What if God’s revelation to us this year were an instruction to rise above polarization?
At this time of year, I spend a lot of time trying to build excitement about Shavuot. Historically, Shavuot is one of the three most important days of the Jewish year. But today in the liberal American Jewish world, it has few associations for anyone — aside from maybe (in some Reform communities) confirmation, and cheesecake. Everyone knows Passover. Everyone knows the High Holidays. But what’s so special about Shavuot? In a word: revelation.
Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The anniversary of the time when — according to Jewish tradition — every Jewish soul who ever was, is, or will be stood together in one place and encountered God’s presence together. Here’s a story about that:
Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mount Sinai, young [men] and old, women, children, and infants heard the voice of God according to their ability to understand. Moses, too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), “Moses spoke, and God answered him with a voice.” With a voice that Moses could hear. — Shemot Rabbah 5:9
This is one of my favorite short midrashim (exegetical stories) about the giving of the Torah at Sinai. I taught this to my b’nei mitzvah students recently. In response, one of them volunteered the information that there are now something like 7,000 human languages, down — thanks to colonialism and various trends toward homogenization — from at least twice that a few centuries ago.
I thanked him for the insight, and explained that for the sages of our tradition, 70 is a symbolic number which suggests a near-infinity. The Torah, our sages say, has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Just so, God spoke at Sinai in 70 languages — which is to say, all of them — at once. Not only did revelation come forth in every human language at once, but it also came forth to the broad spectrum of people in the community. Torah itself may offer us a scene where women are exhorted to stay away from the mountain, but this midrash tells us that in fact we were all there.
“Young and old” — that structure is a merism, a rhetorical device which names both extremes as a way of suggesting everything in between. From young to old and everyone in between. And then we get “women, children, and infants,” too, in case the inclusivity wasn’t clear. From those who are male-identified to those who are female-identified and everyone in between. Even children, even the powerless, even those who are still figuring out who and what we are.
All of us were there. All of us heard. And what we heard, we heard according to our ability to understand. Torah comes to meet us wherever we are. Torah comes to lift us up, wherever we are. Torah comes to inspire us, wherever we are. And because each of us hears according to her or his own temperament and inclinations, we don’t always understand Torah in the same ways. But Torah doesn’t belong only to those who read it this way, or those who read it that way. Torah does not belong to religious liberals any more than it belongs to religious conservatives. Torah trumps those categories.
According to our midrashic tradition, God gives Torah to all of us — regardless of gender expression, sexual orientation, age, race, creed, color, class, political party — and it belongs to all of us, wherever we are. Does that seem too radical? Look back at the beginning of the midrash: God’s voice divided itself into every human language. For all that our tradition privileges Hebrew, revelation didn’t happen only in that language.
Revelation came in every language, because revelation belongs not only to Jews but to all creation. As my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi likes to say, God broadcasts on all channels; each religious tradition hears revelation on the channel to which we are attuned. The necessary corollary to that, of course, is that each religious tradition contains at least some ultimate truth. If some facet of the Infinite is revealed to each religious tradition, then it’s no longer possible to say that we have it right and they have it wrong.
Torah isn’t just for us, no matter how “us” is defined. Torah isn’t just for men, or just for women, or just for cis-gendered folks. Torah isn’t just for Orthodox Jews, or Reform Jews, or any other Jewish category anyone can come up with. Torah isn’t just for those who are shomer Shabbat. Torah isn’t just for conservative settlers who want to claim every inch of Judea and Samaria, and Torah isn’t just for progressive activists who seek to end the occupation and create a free Palestine alongside Israel.
Torah isn’t just for people who are enlightened. Torah isn’t just for people who are unenlightened. Torah is for everyone. We’re called to share this most precious gift with every person and every nation in the world, and that in turn obligates us to combat our own tendencies toward insularity. To me, this midrash is a clear instruction about internal work we need to do.
We need to notice us/them thinking when it arises — to detach from judgment (after all, Torah must also be for people who are still inhabiting an us/them paradigm) — and then to consciously let that old-paradigm thinking go. This isn’t going to happen quickly or easily. It’s going to require regular practice. But we need it desperately. Polarization in American political discourse grows stronger every year. Just look at our furious debates about Obamacare, the way the American Right, and especially the Tea Party, responds to President Obama, the way the American Left responds to the Tea Party in turn. Look at rhetoric around the appropriate size and role of government: one side arguing that big government is wasteful and lumbering, the other side arguing that cutting government programs is hurtful to those who are most in need.
Turn on any talk-radio program. Toggle between news channels. Each side feels victimized and angry, and that seems to be perennial. So does polarization in the American Jewish community around Israel, especially as soon as someone mentions BDS. There’s no nuanced conversation about the differences between boycotting settlement-made products and boycotting Israel writ large.
People fall quickly into oppositional camps, like iron filings drawn by magnets. On the one side, furious shouting about how Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, with a better human rights record than its neighbors, and any comparison with apartheid is delegitimizing and inappropriate. On the other side, furious shouting about how Palestinians experience regular humiliation at checkpoints and receive different treatment than Israelis, and by the way BDS is nonviolent and would its opponents prefer a violent response to injustice instead?
Each side feels victimized and angry, and that seems to be perennial. With polarization comes entrenchment, and often a sense of righteous indignation. And I know how good that indignation can feel; I’m as attached to my heartfelt political convictions as anyone else. And yet I hear our tradition calling me to lift myself out of the polarization, and to seek to see our differences from a higher vantage. I hear our tradition calling me to enter into conversations: to exit the comfortable echo chamber of homophily, and to actually listen to people who are different from me.
Imagine if we could relate to our differences around the appropriate size and configuration of government with nuance and compassion. Imagine if we could relate to our differences around Israel and Palestine with nuance and compassion. In a spirit of eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayyim, “these and those are [both] the words of the living God.” In a spirit of recognizing that the revelation of Torah at Sinai was for all of us — for all creation — not grudgingly, despite our differences, but with infinite lovingkindness and compassion. What if that revelation could come down to water the thirsty earth this Shavuot. Where could we go from there?
Martin Buber writes, in Tales of the Hasidim, that the rabbi of Kotzk was asked, “Why is Shavuot called ‘the time the Torah was given’ rather than the time we received the Torah?” The Kotzker answered: “The giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times.”
We don’t have to wait for Shavuot to change our way of relating to each other. Indeed, Shavuot won’t automatically change anything at all. But our story of revelation as the culmination of this Omer season offers a spiritual framework for the possibility of consciously seeking change.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH in 2011 and is a Rabbis Without Borders rabbinic fellow this year. She is author of “Waiting to Unfold” (Phoenicia, 2013, poems about motherhood) and “70 Faces” (Phoenicia, 2011, a collection of Torah poems) and is on Zeek’s board of directors. She is also the Velveteen Rabbi.
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