Jewish Denominations on Revelation

From Sinai to schism.

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How can we understand Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Sinai? There are as many answers as there are denominations. As a denominational question, Sinai is an issue of authority and chronology. Does truth come only from God, or can it also come from the community or a principled individual? Does God’s ultimate revelation of truth take place each and every day, or did God deliver one authoritative message long ago?

The denomination question examines the thought behind our actions. It asks why we do what we do. This level of "why" gives access to the real meaning of denominational difference, and takes us right back to that fateful encounter at Sinai.revelation 

God Changed Her Mind

What does Sinai look like for Reform Jews? For Reform Judaism, "Sinai" takes place every time a Jew makes a serious and conscientious choice. Reform Judaism’s Centenary Platform, adopted in San Francisco (1976), makes this simple and clear statement of Reform theology:  "Jewish obligation begins with the informed will of every individual."  The individual might consider all the dicta of Jewish tradition that has come before her, but in the moment of deciding whether to order tuna or bacon for lunch, the choice is still hers and hers alone. That moment of individual conscience, regardless of outcome, is sacred to Reform Judaism.

A Reform colleague of mine once described her conviction that rabbis should ritually sanctify gay and lesbian relationships by saying:  "I know what it says in the Torah (about homosexuality). But that’s not binding. God changed Her mind."  My colleague’s stance made perfect sense as long as we conceive of Sinai as a re-occurring process, not a fixed encounter. The Reform Movement’s 1937 Columbus Platform suggests that the written Torah is a "depository" of Biblical Israel’s consciousness of God—a record of past revelation—but certainly not the last word in our ongoing dialogue with God. Instead, "revelation is a continuous process, confined to no one group and to no one age."  Indeed, according to Reform Judaism, God can "change Her mind."  As such, Sinai is constantly taking place, and it is the role of the individual to listen closely to what God is saying.

The Authority of Sinai

The Orthodox tradition maintains that God taught everything which the Jewish people needed to know at Mount Sinai. This belief draws upon early Rabbinic literature. In Midrash Tanhuma (Buber-Ki Tisa 17), the Midrash relates: 

"When the Holy-One-Blessed-Be-God came to give Torah, He related it to Moshe in order. First Bible, then Mishnah, Aggadah and Talmud…even those future questions that a seasoned student would one day ask of his teacher. The Holy-One-Blessed-Be-God related even these things to Moshe at that time, as we find in the Torah:  And God spoke of all these things…"

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Rabbi Allen Selis

Allen Selis served as a congregational rabbi for eight years in Boulder, Colorado and Rockville, Maryland. He has taught and led professional development work in several Jewish day schools, while working towards a Ph.D. in Curriculum Theory and Development at the University of Maryland.