In his masterful book “Sacred Fragments,” Rabbi Neil Gillman explores the question of revelation and asks: What really happened at Sinai? And what does our answer mean about revelation and the value of the Torah?
Gillman considers, and rejects, a variety of positions–from the traditional belief that God literally handed a scroll to Moses, to a naturalistic view that ‘Torah’ is simply the name that we give to a natural process of human discernment. But Gillman doesn’t find any of these explanations wholly satisfying. Instead, he follows the model of the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig in asserting that Torah is neither wholly divine nor wholly human, but rather is a synthesis that is created in the space between God and Israel. Torah as we know it is not the content of, but a response to, revelation.
Personally, I’m not sure I can go as far as Gillman or Rosenzweig in asserting an active role for God in creating Torah–or that I need to. I believe that Torah is in fact a human creation, but that its human origins doesn’t render it any less precious or sacred.
Torah is a collection of teachings, wisdom, laws, and sacred stories written down over the course of generations by imperfect, fallible people who were trying both to discern and express God’s will. And more than that, Torah is the discourse and engagement of the countless generations that have followed–reading, interpreting, and wrestling with these holy words so Torah may speak to us with a fresh voice in each generation.
Thus, when we say that God gave the Torah at Sinai, we are not so much making a factual assertion about Torah’s origins as we are giving expression to the ineffable holiness that lies at its core, asserting that its preciousness transcends the mere recording of words and reveals to us truths about God.
Seen this way, Sinai isn’t a moment or a place; rather Sinai is the process of writing and of wrestling and studying through the ages. This is the sense in which we all truly do stand at Sinai–not only on Shavuot but whenever we approach Torah with awe, openness, and love.
What happened on Mt. Sinai? To me, the question is not central. My faith in Torah doesn’t depend on its origin; rather, it derives from the countless generations of Jews who have been touched by its sanctity and have in turn imparted it with meaning–turning and re-turning to it in endless loving cycles down the years.