What Happened After Sinai?

I have been thinking a bit about our Judeo-Christian religious landscape in this country.

Two weeks ago, we gathered to celebrate Shavuot, the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai by the Israelites.  Tradition has it that all the Jewish people, all that ever were and will be, were there in that moment, and that each heard the revelation in his or her own way.  According to the Jewish scholar, Marc Brettler, “God’s word is, indeed must be, multi-vocal rather than univocal since it speaks to humans, and different people by their nature need different understandings of God.  Even the same person at different times may view God differently.”

If everyone standing at Sinai received the Torah but heard it in a different voice, what was going to happen over time AFTER the experience at Sinai?  Would there be unity going forward?  Would the Israelites express their understanding and acceptance of God’s word, of the Torah, in the same way going forward?

From this formative experience at Sinai, an experience that as Jews we trace ourselves back to, came multiple ways of being in the world – not all of them Jewish.   The Israelites became the Jews and out of the Jewish people, sprang Christianity.

But one of the hallmarks of Christianity is that it rejected Jewish law.  In their rejecting the adherence to the strictures of Jewish law, Christians chose “creed over deed.”  Paraphrasing Rabbi Howard Siegel, A Christian believes that “what one believes is ultimately more important than what one does.  One should, of course, live a moral and ethical life, but in the end, [a Christian] is saved by belief in Jesus regardless of past deeds.

For the Jew, it is the opposite: “Deed” over “Creed.”  What one does, and how one behaves, is more important than what one believes.  Doing God’s will i.e., (working to make this a better world) is the path to faith and understanding of God’s ways.”[i]

This semester I am taking a class through the Claremont School of Theology entitled Religion in America.  Timothy Beal, one of Christian theologians we are reading as a part of the class begins his short book of the same name by saying that there were 35 churches within a mile of his house. He describes Plymouth Church, which is part of the United Church of Christ, the North Union Farmers Market where the Amish sell their wares, Beaumont School which is part of a cloistered community, First Church of Christ, Science, Saint James African Methodist Episcopal, Emmanuel Baptist, the Original Church of God… The list goes on and on…

Beal described the many Christianities that dot his landscape in Cleveland, and in much of the United States, and how each doctrinal difference has led to a new form of Christianity.  I had never given much thought to the idea that there is more than one way to be a Christian.

Last semester I enrolled in a class in modern Jewish thought and one of the texts was Aaron Hahn Tapper’s “Judaism(s).”    Tapper’s premise is that there has never been one Judaism.

Dating back to the 1st and 2nd temple periods and continuing over the centuries with the spread of Jews across the globe, Jews had differences in practice which evolved due to outside influences including host culture, political realities of the moment, community circumstance and textual interpretation.  This led community practice from the relatively monolithic people standing at Sinai, to today’s reality of multiple denominations and ethnicities, each with different approaches to Jewish law and practice.

It took me a long time to understand that there is no one Jewish answer to a given question.  And yet, what is it that has kept Judaism, even with all its diversity, to a relatively small number of denominations while within the Christian world, so much bifurcation has occurred?

The diversity of Christian expression in America, Beal noted that the huge number of churches was an American phenomenon, tied to the separation of church and state.  The Puritans who first came to this county were escaping the oppressive nature of the Church of England.   Their desire to separate church and state was not so much that they wanted to be secular, rather, they wanted to practice their Christian faith differently.   The King of England was the head of the Church of England.  There was no separation of the governing structure from one’s spiritual life – the two were intertwined into the culture of England.  This intertwining was the norm in most places.  Jews, in England and elsewhere, were able to follow Jewish practice because we were a self-governing, autonomous minority.  It was our nationhood, which was embodied cultural and ritual practices, that was permitted to varying degrees by host nations.   England itself, while it might have had some diversity of Christian practice, did not permit the broad expression that we see now in America which is why the Puritans came to this country, so they could diversify in their Christian practice.  Even with what we think of today as separation of church and state, at its core, the United States was founded as a country where people would have the freedom to practice Christianity in different forms.

The separation of church and state reinforced the idea that the spiritual realm is separate from the governing structures.   The spiritual realm became known as “religion.”   Christian practice in America was expression of religion.

And what made Judaism different?

Judaism never fit neatly into this separation.   Are we a culture?  Are we nation?  Are we an ethnicity?  Are we a religion?  Yes, and yes, and yes, and yes.

And yet, 450 years after Jews first set foot into the shores of North America, while we have lots of synagogues with different names, we still only have a few named denominational expressions of being Jewish.  Reform, conservative, orthodox, and Reconstructionist, to name the top four, with Renewal, (a movement, not a denomination) being interwoven into all of them.  And many Jews preferring to be “just Jewish” trans-denominational Jews, or post-denominational.

What is it that has kept Judaism, even with all its diversity, to a relatively small number of denominations while within the Christian world, so much bifurcation has occurred?

Two things come to mind – the Talmud and standing at Sinai.

The Talmud, known also as the oral law is the great “how to” manual of the Jewish world.  Compiled over centuries, “the Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of halakha, Jewish religious law.  Halakha is the Deed that Christianity rejected.  Until the advent of modernity, in nearly all Jewish communities, the Talmud was the centerpiece of Jewish cultural life and was foundational to “all Jewish thought and aspirations,” serving also as “the guide for the daily life” of Jews.

Practice may have differed from community to community, but adherence to the Talmud held Jewish practice within relatively strict confines.  Even today, we look to the Talmud to inform our practices.  Our “how to” manual is a tool that focuses our practice and is a tool that others, who rejected Jewish law, do not have.

When we stood at Sinai, when we accepted the Torah, we accepted a set of ideas and ethics that are expressed through our texts.  What binds us together as a Jewish community, even with our diversity of interpretation and practice, is our interaction with the Torah, with the Talmud and more.  It is our understanding of our Creed.

In our earliest texts, it is written “v’talmud torah k’neged kulam”– Torah study is equivalent to all of [the other mitzvot]” which attests to the importance Jewish tradition assigns to learning because it leads to action.   Shabbat mornings we gather to study the weekly Torah portion.  Two weeks ago, we engaged in a night of study in observance of Shavuot, of accepting the Torah.

If you have never cracked open a Jewish text, maybe it is time to start.   Yes, we are a culture, yes, we are a nation, and yes, we are a religion, (Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan called Judaism a “civilization”) but all of those things are based on ideas that came out of history and our encounter at Sinai.   Understanding the way of life that we accepted, interacting with words of Torah and Talmud, which leads to Deed, a deepening of Jewish life and a thickening of Jewish practice, are what differentiates us on the religious landscape of America.

Jews didn’t choose Deed over Creed, we chose both Deed and Creed.  By opening our texts, using the discussions and the wisdom found in the Talmud and other books of Jewish law to inform our thinking, by diving in and deepening our knowledge, we bring both deed and creed to the table.

In all of our diversity, we remained a community focused on building the world we want to come.  

[i] https://blog.chron.com/faithandreason/2014/01/deed-or-creed-believe-it-or-not/


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