Tuesday, July 5, 2016

I don't know what happened at Sinai

When I was young I thought it was just a story. Millions of people around (or under) the mountain. G-d speaking to them in words so awesome they beg G-d to stop, plead with G-d to give the words to Moses instead, saying they will do and later they will understand. (Admittedly this isn't exactly the story I heard as a young Christian girl, but that's a subject for another time.)

Every religion has its revelatory moment. As Jews, this is ours. But what really happened?

I don't know. I wasn't there.

A few weeks ago an observant, traditional Jew, who I think of as a friend and teacher, was talking with me about Revelation and I said the above words to him. For a few moments after, there was silence in the car we were riding in. Then he began to explain that he thought a Judaism without absolute certainty about Revelation would be shallow and uninspiring. I was thinking about that when we reached our destination and that conversation ended.

But my thinking about the subject didn't.

Sinai and the Revelation have always been a “stumbling block” in my Jewish path. That short conversation got me to thinking about before I converted (more than a decade ago now) when I was wrestling with the question: can I, in good conscience, convert? The biggest issue that made me hesitate? Revelation.

I should probably explain the difference to me between “I know” and “I believe.” If I can put my hand out and touch it, or use another of my senses to perceive it, only then do I consider I “know.”

I know, for example, that Texas is real. Been there – seen it, touched it, heard it, smelled it, tasted it. Spent several not especially happy years living there. Experienced it in all its self-proclaimed glory. Japan? Ireland? I haven't been there. But I've seen pictures, and more important to me, people that I know and trust have been there. So those places fall into “I don't know, but it is highly probable that they are there.”

Electricity? I haven't experienced that directly, thank goodness, but I have experienced light bulbs, so again, I accept the probability. But I can’t say I “know” electricity exists.

And then there is the question of belief. I suspect it isn’t everyone who can say they were thrown out of a Christian Sunday school when they were six years old because of a question about belief.

I can’t really remember if the Sunday School was attached to a Baptist or Methodist church. We moved a lot and my mother simply sent me to whichever of those two denominations was within walking distance. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. At the time I didn’t understand there was a difference. The point is that I was that kid – the one who asked the kinds of questions that always got this answer: “Just believe. You just have to have faith!”

I knew myself well enough, even at that age, to realize that I didn’t have faith. But if folks I respected thought it was that important, then I wanted to have it. So I asked, in all innocence, “What do you do if you don’t have faith?” I’m sure the teacher thought I was just being a smarty pants kid, but I really wanted to know.

The answer, that day at least, was walk home early from Sunday School.

The thing that bothered me then, and that bothers me now for that matter, is if people are made in the image of G-d, then reason is a G-d given faculty. Why, then, am I expected to put what G-d gave me aside to “believe in G-d?”

Given my rather limited definition of what I “know” measured against the huge sum total of everything there is in the Universe, or even on our tiny speck of a planet, there’s an awful lot of stuff left for me to take on faith – to believe in.

But I don’t really do belief. I put an awful lot things in a category I label: things that are probably, or possibly, true. Then I just leave them there until something happens that allows me to move them out of that box. (Except for things that are to my mind, obviously too irrational, absolutely illogical or just plain way the heck out there to ever get moved. And yes, I decide what things those are – but only for me. I never expect anyone else to agree with me.)

Simply put, I’m just not willing to give up my G-d given rational mind to “believe.” (And it turns out Maimonides wasn't much on that either, so a pretty impressive person I'd never heard of when I was six has some interesting thoughts about all this.)

Luckily for me there’s no need for me to believe in G-d. I “know” G-d exists. It may surprise you I say that. With which of my senses do I perceive G-d? All of them. Any of them. None of them. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his essay The Lonely Man of Faith, talks about how experiencing G-d is a deeply real, extremely profound and completely personal experience that you can't describe or explain to anyone else. But you know.

However, all I know about G-d is that G-d is. I know nothing about a physical body, or human characteristics of any kind. To paraphrase what Alan Watts, a writer and philosopher I read back in my hippie days, said about G-d – If you can say it, that isn't IT.

So do I know that G-d spoke to the multitudes at Mount Sinai? No. I don't know. I wasn't there to experience it.

(I will admit to having problems with the idea of G-d speaking, implying physicality, implying limitations to something I “know” has no limits. On the other hand, I am not willing to say G-d could not do anything G-d chose to do. No limits remember? Back to “I don't know.”)

As I said above, my friend/teacher said he thought that being Jewish without being certain about what happened at Sinai would take away from the depth of your religious experience.

I had to think about that long after the car ride before I could answer. And this is that answer.

I can accept the Revelation at Sinai as the foundation upon which our religious observance is built without knowing how it happened, or even if it happened. It is something I can't know, by my definition of knowing, and I can live with that. One of my favorite things about Judaism is that certainty is not required.

I am in touch with the G-d I do know is there – sometimes more, sometimes less – but I am always aware of the Presence. I know that Judaism is my path to becoming a better person, which by my definition is being more aware of G-d more of the time. And I am so deeply happy to have finally found the right path for me. Sometimes I am overflowing with joy just being Jewish. I can't compare the depth of what I feel with what anyone else feels, but I know absolutely I am blessed. And I'm good with that. Even without the knowing.

- - - - - - - - -

An interesting related article I found online
Was There An Exodus? Joshua Berman
A scholar offering proofs the Exodus was a historical event

A pdf of the essay by Rabbi Soloveitchik, published in the magazine Tradition, Summer, 1965
It is pretty amazing.


  1. Hi from another Miriam(Miriam Alexandra, aka Alex) and thank you for articulating so well the know/believe thing. Like you, I *know* G-d is. It was lovely to read such a similar description......thank you. I had a specific experience four and a half years ago which gave me thst(I was born Jewish but raised and schooled in a nominally Protestant part of Scotland)
    All the best

    1. Thank you so much for the kind comment, and nice to know I am not alone in the way I think about know/believe.

  2. Thank you for allowing us into your world!!! Where do I begin?? I love the fact that you took the time to define what "I know" and "I believe" meant to you and I like to say that until now, I couldn't put my finger on it, but I agree with your aforementioned definitions.

    The more I learn about my faith the more I see how wonderful these people are...my people. While physically I wasn't at Har Sinai, I feel that I was there spiritually. The souls of the Jews left in Mitzraim were there, those physically standing at the foot of that mountain were present, and the souls to be brought to the tribe by way of lineage or choice, were there. My reasoning is as follows: If it wasn't given there, then when and where?

    The narratives of our forefathers and mothers, to me, paint a picture of imperfectitude (I just made that up) and the desire to be closer to The Creator--fearing our Father would be let down by His people in the same vein that no one wants to let down their father here on earth. Like a family meeting on Full House, our Father sat all of us down the--WHOOOOOLE mishpuchah, and reiterated how loved we are and loved and protected we'd always be should we heed His instruction.

    I can appreciate your point of view, but in my line of work, the news, the craziness that is this world, I tend to let the spiritual voices do most of the driving and I only let logic seep through when it comes to paying bills and not ordering an extra order of fries.