Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
shavuot 5772

Shavuot: Rabbi Janet Burden
23 May 2012

In preparation for Shavuot, I have been looking in particular at the many midrashim addressing the subject of the Revelation at Sinai, which the festival of Shavuot has come to commemorate. The rabbis were fascinated by the scene set in Exodus 19 – the sight of the Divine cloud resting on the mountain, the lightning and thunder, and a sound like a shofar blast getting louder and louder.  They noticed minute curiosities in the text, such as the verse that states that the people ‘saw’ the thunderings from the mountain that were understood to be the voice of God.  But how do you ‘see’ thunder?  It would be like hearing yellow or tasting blue.  The most obvious explanation is simply that Biblical Hebrew has a very limited vocabulary.  One could solve the apparent problem by simply retranslating the verse as ‘the people perceived the thundering’.  But what fun is there in that?  The rabbis were playful, even when they had a serious point to make.  They wanted us to understand that the voice of God could not be anything like a human voice.  So they set about creating stories about the miraculous nature of Divine Speech.

These stories became hugely influential in ways that the rabbis could not have anticipated.  Philo of Alexandria developed them into a wholly new concept, the Logos, which fit better with the Greek philosophy in which his Jewish community in Egypt was immersed. Those of you who are familiar with early Christian writings will know that Philo’s writing was taken up by the Church fathers who sought to explain the opening passages of John’s gospel, ‘In the beginning was the word….” Mainstream Judaism did not embrace Philo’s teachings, but they can help us to appreciate that even this late gospel has direct parallels in our own texts, the most obvious being the blessing from the morning service, Baruch She-amar v’hayah ha-olam, Blessed is the one who spoke and the world came to be.

To return to the midrashim, however - my favourite midrash suggested that the Divine voice that issued from Sinai was actually many voices in one.  If the Torah was meant to be accessible to all people, every where, then it had to have been given to all humanity simultaneously.  Thus, the rabbis suggested, the instant the Divine voice spoke, it broke into seventy different voices speaking in the seventy different languages of the known nations of the world.

Over the past year, I have been fortunate to attend occasional meetings organised by my colleague and friend, Rabbi Mark Solomon, Liberal Judaism’s inter-faith consultant.  He is part of a team bringing rabbis from across the religious spectrum together with black clergy from a number of different, mostly evangelical churches.  I initially went with some trepidation, but the people I met were a far cry from the straightforward literalists I feared. They were not at all simplistic and certainly asked difficult and painful theological questions about the nature of religious experience and nature of whatever it is we might call God.  They likened the evils of the prejudice that led to the Holocaust to the evils that allowed white slavers to trap their people like animals, asking ‘Where is God in suffering?  And if God is with us in suffering, what does that mean?  How does it help?’  We suggested some of the answers we have found in post Holocaust theology.

What most impressed me was the integrity and openness that these ministers brought to the table.  One of them even told the story of a blind man who felt moved by the Spirit at a Bible meeting and dramatically cast away his white stick.  When our friend approached him as he left the venue on someone’s arm, he asked – ‘Can you truly see, brother?  Have you been healed?’  ‘I’m blind as a bat,’ the man admitted.  I admired the minister’s courage in relating this to us.  But, he said, it doesn’t change the fact that I believe the spirit can rest upon us, and that it can help us to be more free.

The most fascinating part of the conversation for me was a discussion of the subject of speaking in tongues.  As a mass phenomenon it was a fairly recent development in evangelical Christianity, one man suggested, possibly an influence from Africa in the early part of the 20th century.  Believers would read the New Testament text that described how the apostles felt the Holy Spirit resting upon them at Pentecost, and became so involved with the text that they too began speaking in tongues.

Pentecost is the Christian name for the holiday we celebrate as Shavuot.  I remembered as they were speaking that the New Testament text was written in the same milieu as many of the midrashim. I had a copy of Shemot Rabba in my bag, and drew it out to share with them the rabbinic text which I now believed inspired this whole notion of God’s voice ‘speaking in tongues’.  It made me see it in a whole different light, and much more sympathetically.  What my new friends made of it, I’m not too sure – some of them were not used to thinking about historical development, or at least not in this way.  But the recognition of the connection with Jewish tradition helped me to understand the arrogance I can so easily trip upon when encountering others whose faith and practice is different from my own.

I do believe that God ‘speaks’ to us in many voices and in many different ways.  I believe that what I call God was speaking to me through this incident, reminding me to be a little less smug and a lot more understanding of people who, in their own way, are searching for God.  That doesn’t mean that I embrace all expressions of religious fervour – some of them remain dangerous and damaging.  But I need to be careful about what I assume that I see or understand.

May God grant us the wisdom to look upon our others we meet with a discerning but generous eye.    Chag Shavuot Sameach!

Rabbi Janet Burden will be joining with Progressive Jews across London at the Liberal and Reform Tikkun Leil Shavuot, this year held at the West London Synagogue, 33 Seymour Place, W1.  
She will be speaking in support of the vote of no-confidence in Moses as the leader at the The People’s (Popular) Front of Judea’s Political Conference. Come and join the fun, from 9:00 pm.