The centrality of Torah

The centrality of Torah

Shavuot Bamidbar | Numbers 1:4-4:20

This linking of Pesach, z’man heruteinu (the season of our liberation) with Shavuot, z’man matan Torahteinu (the season of the giving of our Torah), is taken for granted by Jewish tradition and yields millennia of commentary that point toward the revelation at Sinai as one of the goals — if not the only one — of the Exodus. 

A curiosity is that while later Jewish tradition links Shavuot to the revelation, the Torah seems to have no awareness of this. The Torah does indicate a holiday to be observed seven weeks after Pesach, but the association is agricultural. If all we had was the testimony of the Torah, all we would observe on Shavuot would be an offering of the first fruits.

When we look elsewhere in the Bible for information about the revelation at Sinai, or some connection of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah, we come up empty-handed. The Prophets do not include exhortations to remember the revelation or to subscribe to the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim (Torah from heaven). The Book of Psalms (68, 78, 105, 136) offers recapitulations of God’s mighty works or of the saga of the Israelites, but do not include the covenant at Sinai and the revelation of the Torah as integral pieces of those narratives. 

It is certainly provocative that a principle as fundamental as “Torah from Sinai” is absent from the books of the Jewish Bible, with one exception — Exodus 19-20 (and the parallels in Deuteronomy 4-5), the only testimony the Torah offers for the revelation at Sinai. Despite the certainty of later Jewish tradition that the entire Torah was revealed at Sinai, each text is exceptionally unclear about any such assertion. 

Contemporary scholars who view the Torah as a historically developed text have less difficulty with this puzzle. They would assert that while certain documents in the Torah were in existence at even an earlier stage of Israelite history, the evidence for a text we know as The Five Books of Moses seems to date from about 450 BCE, in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Since the Books of the Prophets close with the writings of Malachi — also dated to about this same time — it would not be unusual for the prophets to omit mention of “the Torah” or of revelation at Sinai; by this reasoning, the text did not yet exist. 

The absence of biblical evidence for the revelation at Sinai or for Shavuot as a day to remember that event need not diminish the holiday’s importance. Whatever its historical, spiritual, human, or divine origins, the Torah is, in the words of Reconstructionist movement founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the earliest diary of the Jewish people, recording their quest to discover how to live a collective life of ethical nationhood. As with any diary from younger days, it records halting and often incorrect understandings of complex ideas. But also, as with any other such diary, it contains insights, awareness, and teachings that remain durable, foundational, and commanding.

Shavuot — when we celebrate the centrality of Torah and its role as a common sacred text out of which generations of Jews have spun and continue to spin conversations, questions, and insights into how best to live a godly life — remains “the season of the giving of our Torah.”

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