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Torah Commentary
Yitro (February 2, 2013)

David Mintz, Cantorial Intern

WITH AN EAGER NATION gathering beneath it, a foreboding mountain was covered with smoke, trembling violently as the blasts of the shofar were heard and giving way to the moment of Divine revelation. This moment of revelation is considered among the most significant and defining events in our biblical history. However, our rabbis and teachers over multiple generations and religious denominations have continued to argue about how to understand this pivotal moment.

Rabbi Yochanan, for instance, interprets the text to mean that God spoke in seven voices, not just one, and that these voices were divided into the 70 languages spoken by all those who lived on earth. Questioning precisely what text was given to the people of Israel, it broadly is believed that God actually gave two Torahs to Moses: Written Torah (Torah Shebichtav) and Oral Torah (Torah Shebal Peh), which includes Midrashic and Talmudic literature, in addition to all rabbinic interpretations throughout time. Of course, an added benefit of this understanding is that if all future rabbinic teachings emanated from the moment of revelation, then these rabbis’ own words have the authority of being from Sinai. Other rabbinic scholars go even further, re-imagining the physical mountain itself. The rabbis of Midrash Tanchuma imagine that God actually lifted up Mount Sinai, suspending it in the air over the heads of the people of Israel, until they agreed to accept the mitzvot!

While many Orthodox Jews today continue to believe that God gave both the Written Torah and Oral Torah (a complete source of knowledge with everything Jews would ever need to know), some Orthodox thinkers differ. Rabbi Daniel Hartman, for instance, argues that Sinai was just the beginning: “[The revelation at Sinai] gave the community a direction, an arrow pointing towards a future… inviting one and all to acquire the competence to explore the terrain and extend the road.” Much of Reform theology, on the other hand, views revelation as an ongoing process reflecting the evolving relationship between God and the Jewish people. As the Reform Centenary Platform of 1976 states, Jewish obligation begins not at Mount Sinai but “with the informed consent of every individual.” In other words, the individual must consider Jewish tradition while making a decision, but it is the process itself that is holy and revelatory.

So what do we make of the fact that this moment — one of the most central events in our biblical history — is understood in such radically different ways? Perhaps it’s this very centrality that makes the plurality of understanding so meaningful. We can understand this as a profound statement about our tradition engaging with sacred text. If a defining part of our biblical history is studied, imagined and understood in such varying ways, then all the more so that we must embrace a plurality of ideas and understandings at every level.

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