It just does not make sense. I am sure that – having read of God’s revealing of Godself at Sinai (Exodus 19), calling out the Ten Commandments to the people (Exodus 20) and the people responding in fear by asking that Moses act as their mediator with God – we left last week’s parshah with Moses in the cloud with God receiving a set of laws. Whilst most of our portion is made up of these laws (Exodus 21 – 23) after which the parashah, mishpatim, is named, it includes a confusing narrative section in Exodus 24. Here we read that God instructed Moses, who we thought was already up the mountain, to make another ‘aliyah’ to ascend (back?) to the Eternal, this time with other assorted family members and elders. In this section it is hard to keep track of who has been given an aliyah to ascend the mountain; who has actually had their aliyah; and where Moses actually goes after his aliyah.
I am in good company: the classical commentators struggled to make sense of the choreography of Sinai too. Nachmanides (1194 – 1270) managed to maintain that Moses’s movements in Exodus 24 chronologically follow those in Exodus 19 and 20. Contrastingly Rashi (1040 – 1105), in line with an earlier midrash, understands them to be describing the same event, suggesting that the whole chronology of this section is dubious.
In a fascinating article about the revelation at Sinai, Biblical scholar Benjamin D. Sommer argues that the disagreement about the nature and order of the events at Sinai predates the medieval and even the rabbinic commentators. He locates the disagreement within the biblical text itself. Using the tools of biblical criticism, he follows other biblical scholars in suggesting that the composition of the text of Exodus 19, 20 and 24 includes the redaction of at least three different traditions (J, P and E). He also points to inner-biblical commentary – moments elsewhere in the Tanakh that comment on and interpret other parts of the biblical text. Deuteronomy 4:10-14 is one example. There the text attempts to tell a consistent narrative about the events at Sinai, and in the process commenting on the confusing Exodus version.
I rarely find the approach of biblical criticism compelling when I learn Torah hoping for theological insight, yet Sommer challenges me by arguing that biblical criticism can be not only historically interesting but theologically helpful.
He cites the unorthodox approach to Torah of Franz Rosenzweig (1886 – 1929) who argued that:
The primary content of revelation is revelation itself. ‘He came down’ (Exodus 19:20) – this already concludes the revelation; ‘He spoke’ (Exodus 20:1) is the beginning of interpretation.
The implication of what Rosenzweig is saying is radical: it is as though all of the Torah is midrash, an interpretation of this one moment of revelation. With this statement Rosenzweig differentiates his approach from an orthodox one that might maintain that God had spoken the words of the Torah to Moses. At the same time Rosenzweig differentiates himself from biblical critics by renaming the redactor (‘R’), rabbeinu (our teacher). By including the laws, mishpatim, in our parashah, in-between the narratives of revelation (Exodus 19/20, 24) the redactors taught us about the nature of commandedness contained in revelation.
The genius of Sommer’s article is that he locates Rosenzweig’s argument within the biblical text itself. He suggests that in redacting the biblical text together in this way, the biblical editors maintained various textual interpretations of revelation, and in so doing they offered multiple theologies of how Divinity and humanity communicate.
As I pondered the various ‘aliyot’ up the mountain in Exodus 24 I found myself thinking about the complicated choreography of a Torah service in shul. The Torah service is designed, as its liturgy suggests, to re-enact the moment of the revelation at Sinai so that the community can attempt to experience the words of Torah as revelation. It can get quite confusing: have the two people come up to open the ark?; do we do hagba’ah before or after the reading?; do I have the correct Hebrew names for the aliyot?; where does someone stand after their aliyah?; which way to do we process the Sefer Torah before and after? I have an instinct to simplify and shorten the Torah service to make it more manageable. Perhaps a more appropriate way to re-enact the mysterious paradox that is God’s self-manifestation would be to go against this instinct and make our Torah services more chaotic, confused and sublimely holy: just like the Torah itself.
In this essay I relied on the following texts:-
Benjamin D. Sommer, ‘Revelation at Sinai in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish Theology’, Journal of Religion, 1999.
Franz Rosenzweig, ‘The Unity of the Bible: A position paper vis-à-vis Orthodoxy and Liberals’ in Scripture and Translation translated by Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox (Bloomington, 1994).
Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, ‘Revelation and Law’ in On Jewish Learning edited by Nahum Glatzer (New York, 1955).
Student rabbi Daniel Lichman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.