On revelation – Kollot, Parashat Yitro

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 18 February 2017

There are three fundamental themes that shape the Israelite narrative that makes up the bible; three core ideas in Israelite, and later in Jewish, self-understanding.

The first big idea in our foundational story is selection, chosenness: that we are special to God, God’s “treasured possession,” as expressed in the particularistic covenantal relationship formed with the very first one of us, Abraham.
Secondly, redemption: that one aspect of the unique relationship is that we are special enough to God to be rescued “on eagles’ wings”, as expressed in the ultimate redemption story, the Exodus from Egypt.
And finally revelation: that God communicates with this special, redeemed people, that divine will is revealed to them.

Classically, revelation is the strongest note in this narrative triad. The purpose of the other two.
We are chosen not just to be but to do – to be a “holy nation”. Obligation comes with our covenantal relationship. We are not just redeemed but redeemed in order that we then receive Torah, redeemed into servitude – not freedom from, but freedom to. Revelation is core to our identity.

Which means that while all three of these ideas are challenging, of the three it’s revelation that we really need to grapple with. What does revelation as a concept mean to us in our religious lives? Do we understand ourselves to be the receivers of divine will (whatever that might mean) and by what mechanism does it come to us?

The section of Torah that we are about to read gives us one model of what revelation might mean. The classical narrative in which revelation takes place at one moment in time, on top of a mountain, with an act of dictation. Torah l’Moshe mi-Sinai – Torah to Moses from Sinai.
It is the description of revelation that Jews have worked with for the last few thousand years; the model that the rabbis who formed Judaism, grappled with, struggled against, but ultimately perpetuated.

But it is not mine.

In fact, my identity as a Progressive Jew is utterly tied up in the fact that this is not how I understand revelation.

There are a number of reasons:
Some of them are about the text itself, recognising that it is not a unity but a collection of documents woven together over time – hence the repetitions, the contradictions, the doublets, the different names for people and places. If you read the text, it is quite evidently not the product of one moment in time, so Sinai as description (rather than, perhaps as metaphor) becomes unsustainable.

More prosaically, mountaintop revelation has always struck me as being the least likely way possible that God would choose to communicate important information. Revelation left to chance; the expression of divine will subject to the risk of corruption, of transmission error. Even if we believe the Sinai narrative (and it’s worth acknowledging that throughout the Jewish world it’s veracity as a description is not widely held), there is enough evidence of textual variation in the history of our text to make it impossible to know exactly which Torah was revealed – which version is God’s will.

But actually my understanding of revelation, rejection of Sinai, is about more than this. It’s something more fundamental. It is about my understanding of the religious life I live.

A model of revelation is really a view of the world and our place in it.

In the Sinai model, we are always moving further away from the summit, further from the pinnacle of relationship, the height of understanding. We are, as it were, always on our way down the mountain.

Sinai feeds a model in rabbinic literature known as Yeridat hadorot – the decline of the generations, the assertion that as we move through history each subsequent generation is less intellectually and spiritually able than the one before. Of course they are, for each is further from that perfect moment at the top of the mountain.

And this defines the sort of religious lives we are destined to lead.
The idea that we move away from Sinai lends itself to an inherent conservatism. It says that later generations do not have the right to innovation or creativity, to be lenient in our decision making, to find new models, new meanings. Our religious life is limited to a role as inheritors of the decisions and interpretations of the past.

And this is not how I understand our role in religious life.

For me, revelation is not something that we move further from, not indeed something that we received (or, indeed, that we continue to receive) but one that we participate in. It is a process of ongoing, progressive (with a small and a big P) grappling and discovery in which we find out more about ourselves, challenge ourselves to refine our religious lives. Ongoing revelation says that our discoveries about ourselves, our new theories, our science, our philosophy, our moral developments are not threats, not subversions, but themselves the discovery of divine will.

The revelation of the past contains spiritual and ethical truths, gifts from the generations before to us, but it also contains social constructs that are clearly of their time – and not of ours. We are allowed to seek to be better.

This, very different, model of revelation says something very different about who we are supposed to be: we have ownership of our religious lives; the lives we lead are not only about preservation of tradition, passing on that which we received, but are lives of challenge and creativity. In this model, authority, and moral responsibility, lie with us, not with the text. We have to make choices about how we must be as part of the process of revelation, not abdicate these to the words on the page.

This is not just about our religious lives, but how we understand the world. Fundamentally, despite all the knocks of the last few months, I believe in progress. There are obstacles and errors – valleys and downslopes to stretch the metaphor – but, I believe that we are constantly on a journey of discovery and refinement, of improvement and struggle.

As we prepare to read the Sinai narrative, there is plenty there in the story for us to engage with. But, for me, what it is not is a description of revelation.

Which is not to say that those big three ideas – selection, redemption and revelation – are not still core to who I am as a Jew. But to recognise that our task, our obligation, as modern Jews – of all denominations – is to reimagine them for ourselves.
For me revelation is not a thing that happened in the past on top of a mountain. The lives we now lead are not a journey down the mountain, away from the pinnacle. Rather, slowly, together, we edge our way upwards, towards the (of course, unreachable) summit of the mountain of human development.