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.