Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shavuot

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Shavuot 5759/1999

On Hearing the Voice of G-d

Dr. Tamar Ross

Dept. of Jewish Philosophy

The theophany at Mount Sinai is held to be the most central event in the collective memory of the Jewish people. Yet many also relate to the biblical description of that event as a sublime and mysterious experience that should not be approached too closely; any detailed examination of the mechanism of divine revelation they see as illegitimate in terms of faith. But since our tradition seeks to report to us an actual happening, others challenge how one could possibly call those questions that seek to clarify the historical kernel of that description a violation of the holy-- how G-d spoke with human beings and how His voice was heard. For those who raise these questions, it seems that precisely the answers to them can bring them closer to belief and revitalize their attitude toward that momentous event.

Comparing divine revelation to the situation of "a scribe who is summoned and records all the annals, stories and commandments" (Maimonides, the eighth of his thirteen principle of the faith) is essential for transmitting the message that every word in the Torah has an equal measure of absolute sanctity. Therefore this imagery rightfully won such wide currency in Jewish tradition. Yet it is clear that literally receiving divine revelation demands an apparatus of communication far more complex than that required for taking simple human dictation, and indeed this understanding is part of every exegetical discussion of the subject. In these discussions we can perceive a lengthy process of attempting to distance the concept of revelation from being too closely associated with an image of G-d who has vocal cords, while acknowledging that those who heard the voice also have an essential role in shaping the nature of this message.

The desire to avoid the shortcoming of anthropomorphism inherent in the notion of a G-d who speaks led several medieval Jewish thinkers (Saadiah Gaon, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Judah Halevi) to suggest that the "voice of G-d" was not actually the voice of the Holy One, blessed be He, but a voice specially created by Him to go between Him and His prophet. In their opinion this voice should not be viewed as the external voice we hear in human speech. Maimonides viewed prophecy as the highest attainable level of perfection of the intellect, by means of which human beings arrive at the necessary conclusions that stem from the existence of G-d. Whether Maimonides believed the concept of a "created voice" (which he also used, but called one of the "hidden elements in the Torah") was an external voice in the everyday sense, or whether he saw it as a spiritual experience (=active intellect) is a subject of controversy among commentators on his works.

Taking another approach, various midrashim relate to the divine message being tailored from the outset to the ability of the hearers to receive it. At least one source (Exodus Rabbah, ch. 16) hints at the possibility that under certain special circumstances the "word of G-d" can be understoood as retroactive confirmation of human statements independently formulated. This idea is supported by Talmudic traditions relating to the existence of sacred scrolls among the people prior to the theophany at Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook considered the possibility that external cultural and historical circumstances as well have an impact on the way in which the divine message is voiced by the prophet.

One of the hallmarks of modern thought is its heightened sensitivity to the decisive influence that a person's prior learning has on the way that person defines the significance of the stimuli he or she receives. Therefore the idea of revelation with which the contemporary person feels most comfortable might well be one which makes revelation dependent on the ability of the prophet to discern that G-d is addressing him in words. Prophets are those individuals capable of hearing--beyond the physicality of their individual auditory apparatus--the voice of G-d, which transcends speech and transcends temporally dependent expressions. The prophetic ability to discern G-d as speaking is the most sublime notion of divine existence comprehensible by the human being.

R. Tzadok ha-Cohen (an important hassidic thinker from the late 19th century) took this line of thought one step further. In his book, Resisei Lailah (sect. 13; cf. also Sihot Mal'akhei ha-Sharet 31b and Divrei Sofrim 21a), he notes that in Tractate Sanhedrin the gemara teaches us that prophecy terminated at the end of the First Temple period. Likewise, Tractate Yoma says that the appeal of paganism vanished during the same period. R. Tzadok draws a connection between these two traditions as follows: every great deficiency has the potential for a parallel benefit (or as he put it: whatever has in it a great deficiency is also a vehicle for far-reaching change, if one is worthy of it). Paganism, despite the gross anthropomorphism and its cruel and debased morality, enabled its followers to sense the divine presence with a certain immediacy. Precisely the pristine emotional fervor found in primitive religions, that is not bound up with sophisticated theological and moral ideas, made it easier to directly communicate with G-d.

As Greek and Roman culture made their mark on the ancient world, the supernatural elements of paganism waned and made way for more scientific and philosophical outlooks. This era saw the birth of the principle in Judaism that "the Sage is preferable to the prophet," based on the biblical saying that the Torah "is not in the heavens." Religious consciousness ultimately became clothed in ideological abstraction and the privilege of unmediated access to the divine was taken from the prophets and given "to idiots and babes" alone (Bava Batra 12b).

There can be no doubt that our rationalistic approach makes it difficult for us to accept supernatural divine intervention in the form of verbal messages from heaven. But let us remember that on the literal (peshat) level, at least, the Torah reflects a more ancient culture than ours today. Such a worldview was able to receive the Torah from G-d by such direct means.

The Mishnah (Avot 6,2) says: "Each and every day a divine voice calls out from Mount Horeb..." Will we ever be able to listen and hear this voice anew? R. Tzadok would surely have said that it all depends on our ability to return to a measure of openness to the miraculous, such as existed in the past.

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