Thoughts to Ponder Number 48
4 Sivan, 5760; June 7, 2000

Shavuoth and Combustibility

One of the most challenging aspects of religious life is how to relate to the concept of revelation. The uncompromising claim by Judaism that the Torah is not a book which was written by man but the result of a revelation of God's will to man requires a formidable amount of faith in the face of so much skepticism and secularity.

Over the last few hundred years, a major argument has erupted concerning the divinity of the text of the Torah. Since the days of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico Politicus (17th century) we have witnessed a great amount of Bible scholars who have dissected the Torah in every way possible, concluding that the Jewish claim of its divinity is unfounded and farfetched.

Religious scholars over the many years have, of course, responded with heavy artillery. Profound papers have been written in which it has been shown that Spinoza's and others' arguments were mistaken and often lacked intellectual objectivity. (1) In our days, a sincere but problematic attempt has been made by some mathematicians and Jewish outreach programs to prove the Torah's divinity with the introduction of the "Torah codes" which presumably are found within the biblical text.

Still, the question needs to be raised if this is the right approach. If, as Judaism maintains, the Torah is indeed the ultimate divine word, is it at all possible or even advisable to take a somehow "academic" approach to verify its divinity? Would not the fact that it is divine make it totally unreceptive to academic scrutiny and proof? Is this not similar to trying to study organic matter with the accepted criteria used by scientists when studying inorganic phenomena? On top of this, scholars and outreach programs should ask themselves if they are not violating the prohibition not to "try the Lord" when they look for definite proofs. (See Shemoth, 17:7)

So how, we should ask, should we deal with the claim that this text is indeed of divine origin? If, indeed, it is beyond the capacity of proof, what then are the ways to grasp its divinity? Why are we not as convinced as our forefathers were? Is this due to the fact that we are more intellectually sophisticated than they were? Many of us may have opted for this opinion, but we should ask ourselves if we are not guilty of self-deception.

Rabbi Yacov Zvi of Mecklenburg (1785-1865), in his monumental work "Ha-Ketav ve-Ha-Kabbalah," seems to touch on this problem. Commenting on the quality of the revelation at Sinai and quoting the verse: "And the appearance of the glory of God was like a consuming fire (Aish Ocheleth) on the summit of the mountain before the eyes of the Children of Israel." (Shemoth 24:17), the venerable rabbi asks what is meant by the expression "a consuming fire?" Does this not indicate a destructive force? Why not just say that God is like fire?

Reminding us of the fact that at Sinai, the whole of Israel had risen to the level of prophecy just after they had lived in misery and spiritual slavery, he continues: "The truth is that the people of Israel were not all equal in their spiritual level. And they did not see or perceive the same kind of revelation at Sinai. Rather, each one was only able to receive this revelational experience in accordance with the spiritual condition of his soul. Every Jew saw something, but what he experienced was directly proportional to the preparation he had put into it. When a person was less prepared he only experienced a minimal level of revelation at Sinai. And the one who prepared more received more." And this is the meaning of a "consuming fire." He goes on, "The perception of God's greatness is exactly the same as the way fire takes holds of various objects. There are items which are by nature combustible. And when you touch them with a flame they produce an enormous fire. But, there are other items which when you put a flame to them nothing will happen, they remain immune. Just like nature has made certain materials receptive to fire, so it is with the Sinai revelation."

A flame grows higher or lower depending on the combustibility of the fuel. So it is with the Jew and with all people. The receptivity of the Jew towards the divinity of Torah is proportional to the preparation he put into it. We would suggest that the reason why we are confronted with so much skepticism concerning the Torah's divinity in our days is not at all dependent on intellectual sophistication but on the lack of the receptivity, acquired through spiritual labor, to see it as such. This may seem like a comfortable escape when dealing with the issue at hand, but, in truth, it touches on the very essence of man's spiritual condition. Like music and art, the Torah cannot be approached from the perspective of academic learning. It is the soul's language which is at stake. Fire is not able to penetrate where no potential fire burns. Or as the English expression goes: "Like only finds like"

"The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of lesser things," Aristotle once said. (2) It would be wise for all parties concerned to stop trying to disprove or affirm the Torah's divinity and, first of all, ask ourselves: Are we or are we not made of material which is combustible to the inner world of the divinity of Torah? Once we have transformed ourselves and our souls into spiritual fire, all questions concerning the Torah's divinity will be settled. (3)

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

(1) For a comprehensive treatment of the academic approach towards the Torah, see my books: "Between Silence and Speech," Chapter 10 and "The Written and Oral Torah," pp. 201-233. Both books were published by Jason Aronson.

(2) Quoted by Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologica" (1:1:5 ad 1)

(3) For another approach see "Thoughts to Ponder 18: "Revelation and Learning."

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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