The Torah tells us in this week’s reading that we must always remember what happened at Sinai. “Just guard yourselves, and guard your souls very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, lest it leave your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make it known to your children and grandchildren, the day that you stood before HaShem your G-d at Chorev” [Dev. 4:9-10].
The Rambam [Maimonides] says (in his Igeres Teiman, his letter to Yemenite Jewry) that this isn’t simply something we believe, but the foundation of Jewish belief. But… isn’t that circular reasoning? How can something be its own foundation? It’s something we believe, therefore we believe it and everything else also. Right?
Actually, no, it’s not circular. Maimonides says that this is the foundation because every Jew knows that his or her own great-great-grandparents believed that his or her own great-great-(great-great-great etc.)-grandparents were there. As in, Jews have traditionally believed that their own forebears were actually at the foot of Mount Sinai and saw it happen.
Maimonides asserts that there is only one way for that belief to take root, and that by the same standards that we know most anything, we are able to analyze this event and reach the conclusion that we know it happened. It’s not just a belief, it’s knowledge.
Why is it so common to dismiss this as just another story? The answer is simple: because of the ramifications. Under most circumstances, no one would believe that a community of millions of people believe that their own ancestors witnessed an event, yet it’s all mythology. If Brazilians were holding an annual feast to commemorate a massive flood that nearly destroyed the community, the impartial observer would tend to believe that the flood must have actually happened — and that’s true even if the flood was reported to have taken place hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Because everyone knows that floods can happen, and it’s possible for communities to escape them by the narrowest of margins.
But knowing that this particular story may be difficult to believe, Maimonides points to this week’s reading: “when you will ask about the first days that happened before you, from the day G-d Created man on the earth and from one end of the heavens to the other, has this ever been, or has [a story] like this ever been heard — has a nation heard the Voice of G-d speaking from inside the fire, as you heard, and lived?” [4:32-33] The Torah says bluntly that, as Maimonides put it, “there never was such a thing before, and there will never be anything like it.”
This is an amazing prediction, especially considering how world history has played out over the past 3300 years. It’s not just that there are other religions, it’s that today over fifty percent of the world’s population derives their beliefs from our Bible. Today’s dominant religions begin here — that G-d revealed Himself to the Jewish Nation. And they all also believe that at some point, the Jews got it wrong.
All of them believe that they know the Jews got it wrong, because someone told them so. Either that someone was a prophet, or that someone was an angel, or that someone was even divinity in human form — but someone told them. No one believes that G-d publicly revealed Himself once again to say so. Today, there are more Americans who believe an angel talked to a man in a cave in upstate New York and showed him the new path, than there are Jews in the world who [try to] follow the rules laid out in the Torah!
What is it about this story, that no one tried to duplicate it? Doesn’t it make more sense to start a new religion by saying that G-d came back to tell us the new way? And for that matter… how did the Torah know and declare with full confidence that although the Jews came to believe the story as told in our Torah, no one would ever get a group of people to believe a new version of this story, ever again?
Maimonides may have been on to something.
I am impressed by the point – Maimonides’ point – that other faiths while accepting the Old Testament claim that the Jews and Judaism was superseded because someone told them so. Either that someone was a prophet, or that someone was an angel, or that someone was even divinity in human form — but someone told them. No one believes or claims that G-d publicly revealed Himself once again to say so.
Rabbi, I believe the foundation of Judaism lives within us. It lives within every Jew who chooses to acknowledge it and admit it. I have a Jewish teacher who refers to it as “holographic.” Too bad that word has Greek origins, but you get my point – we’re 3-dimensional images of projected light. This idea works for me, and helps me understand the uniqueness that sets Jews and Judaism apart from other religions and philosophies. In these times may we merit to understand ourselves and our unique, individual tikkun to be fulfilled as Jews. Thank you for your tireless devotion to uplifting Torah, Rabbi!
The fact as, Maimonides says that every Jew knows that his or her own great-great-grandparents believed that his or her own great-great-(great-great-great etc.)-grandparents were there reveals itself in a number of ways even for those of us whose lost their way generations ago, still feel a sense of affinity as one young lady remarked, she feels a need for unearthing her Jewish roots and, too my own great grandfather remarked in his senile years, Â´a ship is on it way to take him home to YisraelÂ´.
A girlfriend not knowing of her Jewish roots said to me, she feels a need to discover who she really is I subsequently discovered she is of Portuguese Jewish descent and yet she feels uncomfortable with the crucifix she wears and only does so because she bought it due to its mixture of appeal of gold and silver.
You say that “The Rambam [Maimonides] says (in his Igeres Teiman, his letter to Yemenite Jewry) that this isn’t simply something we believe, but the foundation of Jewish belief.”
Yet another translation doesn’t mention this ‘belief’.
“Furthermore we were enjoined to impress this event upon the minds of our children, as it is written, “Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes saw, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life; but make them known unto thy children and thy children’s children.” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
It is imperative, my fellow Jews, that you make this great spectacle of the Revelation appeal to the imagination of your children. Proclaim at public gatherings its momentousness. For this event is the pivot of our religion, and the proof which demonstrates its veracity. Evaluate this phenomenon at its true importance for Scripture has pointed out its significance in the verse, “For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?” (Deuteronomy 4:32).”
“For this event is the pivot of our religion, and the proof…” doesn’t sound like belief, given all beliefs are falsifiable without evidence, yet Rambam says it is poof, i.e. evidence. Clearly Rambam saw something in the pasuk that you don’t.
I appreciate the very thoughtful comments on this essay; yours in particular, Greg, invites a response.
The actual text of the Rambam is yet stronger than “pivot of our religion:” “×¢×ž×•×“ ×©×”××ž×•× ×” ×¡×•×‘×‘×ª ×¢×œ×™×•” is perhaps better translated as “the pillar around which our beliefs revolve.” That is very much the point: it is not simply a belief.
As I expressed it in my essay above, “Maimonides asserts that … by the same standards that we know most anything, we are able to analyze this event and reach the conclusion that we know it happened. Itâ€™s not just a belief, itâ€™s knowledge.”
So we are in complete agreement about what the Rambam saw in the pasuk!