The Experience of Revelation

Mishpatim | Shabbat Shekalim By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 13, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

With exuberance and certainty, the young Heinrich Graetz, not yet 30 but soon to become the greatest Jewish historian of the nineteenth century, made a distinction between Judaism and paganism that would in time become commonplace: “To the pagan, the divine appears within nature as something observable to the eye. He becomes conscious of it as something seen. In contrast, to the Jew who knows that the divine exists beyond, outside of, and prior to nature, God reveals Himself through a demonstration of His will, through the medium of the ear. The human subject becomes conscious of the divine through hearing and obeying. Paganism sees its god, Judaism hears Him; that is, it hears the commandments of His will.”

It is a sweeping and reassuring judgment that orders our knowledge of antiquity with a tinge of superiority. Surely a religion based on experiencing the transcendent through sound rather than sight has registered a significant advance.

But does the biblical evidence accord with the generalization? Is it in fact the case that the Torah speaks with a single voice in favor of the auditory experience of God? The midrash is not hesitant about speculating that the Israelites themselves were divided about how they wished to meet God at Sinai. The occasion is the narrative describing what God asked of Israel prior to the moment of revelation. At one point the Torah states that “Moses reported the people’s words to the Lord,” without any indication of what Moses might have transmitted (19:9). Rabbinic imagination fills in the gap.

One opinion has the people telling God: “Our wish is to hear directly from our King, for hearing through an intermediary is not the same as hearing from the King himself.” And God obliges them and that is why Scripture has God saying to Moses: “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you (19:9).”

Another opinion has the people declaring: “Our wish is to see our King, for hearing is not the same as seeing.” Again God defers to them, instructing Moses to tell them: “Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down in sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai (19:11) (Mechilta, ed. by H.S. Horovitz, pp. 210-11).”

This midrash is not a case of imagination run wild. The divergence of opinion is not imputed into the biblical text but extracted and elaborated. With great sensitivity, the Rabbis noticed that in the space of a few verses the Torah switches its vocabulary from sound to sight. The linguistic hints seem to suggest a swirl of conflicting emotions just beneath the surface of the text. What human organ is suited to perceive the imperceptible? The midrash is untroubled by the lack of consensus.

Still, I would argue that in chapter 19 of Exodus the prevailing sensory image is one of sound. “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a very loud blast of the horn (19:16).” Fire and smoke engulfed the mountain as the blare of the horn grew ever louder, signifying God’s presence. But the people kept their distance. To see God would be to perish.

In chapter 24 of Exodus, however, we have the description of a divine/human encounter (whether the same or another is irrelevant for the moment) in which the prevailing sensory image is visual rather than auditory. “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank (24:9-11).” There is no hint here of the harm that might befall one who beholds God. Nor is the sight of God restricted to Moses alone. Indeed, God is depicted as having feet and even joining in a festive meal to celebrate the sealing of the covenant.

My point is that seeing God is not quite the aberration Graetz would have us believe. The Bible is not a book but a library. It abounds with a spectrum of complementary, contrasting and conflicting views as preserved by different sources and traditions. Diversity is not anathema. The Talmud records that books like Ezekiel, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and Esther made it into the canon of Hebrew Scripture after much dispute, because they often contain often large chunks of theologically objectionable material. The editors did not put a premium on consistency and uniformity, but rather on a multiplicity of clashing voices driven by a hunger for the holy. A tolerance for diverse opinion and practice is imbedded in the foundation text of Judaism and in the vast exegetical literature which it inspired.

As for our example, the human experience of an incorporeal and transcendent God, the issue is left unresolved. Implicitly the Bible acknowledges the existence of different human typologies. After the incident of the Golden Calf (Exodus 33:18-23), God grants Moses the chance to see God’s back, but not God’s face, “for no man may see Me and live.” And still later in the wilderness narrative, God affirms to a disdainful Miriam and Aaron: “With him [Moses] I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord (Numbers 12:8).”

On the other hand, Deuteronomy in recounting the revelation at Sinai repudiates any semblance of a visual experience: “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape -nothing but a voice (4:12).” Yet the ambiguity of the matter is still not settled, for prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel unabashedly claim to see God. In last week’s haftara we read of Isaiah’s inaugural moment: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple (6:11).” While Isaiah’s impure lips are cleansed by the touch of an angel (6:6), for Jeremiah, who is elected in a similar encounter with the divine, it is God and not an angel who puts forth a hand to touch the prophet’s unclean mouth (Jeremiah 1:9).

In truth, Judaism comes to embrace both modes of experience —hearing and seeing — because neither alone can begin to mediate the incomprehensibility of God’s awesome presence. A magnificent 12th century poem titled “Hymn of Glory,” recited at the conclusion of services on Shabbat and holidays, gives vivid expression to the tension inherent in our human predicament. Our intense yearning for God overwhelms our deep awareness that we can never come close to fathoming God. In the philosophic disclaimer that introduces the poem, the poet acknowledges that we know nothing of what we speak when it comes to God: “Never have I seen You, yet I state Your praise; Never having known You, I laud You and Your ways…. The faithful ones portrayed You, but never as You are; They told of all Your deeds, imagined from afar (Siddur Sim Shalom, 1998 ed., p. 185).”

What follows in the second half of the poem is a remarkable profusion of visual images of God drawn from the great reservoir of biblical and rabbinic literature. The heart triumphs and all constraints are thrown to the wind. The infinite gap that separates us from God is bridged by metaphor. Yet the polarities of the poem provide its balance. As long as we are mindful of our ignorance, that our metaphors are no more than pointers, we are free and able to reach for the infinite.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Mishpatim are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.