix kiddush, but maybe we can give revelation a little bit of what it’s due, the bare minimum being a single episode of this podcast.
To riff with me on revelation, I’m joined today by Zohar Atkins, a teacher, a poet, a philosopher, an entrepreneur, probably a few other things. Zohar is the founder of a kind of existential institution of Torah called Etz Hasadeh, a fellow here at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He has a DPhil, he has rabbinic ordination, he was a Rhodes scholar, he’s the author of a book of poetry called Nineveh, and he has been described in writing on the internet as the philosopher of Jewish Twitter.
Zohar, thanks for, uh, for learning with me today. And, um, let me start with this, Zohar. What does revelation mean to you as perhaps a historical event or as an ongoing event of theological importance?
Zohar: Wow, that was beautiful. It’s funny you mentioned Franz Rosenzweig, he’s probably my leading light on this topic. Uh, in his Star of Redemption, he thinks of the triad of creation, revelation, and redemption as a kind of universal structure of human conscienceness. And he maps those three dimensions of human and divine interaction onto the banal experience of time itself.
Creation is something that happened in the past, revelation for him is something that happens in the present, and redemption is always something that happens in the future. And so before we get into the specificity of Jewish revelation and Torah, for me, creation is about remembering, revelation is about being open to the moment, and redemption is about hope.
We might hope for different things, remember different things, and be open to different things. But in just this broad structural sense revelation is the present moment as I experience it. Now, what makes Sinai specifically compelling is that it’s an exceptional moment. So there are many moments where the present is happening to us, but fewer moments where we are aware that the present moment is happening. And as you mentioned, revelation is a collective event. And so those moments are even rarer because when you think of a monk in meditation or an artist in a moment of solitude having, uh, an inspiration, those are solitary revelations. Those are moments of presence.
But to have, by some accounts, 600,000 adult males, I guess, you know, 1.2, 1.5 million people gathered around a mountain, all being open to the present moment at the same time. That’s incredible. So without even getting into the content or the substance of revelation, I think just the idea of a moment that brings people to awareness, to a collective awareness, and where the content of that awareness is the awareness itself is a good starting point.
And, um, Rosenzweig has a line, which I know you’re fond of as well, that sort of touches on this Hasidic understanding of revelation. And even before that, uh, it’s, it’s already in rabbinic sources, that the only thing God revealed is the Aleph, the sort of, the glottal stop, the expression of a desire to speak.
And the rest is just what we heard, what we interpolated, um, or a different variation on that, that God said the word Anochi, I am. And the rest is commentary. So we could get into the specifics of that. But for me, revelation is the dialogue between a transcendent realm seeking to make content with humanity and with eminence, and then our response to it, which is actually part of the revelation as well.
Yehuda: There’s a piece of what you described, which I think can be reduced. And I say this not to describe this activity as being something small, but something of what you described as essentially mindfulness, right? The openness to, um, to the inner voice, to an inner voice, to solitude, to peace, to meaning, to presence.
Um, and I’m not really a mindfulness person, but I’m a pluralist. So I, I know a lot and love a lot of mindfulness people, but part of the challenge with revelation as you started to get to at the end is that to treat revelation merely, quote-unquote, as mindfulness, is to take a event of vast theological importance and actually try to approximate it in, in daily life, it’s a kind of chicken soup for the soul, the most significant, um, historical theological event that our tradition tries to describe.
So how do I do both of those things? Right? Because in the voice of trying to approximate revelation is trying to bring a religious experience into my daily life, and that’s really powerful and profound. On the other hand, when you take an event that is, as you described, like so meant to be beyond comprehension and try to pretend that I’m living it is its own kind of idolatry. So how do you toggle between those two kind of stories of revelation that are embedded in how you describe this?
Zohar: That’s a great question. And I don’t have a single answer solution to it. I think we all have to struggle with that in our own local ways, but it’s notable that the Torah is revealed or God reveals God’s self in a desert. Right, shich is an ownerless place. A place that rabbinic sources say was deliberate to ensure that nobody could claim ownership of that experience or that text.
And yet much of the content of Torah, um, only makes sense in the context of the land of Israel with sovereignty and would be kind of a strange thing to have revealed to you in a desert, or in an ownerless place when the thrust of it is here’s how to make a just society. So that might be another way of reframing your question, as how does this sort of this place, which is no place, interact with the very specific content and history that’s about applying something in a unique historical way?
And I think that’s the challenge of every artist is how to wed the specificity of their situation, to the sort of generic universality of, of transcendence itself. I’m a big fan of make a fence around the Torah. So I’m I’m not really into chicken soup for the soul. Uh, if, if the listeners think that that revelation is just mindfulness than I’ve failed in some way. Um, but the second part is the translation of that event, which is beyond language and beyond history into something quite specific and quite particular.
And our tradition about what revelation is, is itself part of revelation. So I think the best way to put it is revelation initiates the conversation between God and the Jewish people. Maybe God has initiated conversations with other peoples. I don’t know as much about that. I’m not a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu. I don’t rule it out, but I know that God has initiated a conversation with, with my people and for it to be a good conversation, we have to respond.
So in that sense, revelation is continuous. It’s the infinite conversation. It’s that desire to always have more to talk about. I think now, also that Hasidic story of the two rabbis who send letters back and forth for years, and finally the messenger, the go-between, opens up the letters and sees that there’s nothing written on them. And so obviously the Torah has a lot of laws, it has a lot of content, it has a lot of specificity. But there’s another part where I feel like maybe that is less important than just the act of exchange, which is the relationship itself.
And so I think on Shavuot specifically, we celebrate the initiation of that relationship. Sure there were other moments of relationship prior, God taking the people out of slavery was, was certainly in exchange. But I think revelation begins a process where we are equal partners in that exchange. And not just, uh, let’s say infants to use the rabbinic metaphor or even the biblical metaphor who are totally dependent upon God.
So to get a little bit more specific, revelation has a written Torah and it has an oral Torah. And I think the written Torah, this is my homage to Rosenzweig. The written Torah is the part of the tradition that’s fixed. And the oral Torah is where it lives. And you can’t have the one without the other. So on the one hand, this revelation took place at Sinai, or so we say, in that sense, there’s a fixed element. It had coordinates, like there was a meetup, a Google calendar was, uh, was set, you know, meet me here in three days. So we went there, you know, that’s all fixed.
But in terms of what revelation is, like, look around at the plurality of ways that people celebrate Shavuot, and find meaning in being Jewish. That’s the legacy of that.
Yehuda: I love this idea of, uh, the beginning of a dialogue with the divine. What’s powerful about it is is that obviously God is in dialogue through the Hebrew Bible before Exodus 19, with individuals. With Abraham, certainly with the other forefathers, with Noah, with Adam, and then with Moses.
But this is the beginning of a, of a larger scale conversation, a public rendering of that conversation, a kind of creating of the inevitability of faith among the people who witnessed first the Exodus from Egypt and now the revelation at Sinai. And you’re stipulating, it’s not merely the declaration of presence. It’s actually a totally different kind of invitation to relationship.
So let me ask the, what feels to me the obvious question. This is not a, um, it’s not an equal playing field for any sort of dialogue. Uh, not only because of the power imbalance, right, implied. And the story goes so far to tell us about the power and balance, the absolute abject terror and fear that is struck into the people by witnessing revelation.
The devastation, in fact, you know, one of the strangest pieces that appears after the revelation at Sinai is that they get so overwhelmed by what they see that they, they get hungry. Like something takes over their physical selves that they need to eat and drink. But, um, it’s not just a power problem. It’s also the nature of communication problem. Right? So one of the, um, mystical ideas about how God speaks at Sinai is that God is capable of speaking opposing truths in a single breath.
Shamor V’zachor b’dibur echad, is the most famous rendering of this, that God, because the 10 commandments in Exodus and Dueteronomy have differences between them. One way to resolve that is to say, well, God can utter competing or complementary ideas in the same breath. And we human beings, we, we simply can’t. And so we’re left in this weird place of trying to figure out the relationship between what feels like opposing truths.
How are humans meant to navigate a dialogue with the divine in which the communication structure is is so limited by the vast gap between how God communicates and humans communicate?
Zohar: That’s a great question. Um, just to restate it in a way, um, why would a seemingly perfect God, a God omnipotent, uh, by classical theological understandings choose a medium, so inadequate to clear communication? Uh, I mean, I suppose there are some religious people, Jews, and non Jews, who think that God is quite clear and that we know what we’re, what we’re supposed to do.
And yet, even, even with that mindset, there’s some other group that thinks God is quite clear and we know exactly what we’re supposed to do. And then they fight for hundreds of years and they, and they police the heresies within. So I, I guess, you know, the sheer fact that there’s so much disagreement about what God wants or what this Torah teaches, if you think that God is super intentional about everything, it seems like that baalagan, that chaos is somehow part of the plan rather than our failing at understanding. I think of Maimonides, whose books were burned, uh, you know, shortly after they were published and, and some communities who saw him as a heretic.
And now he’s, he’s part of the Canon. So. Like, why, why does God work this way? Why does revelation seem to be so contentious? My own sort of theodicy on that is it’s from Rav Hutner, the Pached Yitzchak, is something like God loves machloket. God loves disagreement. There’s something about the dignity of each person and of each local community, the DNA of, of humanity being in the divine image that requires this viewpoint diversity.
And so the revelation is in some sense fulfilled precisely by our disagreements, including our disagreements about how to mediate our disagreements, but, uh, that doesn’t mean, you know, every interpretation goes. I do think some interpretations are better than others. And for me personally, I think like what makes Jewish revelation interesting and compelling and binding is some dimension of law and legal culture being the place where this artistry is happening.
Like, I certainly love going to look at a painting or listening to a symphony, but those don’t make a legal claim on me or my community. I think what’s much tougher, and this relates to the power and balance point is like, I don’t have an authoritarian model of God in which the goal is to submit, but nor do I do I think that Liberty is the be all and end all in the religious realm. I think there’s something quite powerful about feeling commanded.
So that maybe the elephant in the room here is like, what do we do with this, the ontology of commandedness, like, is that incidental to revelation as some sort of post emancipated Jews claim, or is the nature of this dialogue also one that has some dimension of, I don’t know if you want to say coercion, but obligation, something that’s there, whether you like it or not. And then you might end up struggling quite a bit as you find yourself, not totally free under that burden.
My answer, and it’s a bit, it’s a bit romantic in a way. Like, I, I feel quite privileged to be able to say what I’m, what’s going to come out of my mouth, but I just think that there are parts of life that are unchosen, whether it’s, you know, who our parents, our grandparents are, any number of things, and sometimes those are oppressive, but most often they’re they provide the basis for meaning and identity.
And I’m willing to say like nine times out of 10 or maybe 99 times out of a hundred, it’s worth struggling with that burden and that inheritance and finding the love and what’s redeemable in it rather than throwing it out and just venerating choice.
So that’s where I put myself in this conversation, but I’m glad to live in a society where people can choose for themselves at the end of the day. I don’t want to live in a theocracy and I don’t think that revelation requires a theocratic instruction. I think what revelation requires is, um, attention or care for the fact that there might be something divine in this, that it isn’t just human. But I, I, I agree with you that power’s a problem.
Yehuda: I mean, I’ll come back to the, the opting in, because that’s a piece of this story also. But, um, if I, if I understood you correctly, what I heard you saying is God lives in machloket. God is defined in part by machloket, by debate, right? As the rabbis understand, machloket is a dispute, and in the most famous versions of these texts, the ideal dispute is one that is for the sake of heaven.
And the notion that God can speak and kind of competing voices is a manifestation of the value of not just complexity, but contradiction as being part of godliness. And then you talked about the ways in which revelations in some way, coerced upon us, um, that we are meant to do that, but I want to ask a different question, which is again about the human response.
Okay. So that’s what God wants. How is a human supposed to do that? Right? How is a person supposed to live? The rabbis asked this question in Talmud Chagiga, 3B. If you sit in a classical Beit Midrash, a house of study, right. It sounds like a beehive. The arguments. And that I think is getting a little bit about your notion of God as machloket, multiple viewpoints coexisting in the same pace, but they ask this pretty deep question, is how am I supposed to live? That’s a great place to hang out, at the foot of Mount Sinai, where God is speaking Shamor v’zachor in one utterance.
Um, how is a person supposed to live? The response of a religious person, it has to be one to some degree of the types of discernment that make you choose between Shamor and Zachor, that make you choose whether this vessel is pure or impure. And it’s in that choice. If God is machloket it’s in that choice, that we, in order to seek some sort of clarity or dissenting to what God is.
So can you play that out? Like, how is a person supposed to hear? And then once I’ve heard and I’ve made sense of something that is more complicated than I can understand in my own mind, how am I supposed to speak back to God’s complexity?
Zohar: I think we are speaking back sort of, no matter what. You mentioned the water carrier and the wood chopper, uh, being there at the mountain. And so right there, one of my favorite texts, which compliments the shamor v’zachor point, is the idea that when God spoke, the Torah was heard in 70 different ways. 70 being kind of the rabbinic number for infinite because there are 70 nations and 70 languages.
So the, the, the total set of possible perspectives was there. So in that sense, right, I don’t I don’t think that one has to try to respond. I think that it’s such a powerful moment that we just, we do have a response, like um, I think about this poet Charles Bernstein, who says like, sort of I’m as Jewish as like the feeling of a belly flop from this six stories off of a, you know, a hotel in Fort Lauderdale.
Like, it’s not like you don’t choose that feeling of the belly flop like that, just, you know, so, and that’s, right, and that goes back to the God putting the mountain over our heads, this sort of unchosen aspect of being Jewish. Like you’re responding, whether you respond or not, you’re responsible. Um, but in terms of how would you cultivate an authentic response and a translation?
I mean, I think the traditional answer is something like study. Aseh lecha rav. Make for yourself a teacher and knei lecha chaver, find for yourself a conversation partner and, um, you know, ideally a, a community as well. But it’s interesting that in that text, it doesn’t say make for yourself a community. It actually says um, havei goleh l’makom torah somewhere else, which is complicated, you know, exile yourself to a place of Torah.
So right. There might be some aspect of this that requires shutting out certain parts of the world or worldliness. Though I don’t, I don’t think the goal is ascetic, but yeah, I think being invested in that very question of how do you respond is probably you know, one of the parts of responding.
But we’re not only a religion of study, we’re a religion of, of practice. Even though rabbinic sources say that talmud Torah k’neged kulam, that sort of, Torah has a kind of infinite value relative to other deeds. Um, I think I’m sort of, of the view that each person has their mitzvah or their, their specific thing that speaks to them that they’re put on earth to amplify and to sort of hallow and bring their unique, uh, divine image perspective to.
So I guess I’m a mushy post-modernist, and that I think sort of finding your truth, finding your voice is not incompatible with participating in tradition. I think tradition gives you like a vast array of material to work with and you sort through it, and then you find the things to emphasize, and that’s not cherry-picking, that’s beatification.
Yehuda: I’m comfortable, religiously, so far with what you’re describing as, build community, study Torah. Right. Um, I like that.Tthere is a whole other voice in the history of interpretation of revelation within our tradition, which says no, revelation suggests a portal that exists between the human realm and the divine realm.
Something about Exodus 19 reminds me of Genesis 1, right? Where the upper waters meet the lower waters. And there is some space in between, where the spirit of God is hovering on the waters, right, ruach elohim mirachephet al pnei hamayim. The same suggestion of the terms of, uh, of the image of the revelation at Sinai that God actually descends on the mountain.
And if that’s possible in a moment in history, then maybe the responsibility for humans is to go on a deep mystical quest to be able to reacquaint themselves with the divine. That’s a huge part of our tradition, the mystical tradition, is not purely about the kind of rational activity of Torah study, um, or lived life of Jewish practice.
It’s actually going on what the rabbis described as a treacherous journey to discover the divine. Where does that fit in into the story?
Zohar: It seems to me to describe life. Um, isn’t, for me, life is, is, is not always treacherous, but it’s certainly a journey to, to discover the question of like, why am I here? And, uh, I, I very much resonate with what you just described. And I think it’s incredibly important. So I’m a pluralist as to those sort of modes where we can find God unsurprisingly.
I think, you know, you can find God, when visiting the sick, you can find God when, uh, working at a, at a company that you find to be mission-aligned, you can, you know, find God in, in feeding your kids. Like there’s an infinite, uh, you can find God at shul. You can even find God at kiddush. Um, there’s an infinite number of ways to find God.
I think though, what, what does make the biblical texts kind of a crazy benchmark is just the magnitude of it. Like how many moments in our life are really taking place in giant crowds of people at such an intense level of national experience. I suppose some people experienced that at MetLife stadium, you know, celebrating Daf Yami every seven years.
Or people feel that at the Kotel, uh, or, or, you know, in certain national context in Israel, but day to day for most of us, I think it’s much more humble. There’s different ways to understand kind of how that relates to this mountain thing, but I’ll give one crack at it, which is we don’t live in, we don’t live in a temple context anymore.
We live in exile. And so part of what exile means is that there’s sort of less boldness and certainty to revelation. The community has less cohesiveness. Maybe it never did, but we get shards of revelation. We get shards of community. We get shards of national consciousness, but we’re sort of more dispersed.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it just means that like the rabbis say that sleep is a 60th of death and dreams are a 60th of prophecy. So perhaps we do ourselves a disservice in trying to reenact Sinai. And we should just accept that if we can get a 60th of Sinai, like that’s pretty darn good.
Yehuda: I’m gonna tell you what I struggle with about this right. Of the experience of godliness. Or what is reported as the experience of godliness, whether it’s in a crowd, Wembley stadium, on top of a mountain, I guess I understand why we want that. I understand that when we experience something that feels transcendent, we look for the vocabulary that helps us to describe as something beyond our cognitive abilities to describe.
And that feels like it’s the placing of God. I will say three years ago, our family went on a family trip to Costa Rica and we did a zip line and there like, you know, whatever it was, a thousand feet above the ground. I had a moment where I was like, the only thing I could think of doing was praying. Not because I was nervous.
It was praying out of a sense of unbelievable awe and I got to say, it feels very self-satisfying to describe that as having any theological significance. It feels like a means of placing God into just the limits of language, or I dunno, it, it actually feels like it reduces God to that which I can only discover once I’m past my ability to describe anything.
So, something bothers me about it. Doesn’t seem to bother you as much.
Zohar: No, I mean, when you put it like that, it bothers me a little bit because I think I know where your angst is coming from. I, I experienced it a little bit too. I think it’s something like the commodification of religious experience. Like, you know, I went to shul or I went to yoga or soul cycle or whatever, and I had a great time and look at me, I’m like, I’m such a pious person. And it’s like,
Yehuda: I saw God.
Zohar: um, but yeah, I think I do have a rebuttal, which is maybe not a good philosophical one, but it’s something like, who are you to experience God, but who are you not to? Like as Wallace Stevens says, God is in me or else it’s not at all. And I think that that does get taken to an extreme. In the culture and maybe we need to, we need more of Maimonides to sort of, uh, to check our, our narcissistic tendency to deify ourselves.
But I’m also comfortable with the idea that it’s not really a binary. So the fact that we run the risk of self-aggrandizement doesn’t mean that we should deny ourselves genuine religious experience or epiphany. I think also like there’s something very intangible about these experiences where inevitably it becomes a kind of embarrassment because in a culture where you want to measure everything, so you’re like, well, what did you do with that? Like, what’s the cash value?
And then you say, well, it made me a more compassionate person. You’re like really did it? Show me your metrics. Like, do you actually have evidence that you’re like better to your spouse or, or do, you know? It’s just a nice thing to say so. Right.
But I, in a sense, I think that that critique is already in religion also. Like that’s what the prophets are constantly railing against, you know, when they go after the sacrifices and there’s machloket about how to read those tough passages in Isaiah and Emes, are they saying sacrifices don’t matter? Translate it into what you just described, that the zip-lining experience was bupkis or are they saying like, no, sure, zip line, you know, have, have your experience, but don’t think that that’s the be all and end all, like, that’s fine. That’s a thing that happens, but that’s not what religion is exclusively or even primarily about like, that’s the beginning you know, what’s the follow-up.
Yehuda: Where’s the payload? How does that actually bring God into the world? I mean, maybe that’s the place. Cause there’s also a part of me that recognizes, even my own instinct towards pluralism. My belief in pluralism, is the need to recognize that other people’s religious experiences are actually authentic.
You cannot rationalize away someone else’s religious experience. My favorite text on this is a piece by Wayne Proudfoot in his book Religious Experience where he says, when a scholar, when a historian tries to describe religious experience, they are really limited by the fact of their own perspective and their own vocabulary.
And his example is, you know, when a man is walking in the woods and he sees a bear and he is terrified at the experience of seeing the bear. So let’s say you’re watching this take place and you know that the person has not actually run into a bear or they’ve seen a fallen log. If you’re going to describe what that person’s actually experiencing, it’s not fear of a log that they thought was a bear. It’s actually fear of a bear.
And you have to be willing to enter into the mindset of what, like the, the genuine sense of awesomeness, of fear, of terror that is encountered by a human being when they see a bear. So part of the challenge for the third party in any particular moment is not to say no, you didn’t have an awesome experience on a cliff. You just had a stomach ache or you had vertigo.
It’s actually to try to figure out how do I understand that what someone else experiences as a glimpse of the divine may in fact be a glimpse of the divine that I’m simply incapable of witnessing outside of the framework of that person’s experience.
Zohar: That’s a fascinating example because this will say a lot about me, but my immediate reaction to that mashal, that, that parable was, what makes the observer think that his perception of that situation is any different than the perception of the person who mistakes the log for a bear. Like I always feel this way when I read social scientists, it’s like, dude, you’re also a person in the world and you’re writing in this mode of the observer as if you’re totally disconnected from the things you’re observing.
So, you know, I admire the attempt to be more scientific or objective, but I think when it comes to phenomena like spirituality, it’s just, it’s rabbit and duck, and you have to, you have to be there and you have to let yourself be there or you, you don’t get it. And that’s, that’s tough, right?
Because, and that can be abused also, right? Cause like the same thing that that very line can be used by cult leaders to sort of self justify and people running all kinds of bubbles and Ponzi schemes. It’s like, well, you, you have to buy in in order to know what it is. So I agree. I think that that’s a problem.
But I’m not sure we can get out of that because the fundamental point of naaseh v’nishma, that some things just really require commitment. You have to go through that portal and try it on, and you’re not going to know what the thing is by just looking from the outside, analyzing it as if it’s just a, you know, an object.
Yehuda: What do you say to the people who feel, not that they don’t want to do what you’re asking them to do, but who feel as though the door is closed to them. So the classic example in rabbinic tradition is that there are a handful of sages who exit and who say I couldn’t. I heard from beyond the partition that I was excluded. I’m left out of this story.
Which I think approximates the human story of people who say, it’s not that I’m choosing out. It’s just that I’ve been chosen out. Or even in the text that we read, right? The, in, right before the revelation at Sinai, it says to the full nation don’t approach your wives, don’t go near your wives, which essentially is, there will be a lot of people throughout Jewish history, roughly half, who will read this story and say, is this speaking to me?
Is this actually an invitation to all of us to engage in this? Or do I have, is it really fair to ask some people to transcend the boundaries that are placed before them to be part of this when others are invited directly in? How do you teach towards that knowing that there are going to be people who experienced these kinds of obstacles?
Zohar: That’s another fantastic question. I would want to disambiguate like different categories of, of sort of those who feel like outsiders. Um, because in the case of the women that you described, I think that’s a case of people who just haven’t been invited in. So I would want to invite the disinvited in.
Whereas the case of the person who leaves, I imagine that person says I’ve been in and I didn’t like what I experienced. So I think those are different cases. You might say the one who didn’t get on the derech at all, who wasn’t on the path, because the path, it didn’t have a sign saying welcome. And a one who was well was formerly welcomed on the path, but felt that the path was off putting.
I mean, to the person who wants out, I, I just have a lot of compassion. And I also, I can’t know that person’s experience. So I don’t feel like I want to draw them back in and say, you know, here are the reasons why you’re wrong. Um, cause I think that their experience is right, but I feel sad, deeply sad for them that when they think of tradition, that’s it makes them want to run away because I’ve had the opposite experience.
And so I think I can be a witness for my experience. I can say, well, you know, this is my experience, that’s yours. And if some people see my experience and there’ll be inspired and other people say, well, you know, he didn’t even grow up in this kind of community. So that’s why he feels this way. I grew up in a secular town, going to public schools, where for me it was a joy to get any exposure to Judaism.
It was like a differentiator from suburban assimilation that made me feel like, wow, there’s actually something here to modern life that’s special. I guess if, if you growing up and, and it’s all the norm, Jewish observance is all the norm, maybe it becomes banal and so there’s a danger there. I don’t have a good sociological answer to that problem.
I think you know, retzo v’shov, like some angels go up the ladder, some climb down, some people are coming in, some people are coming out. There’s a certain dynamic that we have to accept to this. And going back to machloket l’shem shamayim. So most people won’t be comfortable with what I’m going to say, but I’m willing to include like the heretic in that mahloket l’shem shamayim and sort of say in the macro sweep of Jewish history, we just don’t know how humanity will be benefited from these micro choices that hurt families and hurt communities on the individual level.
So I kind of trust the process. Maybe that’s naive. Um, I try not to judge too much, but at the same time, when I meet people, especially of an older generation who are just sort of knee-jerk secular, they’re atheistic and, you know, rationalistic, and they think like religion is just sort of toxic. And particularism is toxic. I have a lot of sadness that that’s their relationship to Judaism and I hope I can be part of some kind of micro cultural change that can make other experiences of Judaism available so that that’s not the tendency.
But maybe in Hegel’s telling like this is just part of the dialectic. I was born in my age where the Owl of Minerva took flight in a different way than, you know, in a previous age.
Yehuda: I think I find your bumper sticker by the way. Right. Which is revelation, colon, trust the process. Um, wait, so, so let me ask you a different piece of this, which is, you know, for all of the majesty of Exodus 19, one of the big lessons of the Torah about, about the revelation at Sinai is that it ends in heartbreak.
It ends in failure. The Israelites do not absorb God’s message, or maybe they consume so much of it that they vomit it out. Right. They immediately after, the story of the revelation at Sinai, while, while God is still in this kind of semi erotic embraced with the divine, separate from the people Israel, they commit idolatry.
They cannot, they can’t hold on to that feeling of simultaneously intimacy with the divine and the recognition that God’s going to stay on top of the mountain, as opposed to being in the camp of Israel, they build a replica, uh, in the form of the golden calf. They suffer thousands of deaths because of it.
The story ends in heartbreak and you kind of wonder whether the story is told in order to signal human frailty in this process of revelation, in order to tell us that as aspirational as this story might be, it’s just fraught, based on our own limitations. How, so are we meant to repair the failure of the original revelation or are we meant to understand that it’s an built in element of what it means to try to be in relationship with the divine?
Zohar: So the, the evasive answers both. I mean, I found that to be very, I found the idea that it’s built in to be very compelling. And I also really believe in agency and, um, and the sort of an aspirational model that we can try to learn from our mistakes and improve upon them.
This may be over reading the Bible a little bit, but I’m of the view that one of the great sort of teachings of Torah is the importance of teshuvah. And that that’s sort of climatically announced with the sin that David commits when he kills Auria and takes a Bathsheba as his wife, from whom he then gets Solomon, the wisest king, because the prophet confronts him, says you were wrong. And he says, you’re right. I’m sorry. You know, I sinned.
And I just, that, like that story does give me chills. Cause I just think of all the Kings throughout history who never say sorry, and who don’t have any reason to. And just the idea that a king would listen to a prophet. It seems utopian, but I think that’s kind of the model is the beloved king David whose name means beloved isn’t beloved because he’s necessarily morally superior to other Kings. Power does corrupt. But even just listening to the prophet, taking critical feedback when you’re in the position of such power, seems like such a tremendous feat.
So as it relates to the idolatry and revelation point, I think, yeah, like the story occurred so that as a teaching, which is, revelation isn’t about getting it right the first time it’s about getting it right the second time. Moses shatters the first tablets and then rewrites them again.
And so I think that very much, um, this sort of part of the infinite conversation is the idea of the second chance that conversation is a, it’s a safe space. You can say the wrong thing and that person can say, God can say ouch. And then we can say, oops.
Yehuda: You know, it’s, um, the rabbis’ version of answering this question right, is that Purim is the antidote to Shavuot, which is, Purim is the age of divine absence. And that when the Jews say in the Megilla, uh, where it says kimu v’kiblu, they stood up and received the message that Esther had sent. Doing that in a period of divine absence was reclaiming agency in a relationship with God where God tried to force the covenant onto the Israelites in the wilderness, rabbis have a serious critique of that held the mountain top over their head, like a tub.
And instead Purim is the moment where we say, we decide to claim our responsibility in this covenant, not because we’re forced to, but because we choose to. Which has tremendous resonance for the 20th and 21st century, of periods of a sense of the rupture of covenant and a decision to opt into it.
But that means that the punchline of a story of revelation, which is in some ways, coercive is actually do we want it? It’s ultimately up to us. You know, one of the lessons maybe of the golden calf story. It’s kind of like take it or leave it. And we want it. We, ideally you’re supposed to take it, but you kind of have the ability not to.
Zohar: I agree with that frame and I have a slightly different way of, of reconciling those two paradigms of Sinai and Purim, which is, it just doesn’t make a lot of practical or psychological sense to doubt your choices in every single moment. So like day to day, you have your habits and you do them.
In that sense, that’s the unchosen Torah, that’s Sinai, that’s what Heidegger calls your throneness. You do it because you do it. And then there are moments, rare moments, moments of crisis, where you doubt your choices and you say, do I really have to do this? Maybe I can change my habit.
But I don’t think the second moment is better than the first. I see them as kind of working in tandem and most things have to be anchored, have to be fixed, so that other things can show up as variables. So, you know, maybe a person decides, you know, I’m going to start exercising, but they don’t decide I’m going to start exercising and dieting and praying three times a day and taking out the recycling every morning, like they choose one and then work up to it.
So I’m comfortable with the idea that there’s a Sinai part of our lives. Maybe the, the biggest part of our lives actually does fit the paradigm of a mountain over our head. It’s unchosen and it’s autopilot, it’s default, whether it’s inherited through parents or culture or just through our own habit. And then occasionally we are granted moments of, of genuine change and we should be thankful for both.
Yehuda: Last quick questions. You’ve been very generous with your time. I usually call it the lightning round, but this time we’ll call it a thunder and lightening round in honor of the Torah reading. So um, I’m teaching about this on Shavuot. I’m teaching about what David Hartman calls covenantal anthropology. The question of in the covenant, who are human beings supposed to be? A little bit of on the, some of these texts that we’ve talked about of the covenantal responsibility falling on humans and what that means.
It’s a wild piece of Talmud that I studied with our colleague, Dr. Sarah Wolf on God’s tefillin. What does God have in God’s tefillin? What are you, either, if you’re teaching on Shavuot, what are you teaching? If you’re not teaching, what might you be studying? And if you’re not studying, what are you thinking about? Last piece of Torah for Shavuot, for our people.
Zohar: This is kind of a strange answer, but one text that I learned last Shavuot that I think I want to return to is this competition between the different letters of the Hebrew alphabet and their desire to open the Torah. And just this question of why does bet open the Torah and Aleph get displaced to the opening of revelation?
So I think the answers to those letters are interesting and there’s something psychologically interesting in there because, obviously we’re personifying them about who’s in and who’s out and who’s centered, and what does it mean to be favored versus marginal, because as you suggested earlier, like maybe we’re all at the mountain, but some people had front row seats and some people were in the back, you know, schmoozing or, or feeling like this is a bit boring, you know, the rabbis said he was going to talk for five minutes. He’s been on for three days.
Zohar: Um. So I want to go back to those letters and, and think about what it means to be empowered versus diminished and the, the strange, maybe subversive way in which rabbinic sources who are grappling with their own disempowerment historically give power to the things which you might perceive on first look to be powerless.
Yehuda: Okay. Cheesecake or blintzes?
Yehuda: Cheesecake. Yeah, me too. Anyway, Zohar, thank you so much for, uh, for being on the show today and for both learning Torah with me and with our listeners and giving us some language to access what is on one hand, as I said at the beginning, a little bit of a lost story in some of the kind of contemporary religious vocabulary of Judaism, but also I think one of the deepest holidays that we have on our calendar.
And thanks to all of you for listening to our show.
Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shelhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at shalomhartman.org.
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