The Radical Lessons of Revelation

Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Hilly Haber

Moses went up the mountain as if he had been called. The shining mountain. The mountain with a Voice. The mountain that cloaked the Presence. The mountain that had given Moses and Israel a God…And from the cloud-ringed summit the Lord called out to Moses and told him who He was.
- Zora Neale Hurston, Moses Man of the Mountain

Moses' time on the mountain was not merely an experience of personal transformation. At Mount Sinai, a newly emancipated people receive the story of who they are and who they will be in the world. Standing at the foot of the mountain, bathed in blasts of the horn and the roar of thunder, the Israelites hear the voice of God awash in fire and smoke (Exodus 19:17-19).

There is something radically democratic about the revelation at Sinai. Bible scholar Nahum M. Sarna writes, "The theophany was direct, public, and communal. All Israel was witness to the phenomenon of God speaking from heaven" (Nahum Sarna, JPS Exodus Commentary). Further, Jewish tradition believes that the souls of all Jews, across time, were present in this moment of revelation (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 28:6). Each of us is an heir to revelation, a recipient of God's word. The Hasidic leader known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859) adds a compelling teaching: it is not just that each of us was present at Sinai, but that revelation is ongoing; we continue to receive Torah throughout our lives (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim).

The revelation at Sinai was a radical act: our Sages understood it as such, and contemporary scholars are still grappling with its implications. Its radical nature was apparent not only in the public and communal nature of the revelation, but also in the ways in which God's presence was described, and in the strikingly novel relationship that God creates with Israel. God appears as pure sound, "nothing but a voice"-defying the confines of the material world and resisting shape or form (Nahum Sarna, JPS Exodus Commentary). The covenant between God and Israel is also groundbreaking, as Sarna writes: "The Decalogue and its contents are…in a class by themselves. The idea of a covenantal relationship between God and an entire people is unparalleled" (Nahum Sarna, JPS Exodus Commentary). Individually and collectively, across time and place, the Israelite people enter into a relationship with both God and one another marked by a fierce mutuality.

Each of us stood at the foot of the mountain, and each of us continues to receive Divine revelation. For a people born on the underside of an Egyptian hierarchy, revelation at Sinai offers new models for collaborative leadership, equality, and divinity going forward. What are the implications of these features of revelation for us today, and how can we fully unpack their meaning once they are removed from their ancient context?

Patrick S. Cheng, an Episcopal priest and theologian, teaches that the Sinai experience dramatizes some of the hallmarks of Queer theology. In Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, Cheng outlines the guiding principles of Queer theology and methodology that reverberate across the story of revelation at Sinai. First, Queer theology erases boundaries, destabilizing that which was once defined as "normal" or "different" (Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology). At Sinai, God crosses the boundary into the human world, traversing space and time, and introduces a theology and theophany which defy material and temporal boundaries. As such, Cheng teaches, "God's revelation-or coming out-is an act of radical love because it dissolves the boundaries between the Divine and human" (Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology).

Also embodied in the Sinai experience was the political, even revolutionary, dimension of Queer theology. Cheng writes, "Queer theology can be understood as a theological method that is self-consciously transgressive...[it] brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly" (Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology). The radically democratizing nature of revelation at Sinai offered each and every Israelite proximity to God-the gift of dignity for those who had been despised and dehumanized. At Sinai, the lowliest individual was lifted up to a position of significance and value.

And at Sinai all Israelites experienced an enduring sense of connection with one another. A third dimension of Queer theology that shines forth from the revelation at Sinai is the deep joy of such interpersonal connection. It is a joy beautifully articulated in Audre Lorde's "Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power," a talk she delivered in 1978 at Mount Holyoke College, describing a Queer theology of power. Lorde identifies the erotic with this gift of human connection, seeing it as a source of creativity and energy (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider). She writes:

The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference. (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider)

To read revelation as a Queer Jewish moment is to see a radical act of Divine love and self-disclosure, a crossing of boundaries that challenges us to love more boldly in our own lives, reaching across divisions and differences to embrace one another as God embraces us. Indeed, the Biblical word 'Ivri (Hebrew) means "to cross over."

To view Sinai through a Queer lens is to attend to the revolutionary message of our faith-its subversive energy, its championing of the downtrodden, its continual challenge to entrenched elites, its profound belief in the dignity of each individual. And Queer theology illuminates Sinai by helping us appreciate the deep joy that arises from authentic connection, urging us to seek out every opportunity for such connection. As Jews, we celebrate the particular joy of Jewish unity that was forged at Sinai-a unity that is the very opposite of uniformity, for, as Audre Lord teaches, our diversity is our source of power.

At Sinai we learned who we were and who we would become in the world: a border-crossing people, confined to no single territory, no single language, no single expression of Jewish identity; a multi-vocal, multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement still trying to live out the radical lessons of revelation.