About 20 years ago, I arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for my turnaround flight back to New York City. Entering the airport, I discovered that my flight was delayed. At 1 a.m., after several hours of waiting patiently, my flight was finally cleared for takeoff. I dragged my tired body onto the plane, taking my seat at the back of the plane, and courteously wished a pleasant flight to the passenger next to me.
Finally, after almost 16 hours of teaching and lecturing, I could enjoy two hours of anonymity, where no one knew my name. Settling into my Talmud, I would soon discover that fate would not cooperate with my plans.
The person next to me curiously inquired about the book I was reading, and I politely responded that I was studying ancient Jewish law. He asked me which area of Jewish law I was reading. As I was studying the tractate Niddah, I replied that I was reading about ancient “Jewish hygiene.” At which point he confessed to me that he was Jewish. Here I was, at 30,000 feet and, evidently, I would have a busier flight than I had anticipated.
We made small talk. He was a professor at MIT and I am a rebbe at the Gush Etzion yeshiva, so right off we shared common ground. After I offered him some pedagogic tips, he popped the question I was waiting for: “Rabbi, I have always wondered what makes Judaism different from any other religion? After all, faith isn’t empirical but draws entirely from traditions handed down through the generations. Every major religion has its long-standing traditions, so what makes Judaism different?”
It would be a long flight.
I explained to him that although Judaism is transmitted in a manner similar to other religions, the content of our tradition is radically different. Most religious traditions speak of miracle workers, dreams containing divine instructions, or personal prophecies.
Our tradition asserts something entirely different: God spoke directly with an entire nation three million strong. This public revelation was broadly corroborated and could not be attributed to hallucination. No other religion has ever dared assert this audacious notion. We alone spoke directly with God.
Sinai isn’t provable but demands a leap of faith, based upon the truths delivered to us throughout the generations. However, once we accept the “truth” of Sinai, we possess absolute “certainty” and direct access to the will of God. Mass revelation at Sinai is what distinguishes Judaism from other religions.
A FEW weeks ago, I was visited by someone struggling with their religious belief. Part of his struggle stemmed from his uncertainty about Sinai and his incredulity that God actually spoke with us. It was too difficult for him to imagine.
Why is it becoming difficult for our generation to imagine God speaking with an entire nation and delivering immutable truths to them?
First of all, to believe that God speaks to us, we must first believe in the glory of Man. Lower beings do not receive the direct word of God. Sadly, a 400-year-long process of devaluation has converted Man from a masterpiece into a monster.
Traditionally, a human being was viewed as the pinnacle of creation, a noble creature crafted in the image of His creator. Tragically, that is no longer the human image staring back at us from the abyss.
The decline of the dignity of Man began in the 17th century when Copernicus revealed that our world was no longer the “center” of reality. Subsequently, the discovery of fossils suggested that human “history” was just a small blip within a larger timeline spanning millions of years.
Copernicus shattered our sense of “space” and fossils obliterated our sense of time. Darwin further devalued Man by illustrating that we are just one small spoke of a larger evolutionary wheel being spun by forces beyond human free will.
As the 19th-century English poet Tennyson observed, we are a lost world of “one hundred million years and one hundred million spheres.”
In this cultural whirlwind, it is almost impossible to believe in the supremacy of Man and in his distinctive dignity. Instead of a being, brushed by God’s splendor, we are reduced to a small, infinitesimal collection of genes floating in space and lost in time.
As Nietzsche lamented “Gone, alas, is his faith in his dignity, uniqueness, irreplaceableness… he has become animal rolling faster and faster away from the center into nothingness, into piercing sensation of his nothingness.”
Is this “animal of nothingness” a creature God would actually speak with?
JEWS REJECT many of the direct conclusions of these philosophies about the history of the Earth or the origin of Man. Yet we still live in a broader culture that does embrace these “truths,” and the loss of human dignity is suffered by us all. The world is becoming larger, and we are becoming smaller.
Human dignity has been eroded by mass media, market capitalism and misplaced trust in corrupt leaders. We are far less noble and self-respecting than our ancestors.
Faith comes in different levels of intensity. Even though we continue to believe that God spoke with us, how deeply do we identify with that “moment”? How ready are we to submit to its binding truths, rather than being swayed by modern convention?
Additionally, how deeply do we imagine that God continues to speak with us and continues to lodge personal expectations and demands? Sadly, for many, the Sinai moment hasn’t vanished but has withered.
On Shavuot, at Sinai, God spoke to the only creature worthy of divine revelation. Realizing that humanity had lost its course, God chose one nation to speak to, with the hope that we would relay His message to an unbelieving world. The more deeply we identify with that frozen moment in time, the deeper our faith runs.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University and a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.