This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Two-Tiered Torah*

The Torah relates how the Israelites, terrified by the thunder and lightning that accompanied the revelation at Mount Sinai, begged Moses "You speak to us, and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die." Though this verse appears after the conclusion of the entire Decalogue, the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash generally understood that this exchange really occurred between the second and third commandments.

According to the familiar rabbinic interpretation, there was an essential differentiation between the first two of the ten commandments and the remaining eight. In the first two, God is referred to in the first person, indicating that he uttered them directly; whereas the other commandments were conveyed to the listeners through the agency of Moses. Numerous proof-texts were adduced to support this reading of the story.

However, not all Jewish exegetes were satisfied with this approach. For those commentators who subscribed to a rationalistic interpretation of Judaism, it was essential that the distinction between the two channels of revelation reflect a qualitative difference in their contents. There must be some logical reason why the people could endure hearing the latter commandments, but not the former ones. For most of these scholars, it was crucial to understand why Moses was more capable than the other Israelites of hearing God's word.

Judaism's most respected philosopher, Maimonides, struggled with these difficult questions in his Guide of the Perplexed. After carefully considering the relevant sources, he arrived at the conclusion that Moses was the only person ever to be addressed directly by God, and that everything that the Israelites heard at Sinai was translated for them by the prophet. Maimonides inferred this from the grammatical observation that the commandments were all addressed in the second-person-singular form, rather than the plural that would have been more appropriate if God were speaking to the entire nation.

This reading of the story is fully consistent with the philosophical theory of prophecy that was current among the medieval rationalists. In their view, the process of revelation was, above all, an intellectual achievement of the prophet, whose role was made possible by the fact that he was a master philosopher. It was only after a long and demanding apprenticeship in the natural sciences, logic and metaphysics that an individual could grasp meaningfully the pure abstraction that is God--a being who is entirely removed from matter, time or space in ways that the unsophisticated mind can never truly comprehend.

Moses, the preeminent prophet, was also the most accomplished philosopher; while the primitive Hebrew mob was unprepared to digest such sublime metaphysical concepts. It was therefore essential that Moses "dumb down" the divine message and express it in terms that could be understood by the unsophisticated masses.

However, Maimonides could not ignore the explicit statements in the Torah that the entire people heard God's voice at Sinai. He insisted that there is a fundamental difference between hearing a voice and hearing words. What the Hebrew masses heard at Sinai sounded to them like an incomprehensible thundering noise. Only Moses was able to extract the content of that noise and convey it to the rest of the people.

Unfortunately, my own intellectual level is probably closer to that of the Israelites than to Moses. The best image I can conjure up to illustrate Maimonides' theory is that God's "real" voice came out like the roar that we hear when we pick up a telephone receiver during a fax transmission. Moses was the only mortal who was able to make sense of that auditory chaos, and describe its message to the people in coherent words and sentences.

In addition to the distinctions between the modes of the revelations to Moses and to the rest of the Israelites, Maimonides also acknowledged that a significant differentiation existed between their contents. After all, commandments #1 and #2 are not your standard "thou shalt" or "thou shalt not." They are declarations of theological doctrines about the existence and oneness of God. As such, they require profound intellectual conviction. For this reason, Maimonides suggests, they must be "heard" in essentially the same way by the great prophet and by the common Jew. Each individual must arrive at metaphysical truth through a process of systematic reasoning. This is what distinguishes the first two commands from the other precepts, which can be obeyed on the basis of authority and without necessarily grasping their full significance.

Maimonides described the mighty noise that so frightened the people at Sinai as the ineffable sound of the divine voice, which they could not deconstruct into comprehensible language. As for all the clouds, mists, thunder and lightning that were present on that occasion--Maimonides speculated that God chose a stormy day for the revelation of the Torah in order to symbolically convey the idea that human beings, owing to our physical natures, are forever in the dark when it comes to fully comprehending the divine.

Other Jewish rationalists understood the matter somewhat differently. For example, Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles, author of a philosophical commentary on the Torah, stated that the thundering, as well as the voice that issued from Moses, were a nes--a particular kind of marvel that a prophet must sometimes perform in order "to convince the masses and to validate his prophecy. Without such devices, the people would regard the prophets as mere dreamers‚ because the masses are not convinced by intellectual reasoning."

In keeping with Maimonides' description of the prophetic vocation, Rabbi Nissim believed that the prophets were also consummate scientists who were able to effectively manipulate the laws of nature so as to impress the less sophisticated folks, who are impressed by such demonstrations. At most, Rabbi Nissim allowed for the possibility that God might have assisted Moses' presentation in slight matters, such as by conveying his voice from the top of the mountain so that it could be heard down below.

Though Nissim is usually very strongly influenced by Maimonides, on this point he seems to disagree quite blatantly with his illustrious mentor. Maimonides accepted that at Sinai the common people did attain a rational understanding of the concepts of divine existence and unity, whereas Rabbi Nissim patronizingly dismissed the Israelites' intellectual capabilities.

In stressing that Israel's acceptance of the covenant could only be achieved through a mindful appreciation of the revelation experience, Maimonides was adopting a similar approach to that of Rabbi Judah Hallevi in the Kuzari, who wrote that at Sinai, God commanded the people to undergo a unique regimen of moral and spiritual preparation that would enable them to truly hear the words of God. In this way, they could avoid any potential doubts regarding the veracity of the revelation.

Underlying the opposing interpretations of Maimonides and Rabbi Nissim is the fundamental question of whether our acceptance of the Torah derives from its contents or from its supernatural origin. Nissim is arguing that, if the Torah's greatness derives from the incomparable wisdom of its teachings, then we should accept it on its own merits, and not because of the dazzling pyrotechnics that surrounded its revelation. A truly refined intellect will appreciate the Torah's inherent excellence without need for external verification.

That may indeed be true--but I am not eager to forsake the thunder, lightning and darkness, whose dramatic impact makes the revelation at Sinai into such a moving and memorable experience.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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