Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors

Hearing God’s Call on Shavuot 2010 and on Pentecost Too

Shavuot 2010 (Pentecost) begins Tuesday night, May 18th. This holiday, originally the festival of first fruits in the Hebrew Bible came to be associated with the story of God giving the Ten Commandments to the ancient Israelites as recorded in the Book of Exodus. Later on, it also became associated with Jesus’ return to his disciples following his Easter/Passover death and resurrection.
In each case, Shavuot/Pentecost is a time when many Jews and Christians tell a story of hearing God’s call. In a world filled with people claiming to her God’s call all the time and often to deadly effect, it’s worth looking back at these two stories and seeing what they tell us about the experience of hearing God.
According to the Book of Acts (2:1-12), Jesus’ disciples were gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot. Not surprising as it is one of the three pilgrimage festivals observed by the Jews of antiquity. With language clearly reminiscent of Exodus’ description of God’s revelation at Sinai as recorded in Exodus, the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples and each is heard to be speaking in a different language.
Given that all are from the Land of Israel, and would normally have spoken Aramaic or possibly Hebrew, this is pretty remarkable. In fact, the other pilgrims who have journeyed to Jerusalem are astounded. Having come from Parthia, Media, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Asia, Egypt, Rome, Crete, and Arabia, and speaking different languages, they are all able to understand what the disciples are saying. Each seems to have been taken with the ability to speak in the language which people needed to hear. It’s actually a powerful lesson in speaking to people in their own language.
Interestingly however, it seems that the content of each disciple’s revelation is the same. The “proof” that this is the word of God lays in the fact that the message is identical but capable of being shared in the multiple languages which God puts in the mouths of various disciples.
Hearing God in this story is about one message which is told in many tongues. According to Acts, God always says the same thing but adjusts the language to meet the needs of the audience. That’s a very different understanding than the one offered by the rabbis who lived at roughly the same time as the authors of Acts.


According to rabbinic teaching on the experience of revelation at Sinai, to hear God is to hear the lessons one needs most in their own life. For these rabbis, God sounds different to different people and the content of God’s message is different depending upon the one who is receiving it.
In describing the events of Sinai, the rabbis say that each person received the teaching which they needed to hear, and it was offered based on where they were in their lives. Old people heard what they needed. Children heard what they needed. Men according to their needs and women according to theirs. In effect, the proof of the divine nature of the events at Sinai was NOT that one word went out to all. It was that an infinite God speaks in an infinite number of ways, and does so based upon those to whom that God speaks.
According to this approach, any form of religious coercion, and any presumption of any one person or group having the last word on what God says, must be tossed out. While groups may compete over religious norms or the making of policy in light of how they understand God’s word, they can never look at others and tell them that what they think “could not have come from God”. This approach provides what may be the most important corrective to any system which believes in a revealed law i.e. confusing legitimate faith with one particular understanding of that faith.
As Jews head into the final preparation to stand at Sinai once again, I hope that we do so with the expressed awareness that if any “proof” of revelation is to be had, it lies in the diversity of approaches and opinions about what “really” happened at Sinai and what Torah “really” means.
If Torah is the infinite gift of an infinite God, then the infinite number of ways it can be legitimately interpreted, and those who do so, must be as sacred as the Torah itself, whether we agree with those interpretations or not. That’s what God sounds like to me, and at least a great number of my spiritual ancestors of whom I remain a proud and devoted student.

  • David Altschul

    How do you avoid, from the language of Deuteronomy and from basic logic, the idea that doctrines which blatantly contradict God’s word as revealed in Torah (ideas like original sin, salvation by grace, the holy trinity, and the messiah nature of Jesus), are ideas from someone other than God?

  • ichthusthree

    just a small clarification, from what I understand:
    your description of Pentecost in the Christian light is correct, but also according to the New Testament, Jesus already ascended to His Father before the Holy Spirit of Pentecost came upon His followers — so it was not associated with Jesus’ return to his disciples, which was very shortly after His Resurrection instead — Shalom

  • David Altschul

    Without standing for the primacy of Torah, you appear to say that the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the international homicidal movement of Islamic jihad, all “come from God”. That destroys the unique enduring values for which my ancestors z”l gave their lives.

  • Effinie

    ‘. . . any form of religious coercion, and any presumption of any one person or group having the last word on what God says, must be tossed out. While groups may compete over religious norms or the making of policy in light of how they understand God’s word, they can never look at others and tell them that what they think “could not have come from God.’ David, did you miss that part of Rabbi Brad’s commentary? It clearly contradicts what you stated in you post. No one person, group or persuasion can claim to know what is good for everyone and to hell with everyone else. THAT is what’s being said. The Holy One gives to each, according to individual need.

  • European

    The Holy One gives to each, according to individual need.
    I assume that goes for Jews and Gentiles? Or does it speak against jewish tradition and God only speaks to Jews the ” mother of Christianity “. If God does speak to Gentiles, as they may have some correct understanding of its mother-religion, (as in the story of Abrahama and Heggar before Torah was ever written ) which I personaly belief that God does, then why are Jews so hateful of Gentiles in general, (not all) who have had a very personal understanding of God according to their needs, and encountered grace, love or whatever in their life, and are so dishonering portrait and spoken of as 2nd grade world citizens according to Jews, the chosen Race or Nation, and all others are inferior, cains descendents, the feminine etc. Don’t these stories, as you are trying very hard to re-interpret, as we can see the damage it has done for 2000 years, take accountability away from man and place it on God, as we please to interpret according to our needs, rather then acknowledging Gods presents in all humanity. With every statement of being of cain, inferior etc etc etc. by jews or christians, has dishonered God, and at the same time your own religion. (very distructive interpretation and not neccessarily true) The Price/Cost of a lie is high. That is what the Jesus story is telling. Was Jesus the victim or perpetrator that he deserved death.? Or is this story interpreted according to our, mans needs again.? (often twisted, no exception for the Torah)
    Pentecost was not the given of one message and understanding in different languages to all, it was the receiving of the ONE = “Gods Spirit” who is and stands above language.
    I hope that not only your/our words are turning 90 degrees, but our haerts and minds especialy are turning to one another created in Gods image…. Therefore no image is inferior, neither the Torah who we kiss and raise, nor the Cross that we raise and praise. The laws are all written into our haerts not according to man, but individualy in/with Gods spirit. The danger is that we don’t accept it, Jews not of Christians. (national, cultural ego) Great Lesson and thought provoking title. Peace.

  • Hanalah

    European says that Jews hate Christians.
    My mother-in-law, rest her dear soul, was a Christian, a good Christian woman in the finest sense of the word. She used to send us Rosh HaShanah cards in the fall and I still have one particularly beautiful one on dislay in my home. And of course we sent her beautiful Christmas cards.
    My Christian neighbor brought a tuna casserole when I came home from the hospital. She especaillyl made tuna because she knew we kept kosher and couldn’t eat nonkosher meat.
    My Christian friend came to visit me in the hospital and brought me books which she rightly expected I would enjoy.
    My uncle married a Christian and takes pride in his son’s abilities to convert people.
    I could go on and on.
    Jews do not hate Christians.
    However, I have noticd that Christians complain of being hated by Jews who refuse to BECOME Christians.
    I have noticed that Christians complain of being hated by Jews when Jews remark on the fact that the gospels contain hundreds of statements to the effect that Jews (or the Pharisees and scribes, who eventually became our leaders after the destuction of the Temple) are hypocrites, vipers, children of Satan, and other such descriptions.
    Jews who want to live as Jews do object to Christians who try to convert us.
    Jews who cherish our relationshiop to Gd and who are aware of the millions of Jews murdered by Christians are saddened and frightened when they read excoriations in the mouth of Jesus.
    We have an ancient covenant which Gd expects us to be faithful to.
    Everyone stays with the religion of his choice. If he thought another religion was better, he would change. So you must expect that everyone thinks his own religion is the best. So if you like all religions are best for the people in that religion. Your religion is best for you, mine is best for me. and all are best for Gd.
    By now, the Christian religion has become ancient as well.
    The ancient competition between Jews and Christians seeking converts ended with the Christians becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.
    I am happy to be your friend, to invite you for dinner, to go out for coffee or a movie, or even to let you come to my Bible study group. What must I do to keep from being accused of hating you or of being hateful to you?

  • Mauricio Ly

    Incredibly great read. Truely.

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