Shavuot: The politics of revelation

We must always keep our eyes on the reality around us, a reality quite different than that espoused for centuries by Jewish tradition.

Torah scribe 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Torah scribe 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
On Shavuot, Jews celebrate God’s revealing of the Torah at Sinai to Moses and the Israelites. The covenant so central to the Sinai experience was as much a political drama as a theological one. The Sinai revelation moved the Israelites from the margins of ancient political and religious life to the center of history.
The Torah paints a picture of the Israelites as God’s treasured people. The Hebrew Bible relegates great empires to the status of being God’s tools to chastise the Israelites. The Sinai covenant established the Israelites as the only true power in the world, standing at the center of history. God focused all of His energy on the promotion or demotion of the people He chose.
Readers of the Hebrew Bible assume that the Israelites were at the center of Middle East politics and theology. But the archaeological record tells a different story. The first reference to the Israelites outside of the Hebrew Bible is one of defeat.
In 1209 BCE, the Pharaoh Merneptah commissioned a monument in which he celebrates his repression of a rebellion against Egyptian control of the Land of Canaan. The Egyptian king boasts that “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.”
Ancient monuments discovered by archaeologists often indicate that the Israelites were the losers of history, forced to bring tribute to the kings of powerful states. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah are never fully in control of their destiny. Yet, the Sinai covenant assured the defeated and marginalized that they were the most powerful people on earth due to their status as the chosen people of God. This was a denial of geo-politics – but it succeeded brilliantly as a defense mechanism that would enable the people of Israel to survive to this day despite the long-gone Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Hellenists, and Romans. This Israelite movement from the margins of the world to its center is a central part of a belief system that Jews celebrate on Shavuot.
The Jews may be inferiors to the dominant Christians and Muslims on a political level, but they never abandon Judaism – they are the chosen people of God bound by the Sinai covenant.
The Jewish martyrs during the First Crusade could never imagine converting to Christianity – they killed themselves and their children in the name of the God of Israel. Jews never gave up the belief that the bond between God and His people could never be broken. Jewish centrality in history was a powerful force in the life of the Jewish people.
YET, THE theological concept of a marginalized people moving to history’s center is also dangerous. By ignoring the reality of politics and investing their belief in their theological transformation at Sinai, the Jews became passive.
Theologically, the Jews and their God were the center of the universal drama.
The political reality, however, was one of powerlessness. The Jews did have long periods of sovereignty in ancient Israel and did succeed economically and religiously in the Diaspora, but eventually the political realities have overtaken theology. Despite all their influence and success, Jews have never been all-powerful. We would like to believe that, as a people, we are at the center of history. But seventy years ago the theology of the Sinai covenant failed our people. The covenant remained alive but has to be recalibrated.
The theology that the enemies that destroyed us in Babi Yar and Auschwitz were actually tools of God to punish us is a theology that most Jews can no longer accept. We must revise our understanding of Sinai centrality in the post-Holocaust epoch.
With the emergence of the Zionist revolution, the notion of centrality of the Sinai covenant has shifted. Zionism moved the Jewish people toward a new understanding of the Jews’ place in the world and the relation of the people Israel to God. The Zionists replaced the empowerment of theological centrality with a new idea rooted in the realities of geo-politics and history. This shift did not mean that Jews were no longer at the world’s center nor necessarily meant a rejection of God.
In the modern, post-Holocaust epoch, however, the traditional answers of Jewish theology no longer work.
While in a world of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas there is still a place for calling on God’s protection for a vulnerable Israel, Jewish understanding of power must be based on the realities of politics and history. We do not need to deny the importance of the Sinai covenant and should celebrate revelation on Shavuot. We are at the center of history, contributors to the cornerstone of Western civilization. We owe that to the God of Revelation. Yet, at the same time, we must always keep our eyes on the reality around us, a reality quite different than that espoused for centuries by Jewish tradition.
The writer is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.