Study and Theory/
Shavuot

Avraham Yitzhak Green

Seek My Face, Call Out My Name

Facing the mountain

A common custom on the night of Shavuot is to conduct a night-long vigil of reading and studying Torah. The Tikkun, according to its Kabbalistic basis, is an act of renewing the connection and the covenant between the nation and the Torah, between the nation and its G-d.
According to tradition, it is customary to read regular texts designated for this night; however, the custom has assumed a new form, as a night of learning and study of the sources.

In the following we bring a proposed plan for Shavuot night study, or any other time...
You may regard the proposal presented here as a flexible one:
You may choose it in its entirety or selectively, choosing just some of the Midrashim and the modern text presented in the following, as needed and depending on time.
You may use the guiding questions offered alongside the sources, or form your own independent direction of study. You also use the aids that accompany the text.

Words that my require interpretation are bolded in blue, and their meaning may be clarified. Verses from the Bible cited in the Midrashim are bolded in purple. You can find their references and read the Biblical text and deepen your understanding of their connection to the Midrash.

The Shavuot festival is the time of the giving of the Torah. On this day, according to tradition, the Torah was given to Israel (the Jewish people).

We chose here to bring a subject connected with the giving of the Torah to Israel, and the ‘choosing’ that accompanies it. Would that our dealing with a topic that raises moral difficulty for some of us constitute an act of tikkun (repair)...

 

A trembling came over me as we drew near Mt. Sinai, the peak of the Jewish faith. This is the crossroads of the divine revelation and the human response. We cannot talk of one without the other. The voice of G-d
and the voice of man are intertwined, involved and embraced with each other like the cherubs over the covering of the Holy Ark. We comprehend the divine speech
only with the human vessel in which it is both revealed and concealed. There are many human tongues, each giving testimony of a meeting with the divine in its own special voice; hiding and revealing the One in its own special way. Divine life as manifested in the world is open to all, beyond the language of any particular tradition.
The divine light shines on all in equal measure; only differences in our cultural frameworks are the cause of religious difference, as a result of absorbing, refracting and delivering the rays of light in different symbolic vessels. But since we sought to discuss the human response to the divine being, we have arrived at a discussion of particular spiritual entities.  Mankind has responded to the divine being in many different ways. The unity of G-d is reflected here in multiplicity of colors, difference of traditions, customs, prayers and forms of human expression. Pp. 79-80

 

How does Green view the differences between different languages, religions and traditions? What is there relation to the divine?

 

G-d, creator of the universe, decided at a certain time in history to be revealed exclusively to the Jewish people, appealed to them in words of speech and committed himself in a covenant of eternal loyalty, if they perform his specific will as expressed in the practice of the precepts of Judaism. Do both reason and conscience rebel against such a notion? Can we imagine a G-d arbitrary to the extent that he chooses one people, one place, and one hour in human history, in which the eternal divine will is revealed forever? What was the point of taking the traditions, laws and prejudices prevalent among western Semitic tribes of a certain period, and impose them on all mankind as a basis for fulfilling the will of G-d? How is it possible that G-d, who only obligates Israel, gave to all mankind, including over half of mankind of whom their spiritual traditions had nothing to do with Sinai and its legacy...

 

Why do reason and conscience revolt? If the revelation and precepts are the heart of the Jewish faith, are they not also among the most difficult and amazing claims of our religious tradition?

 

For these reasons, inter alia, many thoughtful contemporary Jews, including many who seek a serious approach toward spiritual issues, are reluctant to assume the “burden” of Sinai. There are quite a few hints in the Judaic literature of previous generations that suggest that we, Jews of the modern era, are not the first who find it difficult to accept the dualistic approach of the revelation at face value. There is a well-known chapter in the Midrash, it says: when G-d wanted to give the Torah to Israel, he was not revealed to Israel only, but to all nations of the world, and offered it to them. After they all rejected it, he gave it to Israel. Before accepting it, each nation asked to know what was written in this Torah, and each found a reason to reject it. Only Israel said: We Will Do And We Will Hear. Out of their love for G-d they agreed to receive the Torah, even before they knew what was written in it. This story is nothing more that ancient justification for the claim of exclusivity in choosing Israel.

 

What does Green mean when he says that this Midrash is “justification for Israel’s claim of exclusivity”? 

 

 What this apologetic Midrash is saying, in essence, is that Israel is not exactly the “chosen people”; rather, the only nation that chose G-d’s Torah of its own volition. 
The idea that G-d was revealed to other nations was already clear to the Prophets; however, in later Judaism there was an inclination to forget it.
pp. 80-81 

 

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. What change does Green suggest for the ‘chosen people’ concept?

Role of the covenant

The idea of the people entering a covenant with G-d, among the pillars of self-understanding of our Torah, needs a renewed interpretation in our times. In the version of Jewish faith in which G-d is not ‘the absolute other’ and the ‘will of G-d’ is far from being an abstract concept, the concept of ‘covenant’ cannot be taken at face value either. The religious language of our heritage speaks of a G-d who chose Israel from among all nations to receive the one and only revelation, i.e., the giving of the Torah. In terms of classical Judaism, the choice of Israel by G-d is the basis of the covenant. However, G-d as the chooser is a highly anthropomorphic concept of Jehovah.  Since we have acknowledged that the very description of G-d is a human projection on the universe, we must also recognize divine selection as a projection, as a way in which the Jewish people claims it has a special relationship with the divine. Pp. 90 

 

What is this commitment? What moral implication could derive from this?

Concluding discussion ​

Is the covenant indeed a one-sided transaction? What is the meaning of a covenant, without two sides engaged in a mutual commitment?
Once again, the terms I and You we are accustomed to must be reread from our unified standpoint. If a relationship with G-d is like removing a barrier (or seeing through a mask) then more than like building a bridge over a chasm, the covenant is like a commitment to remain loyal to the divine I discovered within us. It is a decision to live a life that enables this One to be discovered by others through us. A covenant is the willingness to serve as a conduit, to serve as a channel of divine grace for those whom we love, and even to all men. “For the People of Israel exist below in order to open roads, blaze trails and turn on lights; to lift everything up from earth to heaven, for all to become one.” pp. 91 

 

Does Green’s approach open the possibility of seeing the choice as that of a ‘rose among roses’?

Our choice of a responsibility which is not exclusively ours in the world?
Do we feel threatened by such an approach? What does it put at risk?
What does it jeopardize?
What can such an approach contribute to us?

For further study see:
Avraham Yitzhak Green, “Seek My Face, Call Out My Name”, Am Oved Publishers, 1997.

Menachem Hirshman, “Kol ba'ei Olam” [All Humanity: a Universalist Stream in Tannaitic Literature and its Attitude toward Gentile Wisdom] Ha-Kibbutz Hameuhad Publishers, 1999.

Aviezer Ravitzky, “Freedom on the Tablets - Other Voices of Religious Thinking”

Am Oved Publishers, 1999. See the chapter: “Tolerance and Gentiles” pp. 134-138

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