Lessons from Shavuot: Sinai as a living reality

Should we quarantine the Torah, keeping it protected and under wraps, safe from the realities of a living society?

Mount Sinai 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Mount Sinai 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As Jews, we are the links in a 3,000-yearold chain of belief and tradition. One of the reasons that we follow the commandments of the Torah is that our parents and grandparents and our distant ancestors did the same. Tradition is a central component to our beliefs and our ritual practices. But tradition alone cannot be the reason why we live our lives as Jews. We must, in each generation, accept the Torah anew. Sinai must be a living reality that we confront in each generation. Each of us as individuals – part of a larger people of the covenant – must confront God and the Torah in our own way. Our ritual must be suffused with meaning. If we perform the mitzvot without knowing why, our faith will not endure. The revelation at Sinai was not a one-time experience. In each and every generation we must confront the reality of Sinai.
As we celebrate Shavuot, I wonder how Judaism will endure. If each of us is to find a pathway to God and to Jewish meaning, we must know how to do so. In the Jewish world today, both in Israel and America, Jewish illiteracy is rampant. If we as Jews are to find meaning in the Torah and in the theology of the rabbis, we must know how to confront the texts that are the warp and woof of our faith. The tragedy we face is one of ignorance: Jews are forgetting the classics of Jewish literature in ethics, philosophy and poetry. Most Jews today in America cannot read or understand Hebrew. And even in Israel, where Jews speak Hebrew as a day-to-day language, most Jews do not know how to approach the texts of the Mishnah, those of Judah Halevi and Maimonides, and the other classics of our tradition that will ensure that Judaism remains a living and vital organism.
Jewish faith and practice, when not suffused with meaning, are in danger of becoming a fossil. The only way Jewish life can be meaningful is if we can rediscover the revelation that we need to confront in each generation. I believe that as a people of the covenant, we are failing to face the challenges that confront us. Judaism is not about to disappear or become extinct. But our faith and our heritage in both Israel and the Diaspora are in great danger of being weakened and diluted.
Should we quarantine the Torah, keeping it protected and under wraps, safe from the realities of a living society? Do we not do the Torah a disservice by relegating it solely to the realm of religion or that of the university? Does any one group or profession, either in Israel or the Diaspora, “own” Torah? Let us liberate Judaism from the realm of the yeshiva and the corridors of the academy. Halachah must be a living entity that confronts the issues of the day, from drug addiction to the mapping of the human genome to the ugly reality of corruption in government.
A living revelation is neither dominated by a humanistic tikkun olam cult of social justice nor the search for microscopic bugs in broccoli. Both social justice and ritual devoid of God will not endure. A living revelation elevates the study of the Torah – it is our heritage, unlike Homer or Euripides.
Revelation embodies a unique destiny – the destiny of our people with a divinely-mandated mission. If Torah is strong, the living word of revelation can challenge and inspire believer and non-believer alike. If Torah is weak, it will continue to be fenced off from Jewish and human reality, possessed by one group, one subculture, and one profession. Democracy provides the perfect opportunity for Judaism to show and prove its strengths without the need for a coercion or ethnic kitsch that drives away so many Jews from Sinai.
Abraham Isaac Kook, the great theologian of Religious Zionism, compared the Torah to a mirror. The mirror is the same in each era of history but the reflection in it of each generation is different. The confrontation with Sinai is not only an event in history.
Shavuot is not only the celebration of a historical event that took place over 3,000 years ago. Revelation is a process. The Torah of today cannot only be the Torah of the past.
If Judaism is to continue as a way of life, Judaism must remain relevant to its adherents in each generation. If the Torah is not a living entity, if our tradition is not a living tradition – then our future is in doubt.
We each bear the responsibility to look in the mirror of Torah, see our own reflections in that mirror, and live a Jewish life that is meaningful. Ritual and belief based solely on tradition, devoid of emotion and thought, cannot last. Sinai must be a living reality. Today’s confrontation with the reality of our revelation is the key to the future of our faith, our practice and our people.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.