What Really Happened at Sinai?
Henry B. Balser
Conservative Judaism, Vol.XLVII, No.2, Winter 1995, p.64-68
Non-Orthodox Jews are extremely uncomfortable with the question, “What really happened at Sinai?” You cannot ask a question afraid of the answer. Those intrepid souls who have tried to examine the issue have tended to disregard the account given in the book of Exodus and instead imposed their theology on it. For Mordechai Kaplan, revelation by a supernatural God is impossible, so the Sinai event is a mythological event, of little importance to him. Buber asks the question directly in his book Moses. He tries to make sense of the text but admits:
It is precisely when we make the most earnest efforts to establish a reality, a reality consisting of actual facts, that we are possessed by the feeling that the words of the Covenant, the Ten Words could surely not have entered the
world thus, in such optical and acoustical pomp and circumstance; and where the narrative reports them as having them been written on Tablets of Stone, things happen quite differently, in and solitude. We the late-born,
oppressed as we are by the merciless problem of Truth, feel in our own minds a singular echoing of the protest which found its expression in the story of the Revelation at Sinai.
We interpret the text in the light of certain assumptions. We reject the story we are given a priori; it could not have happened that way. But what is this Truth that oppresses us? Of course it is the truth of modern rationalism which assumes that the story left to us by our ancestors could not be true. God cannot be heard in a loud and clear voice. Nor can God be seen. Yet the Torah is very clear that the people heard and saw God. We start with assumptions that make the biblical story impossible, and then we try to interpret that story.
In practical terms, we can pretend that we believe they heard God, and we pretend that the text does not say that they saw God. But hearing God is no more rational, no less anthropomorphic than seeing God. So perhaps our ancestors heard the voice of catholic Israel at Sinai.
I propose taking the experience of our ancestors seriously. Without assuming that we accept the text literally, I would like at least to start with the possibility that the text we have received reflects a real experience. Once we get rid of our modern arrogance, the confidence that we certainly know more about Truth than they could possibly have known, we might be able to be struck with the same sense of God’s presence and have the same awe for God’s appearance that they did.
Modern biblical criticism does not prove anything about the nature of the Sinai event. It may show us that there is more than one source and that it was not all written down at the same time by the same author. But the text tries to tell us a story in which the voice of God was heard and the glory of God was seen.
I am making the following assumptions about the text: What we have is the memory of the event as it was passed down through the generations. I do not assume that the words are all from God. We have the integration of several stories of the event, but they do represent what was reported about a real event. We do not have to interpret the story exactly as they interpreted it, but we do have to take seriously their experience of it. And the heart of that experience is that they heard and saw God.
Is it possible to hear or see God? Or can God be apprehended only intellectually? To answer this question we have to go to Maimonides. According to Maimonides, all the prophets with the exception of Moses used their imaginative faculty in apprehending God’s message. In other words, they saw and heard certain things, but only Moses understood God’s message without the intermediary function of the imagination.
According to Maimonides, Moses had become pure intellect and had ceased to be a body. So he heard no sounds and had no visions. His understanding of God was purely rational. The text, on the other hand, is purely metaphorical when it talks of hearing God’s voice or seeing God’s kavod.
While Maimonides does violence with the text, his defense of the Torah can work within his intellectual framework. He can assert that Moses was the one and only human being to reach the level necessary to apprehend God, and so the Torah is the only form that God’s “word” can take once it is put into human language. Thus, the Torah, while it is written in the language of ordinary human beings, is the only purely divine document that we can possibly have. There is no revelation. Imagination would impose subjectivity and cultural bias on the Torah. Thus, if Muhammad had attained the same level of intellect and prophecy that Moses had, the Quran would have had the same commandments as the Torah. The only difference would be that the Quran would be written in Arabic for the benefit of its audience.
Maimonides assumes that God is pure intellect and can be apprehended, to the extent that it is possible, purely intellectually Words and pictures distort God. Intellect is totally objective, while imagination is subjective. But if we were to talk to God as pure consciousnrss, we might conclude that the rational faculty and the imaginative faculty are both avenues to apprehending God. Neither is purely objective and neither is totally subjective either. (A deconstructionist might say that everything is subjective. A modern Marxist might say that everything is based in class, gender, culture, and race bias. But I will assume that we are not fully in these camps.)
One of the most profound developments that has come from modern physics is the acknowledgement that there is no such thing as pure objectivity The Heisenherg Principle asserts that the observer always affects that which is observed. This does not mean that there is no truth in the observation, but it does mean that the observer is part of the picture or equation. This concept has been extended into other intellectual endeavors. The historian and social scientist, as well as the scholar of literature, must now be aware that they view the subject matter or the text from a particular vantage point.
We cannot maintain today that Moses was a totally unbiased, nonsubjective receiver of God’s message. There is no such thing. The cultural relativist will maintain that Moses was a product of his time and culture, and the Torah and the commandments are only artifacts of that time and culture. They therefore have no divine mandate. We assert, however, that it is possible for a limited human being, who speaks a particular language and is grounded in a particular society and time, to reach out and perceive God’s will, even though the perception will be influenced by who that person is.
Why should a rational perception of God’s will be preferable to an imaginative perception involving sights and sounds? If reason inevitably has an element of subjectivity in it, can we not assume that imagination has an element of objective truth in it? Is a Mozart symphony a purely subjective creation or does it contain elements of divine revelation? Would a painting by Rembrandt or Picasso be a more immediate way of expressing a truth from God than would be a logical train of thought?
Even Maimonides asserted that prophecy involved a flow that could be called superrational, in that it is above and beyond the limits of human language. Maimonides makes the assumption that any translation of the flow into the imagination faculty is necessarily a distortion Only Moses gets the message in a totally undistorted fashion. Today we must describe prophecy as the touching of the human consciousness by the pure consciousness which is God. Then, if we can avoid prejudging the relative merit of the internal dialogue which we call reason and the hearing of sounds and the seeing of visions, We come closer to understanding prophecy in genera] and Sinai in particular.
When consciousness flows from God to humans, we experience a bifurcation into reason and imagination. This, to a large degree, parallels the division in our brains into right and left hemispheres. Consciousness is not simply a product of the brain and its functions. The brain and its functions enable humans to tap into consciousness, but consciousness comes from God and returns to God. It is the rational faculty that reaches out from the human experience and drives us to seek the truth. It is the imaginative-creative faculty that allows us to tune into God.
When the flow of consciousness comes from God to the prophet, it splits into thoughts and immediate experiences and sensations. The two together make up the whole of the revelation. The rational side evaluates the experience: It questions whether this is truly from God; it attempts to filter out that which is not God. The imaginative side experiences it directly. If the critical side is totally dominant, we do not experience God at all. Indeed, we may question if there is a God or there can be revelation. If the imaginative side is dominant, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the real from the unreal, that which is from God and that which comes from other sources.
Let me share with you an experience I once had lying in bed as I was drifting off to sleep. I found myself on the boundary between dreaming consciousness and waking consciousness. For a short while I was able to control the process and move back and forth between being awake and being asleep. I could see a thought turn into a picture and then reverse the process. The thought and the picture were two forms of the same thing. It was a startling experience. Neither was more true than the other. One was a critical rational experience, the other was a direct imaginative experience. If the only experiences that are real are those that are critical and rational, then we are truly oppressed and incapable of an active engagement with the consciousness that is around us. If we are incapable of critical distance, then we are imprisoned by our immediate sensations, which may or may not correspond to external reality.
Kaplan and Buber were both “oppressed … by the merciless problem of truth.” For Kaplan there is no consciousness beyond that which is in nature, so Sinai did not happen. For Buber, God’s consciousness does not translate into words, thoughts, pictures, or sounds. We, however, may not have to be oppressed by rational Truth as it is perceived by Kaplan and Buber. For those who are oppressed by the Truth, the biblical story at Sinai is either an invention of later generations or a hallucination.
This is the critical juncture for the non-Orthodox Jew. Is there really such a thing as prophecy? Did Sinai really happen? I have absolutely no reason to discredit the account passed down to us and preserved in the biblical record. The fact that the text has different versions of the experience does not trouble me. What we have is the event as our ancestors experienced it and passed on to the next generations.
Thus there was a group of escaped slaves who experienced their freedom from bondage as coming from God. At Sinai they encountered their God. He spoke to them. They heard Him and saw Him. Our rational faculty asks: Was what they heard truly the voice of God? Was what they saw truly the Glory of God? But if our rational faculty can be convinced that the imaginative faculty has its own way of perceiving truth, then we can begin to accept that they “heard” God and “Saw” God, not as we see the physical objects of the world, but as best as they could perceive, given their human limitations. What they saw and heard was God-as-Israel-sees-and-hears-Him.
We cannot separate the God of Israel from our experience of Him. Similarly, I cannot separate my wife and my children from my experiences of them. Surely they exist apart from me, but I cannot know them as they are totally apart from me. My feelings, needs, and understandings necessarily color my view of who they are. So God’s speech cannot be separated from our understanding of it. God’s appearance cannot be separated from our vision of it. Was it a hallucination? The people present certainly did not experience it as such. They were certainly critical of the appearances of other gods. In judging it, all we can say with our rational faculty is that we have an experience of God, one that we can reexperience in the life we live as Jews. On Pesah we are back in Egypt. On Shavuot we stand at Sinai. On Shabbat we stand both at Sinai and in Egypt. As we reexperience, not as nostalgia and not as a long dead story but as a living event, then we know that what happened was real and powerful.
Possessing critical reason, we understand that we can testify only to what our people experienced at the Exodus and at Sinai. That is our gateway God. It is true for us. When I say that, I do not mean that it is just a subjective experience that is true only for us. It is true for us because we can verify it as an authoritative experience. We then try to bring its truth into the world by our action, our mitzvot, and our testimony. Our job is to make the world into the image of our revelation. It then begins to ring true to others as the way the world ought to be.
Meanwhile, other groups have had their own experiences of God. Muslims have Muhammad and the Quran as their gateway. Christians have Jesus and his resurrection. I have no personal way to verify the veracity of their claims except by the witness of their experience. I also cannot attack the veracity of their relationship with God. I can only judge where their revelations may conflict with the truth of our experience. I start with truth of our revelation.
For modernists, for people whose world-view was framed by the idea that there exists an objective reality whose nature can be deciphered only by our rational intellect, Sinai remains a metaphor, a mythological event, or a hallucination. But if we assume that human beings grope for truth both through their intellect and with their creativity and imagination, them we have to acknowledge that the revelation at Sinai is as real as any other event, probably more so. It really happened. And our ancestors saw and heard God.
Henry B. Raiser is Rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg, Manttoba.