Dr. Tamar Ross
Faculty, Midreshet Lindenbaum
The revelation at Sinai is the most important event in the collective memory of the Jewish people. Many regard the Biblical account as complete in itself and feel that scrutinizing the detailed mechanics of transmission in inappropriate.
But since tradition purports to describe actual events, is it really sacrilege to ask: What is the historic core of the account? How did G-d speak to man? How did His voice sound?
Revelation is far more complicated than simple dictation. That understanding is common to all discussions of the issue from the Talmud on. One midrash even seems to entertain the possibility of prophecy as retroactive Divine approval of human formulations. In an attempt to avoid the anthropomorphism of a speaking G-d, medieval scholars including Sa’adyah Gaon, Avraham Ibn Ezra, and Yehudah Halevi, put forward notions such as the suggestion that the “voice” of G-d was a created intermediary between Himself and man, and not normal speech.
Maimonides conceived of prophecy as the highest form of the intellectual process, through which man grasps the Divine. Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook admits that external historic and cultural processes are factors in the human perception of Divine revelation.
Perhaps the view most appealing to modern sensibilities connects revelation to the very ability of people to perceive G-d as addressing them. Prophets are those who are capable of hearing G-d – Who is beyond speech, beyond time-bound expressions – through the prism of their own perceptive abilities. Prophetic capacity is the highest perception of the Divine attainable by humankind.
Appreciation of the role of human perception in revelation allowed Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen, a leading late-19th century Hasidic thinker, to take another step: the Talmud informs us in Massechet Sanhedrin that prophecy ceased after the destruction of the First Temple, and in Massechet Yoma that paganism ended at the same time. What is the connection?
Every great shortcoming, explained Rabbi Tzadok, contains the potential for a commensurate good. Paganism, with all its errors and evils, allowed people to experience the overwhelming immediacy of Divine presence. It was precisely the raw, child-like passion of primitive perceptions, uninhibited by moral and theological sophistication that facilitated direct and uncomplicated communion with G-d.
But by the time Greek and Roman culture began to influence the ancient world, the supernational elements of paganism had faded, making way for a more philosophical and scientific perceptions. In Judaism the principle developed that the sage is more important than the prophet, taking as its authority the Biblical statement that the Torah “is not in Heaven.” Eventually, knowledge of G-d became so wrapped in conceptual abstractions that any claim to direct access to the Divine was relegated by the Talmud to “children and fools.”
Certainly our scientific notion of reality makes it difficult for us to accept the possibility of supernatural intervention. On the surface, at least, the Torah reflects a simpler and more primitive civilization than our own. No other type of culture would have been capable of receiving the Torah so directly from G-d.
“Every day a voice goes forth from Sinai,” says Pirkei Avot. Will we ever be able to hear that voice again? Rabbi Tzadok would probably answer that this depend on our ability to recapture some of the wonder of the children and fools.