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Suddenly Sinai

by Eytan Kobre

Among the lessons lying in the recent Middle East unrest is the powerful connection between the Jewish past and current events. The prospects for peace have been torn asunder on the rocks of the Temple Mount, a piece of land Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has refused to concede to his erstwhile peace partners. As part of their efforts to sway world opinion, the Palestinians have taken to denying the existence of any Jewish religious or national claim to the Temple Mount and, by extension, to Jerusalem as a whole.

The chorus of Arab revisionism includes the Palestinian Authority's top Moslem cleric, declaring that "the Wailing Wall is not a holy place of the Jews," as well as Yassir Arafat himself, who asserts that the status of Jerusalem "is a Palestinian, Arab, Islamic, and Christian issue," but not a Jewish one, because the First and Second Holy Temples are just so much myth. Indeed, Palestinian spokesmen have gone so far as to write off huge portions of early Jewish history - including the Patriarchal period and the Davidic dynasty - as mere legends.

These pronouncements are designed, of course, to undermine Jewry's reliance on the Torah as a divine deed to the Land of Israel, an argument no less an arch-secularist than Ben Gurion made before the United Nations. And so, as the question of the Torah's historical accuracy takes on a heightened immediacy, the revelation at Mount Sinai has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight.

Judging from surveys, however, the question of the Torah's veracity does not rank very high on most American Jews' list of important issues. It seems, at least to them, to lack the relevance of other concerns - like Jewish cooking, which ranked first in a recent Jewish Theological Seminary survey of American Jews' study interests.

The relative disinterest in the issue of the Torah's authenticity extends even to some who profess to live the life of the mind. In the introduction to his book Permission To Receive: Four Rational Approaches to the Torah's Divine Origin, Lawrence Kelemen writes that he had sent a review copy of his work for critique to a colleague, a brilliant academician with wide-ranging intellectual interests. To his surprise, the colleague declined to read the manuscript, because he "was never bothered by the question" of the Torah's authorship. How was it possible, Kelemen wondered aloud, "that such an inquisitive scholar could approach the origin of humankind's most read, most published, and once most influential text with such unabashed apathy?"

In truth, most of the prosaic practicalities that fill our lives are actually based on abstract concepts from theoretical realms like physics, chemistry and physiology. While we may not always be fully conscious of or knowledgeable about these natural laws, we certainly acknowledge their relevance.

Yet the question of whether the Jewish people possess an accurate record of God's will for humanity is consigned by many to the same mental compartment that houses ruminations about pinhead-dancing angels. In truth, though, the facts of the Torah's origins hold the most profound sort of relevance imaginable for every area of human experience.

A letter writer to Reform Judaism magazine, writing to support that movement's recent turn towards tradition, succinctly described what's at stake: "It all comes down to this: Either God gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai or He didn't. If He did, then we need to accept it and study it in order to gain meaning in our lives, not just dismiss it as myth or drone on about the J, E, P, or D editors. If G-d did not give us the Torah on Mount Sinai, then who cares what it says?" Or, as the writer David Klinghoffer put it: "It's hard to see why anyone would embrace a religion if it comes down to us ultimately not from God but from some long-dead Middle Eastern guys."

There are, of course, some who do recognize the far-reaching ramifications of the Torah's origins but automatically dismiss the issue as a non-starter, having, in Kelemen's words, "internalized [the 18th century Enlightenment's] secular creed that revelation is necessarily irrational." Yet, as the late Professor Leo Strauss trenchantly observed, the savants of the Enlightenment, in their onslaught against religion and biblical historicity, never truly engaged the entire concept of revelation. They merely posited its non-existence, elevated that assumption to the status of fact and proceeded from there.

The point, in essence, is elementary: irrespective of how one, after careful investigation, may ultimately conclude on the question of whether the Jewish people experienced a national revelation at Sinai, common sense dictates that it be pondered and studied rather than dismissed as irrelevant or irrational. After all, there are only a very few questions with powerful implications for every aspect of our lives - and this is certainly one of them.

It is a crucial question because truth matters. It is a crucial question because so many contemporary Jews are faced with a competition for their loyalties between Judaism and the enticements of a fiercely secular and pluralistic American society.

And it is a crucial question because Israel's very claim to legitimacy depends upon it.


Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's pool of writers



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