Revelation: It’s Not What It Seems to Be
On Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Torah. How are we to understand divine revelation? Fundamentalists claim to know the mind of God and base their assertions directly on the Bible. This kind of thinking should be profoundly troubling to us as Jews, because our Torah contains the most radical challenge to a literalist reading of Scripture in all religious literature.
Somehow, this idea has gotten lost, because revelation in Judaism is not what it seems.
The Torah tells us that after the Children of Israel were freed from Egyptian slavery, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Law of God. This was God’s own Law, divinely written on the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain.
Imagine, then, Moses’ astonishment, when, instead of finding the Israelites ready to accept the revealed moral code, he finds them dancing in reverence and awe around an idol they themselves created – the Golden Calf.
Now, what would you expect Moses to do at this point? After all, God’s first commandment explains that if you worship other gods, you’re in trouble. You might anticipate Moses appealing to God to smite the undeserving Israelites. Instead, Moses smashes the tablets on the ground.
What does this act signify? The story implies that revelation is not the answer to our circumstance. It suggests that Moses understands that if we had to live our lives based on revealed morality, it would infantilize us. Given the credulity of the human creature, divine law itself would become an idol, an excuse to relinquish what is most precious in us, our moral autonomy.
What we have here is not a story of revelation, but a story of the dangers of revelation. Moses understood that the weakness we have for dogmatic thinking and the longing for safe truths – the same flaws that had led the Israelites to build the Golden Calf – would always hinder the flourishing of society.
By breaking the tablets, Moses showed the Israelites, and us, that nothing, not even revealed law, is so sacred it cannot be tested by human experience. What was needed was not to exchange the slavery of the body for a slavery of the mind, but instead to create a tradition alive with questions and debate and glorious differences of opinion.
Following his audacious act, Moses ascends the mountain again, and God tells Moses to write his own tablets. Notably, whereas the first tablets were “inscribed by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18), God instructs Moses to carve out the second tablets himself: “Write for yourself (ktav-lecha) these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27). These human-wrought tablets then become the law that forms the heart of the Hebrew Bible.
After Moses dies in the valley of Moab, we read in the final lines of the Hebrew Bible: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses…to display…all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12). What great might and awesome power? The text does not say. However, the medieval commentator Rashi, quoting earlier sources, states: “This refers to the fact that Moses’ heart inspired him to break the tablets…and the Holy Blessed One concurred.”
Of all Moses’ achievements – releasing the Israelites from slavery, splitting the Red Sea, bringing them to Mount Sinai, and then leading them to the very edge of the Promised Land – the greatest was the breaking of the tablets.
This is of profound relevance in today’s world, because if the Law of God is not beyond questioning, then even more so are man-made laws. Paradoxically, in Judaism, the moment of revelation coincides with something akin to enlightenment. Right from the beginning, even God agrees that to seek truth means to question authority. Quite literally, it means to break the rules.
Where the Hebrew Bible ends is only the beginning of the story. The Talmud recounts that the Israelites carry the Ark of the Covenant with them throughout their wanderings. Later, when they rest it in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem, they place the broken divine tablets alongside those of Moses. As humans, we carry with us both sets of tablets, our fallible human laws and the fragments of our shared humanity.
In his greatest hour, Moses showed us we have nothing to fear. The tablets of God were broken, but we remain intact. Our task, then, is to break the spell of Sinai. Only then, following Moses’ example, can we begin the real work of hammering out what constitutes a moral society.