On the festival of Shavuot, Jews all over the world celebrate God’s revealing of the Torah to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. Whether a Jew believes that this revelation is a one-time event that occurred more than 3,000 years ago or chooses to see the composition of the Torah as a divinely inspired human endeavor that took place over many centuries, the message of Shavuot is that the Jewish people have a responsibility to accept the Torah anew in each generation.
If the Jew abdicates the mission of assuming the yoke of Torah, Jewish faith and tradition will atrophy and disappear. In each generation, the Jew has an obligation to follow and interpret the Torah, assuring that the Sinaic tradition will endure and never die out.
Breaking the mold if idol worship: revolution
Yet, Shavuot is not only a holiday concerned with maintaining millennia-old tradition. God’s revelation of Torah, whether as an event in Jewish history or as an imaginative component of Jewish memory, was and still is truly revolutionary. The ancient world of the Israelites was one of idolatry and polytheism. Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Canaanites worshiped gods of wood and stone, and deities of thunder and fertility, who resembled human beings in many ways.
The gods of the idol worshipers would battle each other, engage in sexual union and destroy man at a whim. Ashtoret, Baal and El were gods who could be manipulated by magic and divination, and who demanded, in some cases, human sacrifice. Such classics of Sumerian literature as The Epic of Gilgamesh, while sharing some common concerns about human mortality reflected in the Hebrew Bible, were mostly concerned with the fate of kings and dictators. The gods of the peoples surrounding the Israelites would have cared little about the fate of a nation born into Egyptian bondage.
The Sinaic revolution, by demanding a belief in one God, without form or shape, who was the sole creator of the universe, who willed the cosmos into existence and invested humanity with the power to choose to do good or evil, overturned the existing belief systems of great empires. Monotheism has outlasted the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians and Babylonians.
The God of Abraham, Moses and Elijah has endured within Judaism and in the great faiths of Western religions. God’s revelation at Mount Sinai was, indeed, one of the most important revolutions in the history of humanity.
Without the balance of revelation and revolution, Judaism would have disappeared long ago, confined to the realm of archaeological digs and museums. Judaism needs both revelation and revolution in order to endure and thrive.
The destruction of the second Temple
In the year 70 C.E., more than a millennium after the Sinaic revolution, Judaism and the Jewish people’s survival was in doubt. Roman forces, responding to the rebellion of the Zealots against their empire, razed Jerusalem and burned the Holy Temple, the center of Jewish political, religious and social life, to the ground. The Jewish future was in jeopardy. The next great revolution in Judaism – the Yavneh revolution – saved the Jewish people and their faith.
The early rabbis, led by Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, negotiated with the Romans, defying the policy of Jerusalem’s Jewish defenders, and founded a sanctuary for scholars in the coastal city of Yavneh. While Rabbi ben Zakkai and his followers were believers in an Oral Law revealed to Moses at Sinai with the Written Law, they were also revolutionary in their reconstruction of a post Temple Judaism.
THE RABBIS not only substituted prayer for sacrifice – they took many cultic rituals and made them a part of everyday Jewish life. By focusing on the value of studying Torah and carrying out the commandments, the early rabbis transformed Judaism into a religion of the Book.
From Revelation to the Zionist rebellion
As at Sinai, revelation and revolution went hand in hand in the preservation of Jewish life and belief. The Yavneh revolution made possible two thousand years of Jewish existence and success in the diaspora, only beginning to fail in the modern epoch. It is at this juncture that the third great revolution in Jewish history takes place: the rise of Zionism.
Unlike the Sinai and Yavneh revolutions, the Zionist rebellion was one that flouted the authority of Jewish tradition and divine revelation. The olim who made their way to Israel a century ago defined themselves and their identity in opposition to Judaism. While the Zionists incorporated from the Jewish faith into their ideology such ideas as redemption and the centrality of Israel, they secularized and nationalized these concepts.
Yet, in many ways, the Zionist revolution was a holy rebellion. In the shtetls of Eastern Europe from which the Zionists emerged, traditional Jewish leadership and life were atrophying. Young Jews were looking for a way out of the poverty and pogroms that they had been forced to endure. The Zionist movement called for the rise of new Jews who would stand up tall and defend their right to live against those who wanted to destroy them.
Perhaps, the Zionist description of the Exile was, in part, a caricature. Yet, the world from which they emerged was indeed declining and the rising movement brought new energy and vitality to the Jewish people, both secular and religious. There is little doubt that Judaism would have withered from demoralization in the post-Shoah epoch had it not been for the establishment of a Jewish state only a few years after the liberation of Auschwitz.
Israel, even an Israel founded by secular socialists and secular nationalists, remains an inspiration to Jews and Jewish faith all over the world. The Zionists may have shunned the Sinaic revelation but in many ways their own revolution has shored up Jewish tradition. Revelation and revolution, while appearing to be contradictory dynamics, have both been central to the progression of Jewish history.
It would be an error of omission not to include Religious Zionist among those who balanced revelation and revolution. The earliest modern Zionists were rabbis – Rabbi Judah Alkalai in the Sehpardic world and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalishcher in the Ashkenazic realm. While they pioneered the idea that Jews should end the exile and wrote in traditional messianic theological style, they were impacted by the national uprisings of the nations of Europe against the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Modern revolution certainly influenced them.
And, of course, the great Zionist thinker Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook rebelled against anti-Zionist traditionalists, and made Israel and the messianic idea central to Jewish identity and belief. His theology represented the Jew who understood the revolutionary aspects of the Sinaic revelation. He was an incredible man and Jew. His legacy endures.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.