What Happened At Sinai Stayed At Sinai

Parashat Yitro 2018
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

What happened at Sinai stays at Sinai?

What happened at Sinai?

It depends who you ask, of course. The Biblical literalist will recount the Exodus account, word-for-word, and rely on its unwavering testimony. From aleph to tav, every word is given ‘mi’Sinai’, from Sinai, and although Scripture is to be interpreted, explained and examined, its ultimate Divine authority and authorship is not to be challenged.

Then there is the militant secularist’s position. The Bible, a mere collection of sloppily edited Bronze Age myths, outdated and outmoded, with little relevance to our contemporary lives. In the words of Richard Dawkins, renown biologist and passionate atheist evangelist:

“Much of the Bible is… just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries” (The God Delusion).

In short, we would be better off scrapping the whole affair and regaling it to the dustbin of history.

I would wager to say that most of us, if not all of us, fall along a spectrum between these two positions. We are neither willing to embrace a fundamentalist reading nor are we eager to jettison the wisdom of our own tradition. Added to that, many of us will have a sophisticated enough understanding of history and archeology to know that either position is impossible to prove. We must live with the uncertainty principle this engenders. We simply do not know what happened at Sinai.

Those of us who consider ourselves liberal religionists will often consign ourselves to symbolic readings of the text to help us escape this conundrum. If we cannot speak the language of ultimate truth or use the instruments of empiricism, then the third way that remains is to use the language of symbol and meaning. Surely, there is enough moral persuasion to be found in the story of the Exodus to legitimize its telling across hundreds of generations for thousands of years. At this point, many liberal rabbis would argue that we don’t need the story to be true for it to be meaningful. In fact, in 2001, Rabbi David Wolpe, the noteworthy rabbi of Los Angeles Conservative Judaism made waves by affirming in a Pesach sermon no less, that the Exodus had never taken place. He preached:

"The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all."

The sermon stirred controversy, even among Jews who would consider themselves beholden to the scientific method in all other spheres of life. Yet, Rabbi Wolpe was merely paraphrasing what was the leading voice of the archeological community. The (near) consensus at the time was that there was no way 650,000 men (totaling 2 million people) could have moved through the Sinai desert without leaving a trace and that there is not enough evidence to support the Biblical narrative of the Israelites, under Joshua’s guidance, moving into Canaan and conquering it.

However, there is a new book out by Richard Elliott Friedman, an eminent Bible scholar, called ‘The Exodus – How It Happened and Why It Matters’. I’ve already plugged this wonderful book in the weekly newsletter.

Friedman’s premise seeks to find both the interpretive middle ground as well as an evidence-based affirmation of the Exodus – but not in the way we expect it. He has a different hypothesis, however: the Exodus was a far smaller event and – this is his great innovation – didn’t involve the entire Israelite community but only the tribe of Levi.
He argues in favor of a historical Exodus, but one small enough to not have left an archeological record that has been uncovered as of yet. He argues that the Levites left Egypt – including their many trappings of Egyptian culture, as manifested in their Egyptian names (Moses, Phineas) and the design of the Tabernacle – and joined up with the Israelites who were dwelling in Canaan at the time. This seems plausible enough, but Friedman’s book becomes particularly compelling when he argues that this joining (which is the meaning of the root of ‘Levi’) has shaped Israelite religion, and by extension, Judaism (and Christianity and Islam). He proposes that, based on the Documentary Hypothesis of Biblical source criticism – which posits that the Bible is a carefully redacted composite document – that the Levites brought their God Yahweh and merged this understanding of the Divine with the native Israelites who worshiped the Canaanite El. At this particular junction, Israelite monotheism became, well, monotheism. Instead of building up a pantheon or a dual conception of deity, the Levites and the Israelites incorporated each other’s gods into the One God, centuries before the post-exilic Prophets preached their message of Divine Unity.
On top of this all, Friedman argues that the historical experience of the Levites provided the bulk of the Torah’s commandments to respect slaves and protect strangers. He tallies up the score: the Levite sources reference ‘loving the stranger’ 52 times.

While other codes of law and theological writings in the Levant protected the widow and the orphan, this care for and concern with the fringes of society, the marginalized, was unique Israelite. He writes about the ethical leap that the Torah takes:

“…But then those authors did something truly remarkable. They wrote a history that went all the way back to the beginning of their world. They took the story all the way back to creation. So in the final version of their story, Yahweh was not a God who became known in Midian, or in Egypt, for the first time. This God was already known to Adam and eve, to Cain, to Noah. And then this God appeared and spoke to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…
Why did the authors do that? …Why did biblical authors feel a need to start their story with the creation of the whole earth and heavens?...For now we can just stand in awe at their early masterpiece of literature and history. It is a story of a people, and it was the story of the earth. And one more thing: in a profound and lasting way, it became the cornerstone of the story of the one and only God.” (p. 118)

Friedman leads us down an Indiana Jones-esque adventure that will visit Midian and Egypt, that will interrogate the characters of ancient Pharaohs and of Yethro, the Midianite Priest. He will cross-examine Biblical texts, line up Elohist and Yahwist sources, fill in the gaps, streamlines the narrative.

But most of all, this scholar has the soul of the prophet. He will ask what it means for a tradition like ours to ask, in our sacred text, what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love the stranger for we know the soul of the stranger? To rise to the imperative of the One God: not in a series of irrational diktats but in an argument for ethics, kindness, love, compassion that is written across the universal soul of humankind.

What happened at Sinai will stay at Sinai. But we may know what happened afterwards: the spirit of a nation was forged in the crucible of its oppression and took a moral quantum leap into compassion and empathy. ‘Ki li kol ha’aretz’, ‘for all the earth is Mine’, God tells Moses in Exodus 19:5. And so we learn that we are a very particular people charged with a very universal mission. May each of us read this text through the lens of our own understanding, accompanied by the wisdom of the centuries and with a clear charge: to rise to what we can all become.


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