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What do I believe happened at Sinai?

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Excerpted from Rabbi John Moscowitz's new book, 'Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi' (Dundurn Press)
Excerpted from Rabbi John Moscowitz's new book, 'Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi' (Dundurn Press)

In his new book, Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi, Canadian rabbi John Moscowitz, who Senator Linda Frum once referred to as “one of Toronto’s most cherished and effective rabbis,” charts the shifts in his views over the years on issues that matter to the Jewish community. The following is an excerpt from the book, entitled, “What do I believe happened at Sinai?”


Permit me to begin autobiographically as the link between autobiography and theology, between the personal and the philosophical, is undeniable. I didn’t much think about God growing up and into my twenties. I didn’t believe and I didn’t not believe. But something was stirring, so off to Hebrew Union College I went at age twenty-four. Not to be a rabbi, or so I told myself, but certainly enthusiastic to drink at the intellectual wells of a venerable religious tradition. What would come later, I hadn’t a clue.

While the stirring wasn’t about God, my spirit was full and ready. Already in love with Israel and drawn toward the satisfactions of community, I was anxious to be competent at ritual matters and keen to handle Jewish texts in the original. So I headed toward the heart of things Jewish. And rabbinical school, if not being a rabbi, seemed a pretty good route there. In short, I was passionate for Jewish knowledge, meaning, and a place in the world.

Once at the rabbinical seminary, I realized that, regardless of what I believed or didn’t believe, I should make myself decently conversant about theology, God, commandments — the very things that animate Judaism. However, God and matters of spirit weren’t much at the centre of Hebrew Union College life in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As well as I can remember, only Eugene Borowitz and the late Michael Signer spoke this language.

READ: THE STRUGGLE TO BLEND ORTHODOXY AND MODERNITY

Moreover, what I was exposed to in rabbinical school (and more so in the larger liberal Jewish milieu) perplexed and disappointed me. What passed for religious discourse was the oft-stated banal mantra: how you observe and what you believe doesn’t really matter as long as you can be said to be making “an informed choice.” (Informed by what exactly? I kept wondering. A course or two in Judaism? A bit of Hebrew? A mantra may mean never having to think about what you say!)

That few wished to make demands and that little was required were indications that the larger culture was winning easily: it was more important to please than to require; more important to be nice than to ask after truth.

In any case, in my circles I heard next to nothing about what God was, what God did, what God demanded. Not from a traditional point of view, nor from a contemporary one. I did hear a great deal about the God of “choice,” the watchword of radical individualism.

Fortunately, though, two professors — Eugene Borowitz and David Ellenson — directed me to the writings of two rabbis whose thinking has influenced me ever since: David Hartman and his teacher, Joseph Soloveitchik.

Reading Hartman and Soloveitchik, I first encountered normative and traditional ideas in Judaism. I found these ideas compelling and substantive and discovered that by temperament and philosophy I was (and remain) partial to ideas like God as creator and redeemer, like the world to come, like reward and punishment — especially as discussed with sophistication by the rabbis.

I was quite comfortable that, while my own practice didn’t reflect the ideas I was learning, nonetheless, these ideas held as real, as anchors, for my developing theology. For it seemed rather clear that without the tradition and its animating ideas, we are, more or less, floating about and lunging at one intellectual life raft after another. I wanted to swim and not sink in the life-giving waters of the Torah and related literature. I absolutely revelled in the compelling ideas of the rabbis and others. I sought their ideas as friends and teachers — as the best ideas can often be for intellectual seekers.

More than anything else, I learned in reading Hartman and Soloveitchik that ideas matter; they help us to understand our world and our place in it; they help organize our thinking about how and why we live in the image of God. Put simply, my way toward religiosity, as well as my belief in Torah mi-Sinai (“Torah from Sinai,” which I came to slowly over time), developed through learning the ideas fundamental to Jewish tradition. The intellectual door into the House of Judaism was my way toward the centre of Jewish life.

I also learned from Hartman and Soloveitchik, albeit indirectly, that religious practice needn’t necessarily be reflective of religious belief: what you believe may not necessarily lead to a practice consistent with those beliefs. (My practice wasn’t and has never been so consistent, and I have never been anything less than comfortable with the contradiction.) Finally, I learned not to judge Judaism by what individual Jews do or believe; Judaism exists on its own, and we are, most of the time, fairly inadequate embodiments of the tradition.

READ: RABBI SOLOVEITCHIK’S ESSAYS DEAL WITH TIMELESS QUESTIONS

So, in the end, what do I believe about the Ur-idea of our tradition, that the Torah itself was revealed by God on Sinai? It became clear early on, at least to me, that either the fundamentals at the heart of the tradition — God is real, God has commanded, God has commanded His people — are either real or not. Related: matters of belief aren’t measured by the normal terms of evidence; belief need bear little resemblance to what the world looks like. Put differently, there is no direct relationship between faith and consequence, between deed and reward. That I learned from the Rabbis and from life.

And so, with regard to what happened on Sinai, I have faith that it occurred, and this faith was a conscious choice, made over time, because the opposite means not only no faith and not only no God, but it also makes far less sense.

I have faith that God was present and real at Sinai. I have faith that then and there God set in motion a very different kind of history and direction for a particular people at a particular time. There the Jews were given the unique mission to testify to God’s word and way on earth, to spread these truths to others for the benefit of all humans.

Specifically, I believe that God revealed the Torah to the Israelites on the Mountain, and over a fairly short period of time a few with capability at writing recorded what was “revealed” in their presence. As with any communication, what was said wasn’t necessarily exactly what was heard, and therefore the contradictions in our Torah are of no surprise, nor of concern (at least to me), with regard to the matter of faith.

And, finally, I believe that a commanding God spoke at Sinai. Consequently, Jews have been a commanded people ever since, as well as a responding people. Whether we respond or not, and how we do so, these are entirely different matters; they don’t provide evidence one way or another about God’s presence or nature.

Do I believe this way in part because, as suggested, as a young man, I wanted a strong Jewish identity, more Judaic knowledge, and a place in the world? No doubt.

Do I also believe as I do because, as suggested, the opposite means that the whole thing — God, revelation, commandments — is a fairy tale, meaning that Judaism is entirely created from the human mind and experience? To me this renders our religious tradition a plastir, not even a Hebrew word but rather a Greek one that Moses cunningly employs to slam God when God bars Moses from the Promised Land. At that moment Moses says to God, as the Rabbis reconfigure it, that his Torah is plastir, that is, “plaster,” a cover, something essentially phony.

So, in the end, I believe in Torah mi-Sinai because, while the palpable experience of God has never been my lot, faith, slowly growing, episodically deepening, has been. For that I count myself fortunate, among the faithful, and for that I thank God.


Edited and excerpted from Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi by Rabbi John Moscowitz (Dundurn Press).