Browse Topics

View all talks

Breaking the Spell of Sinai

Daniel ReiselFilmed at JHub

Like most religions, the teachings of Judaism are thought to be divinely revealed and therefore beyond mere human question. Yet a detailed reading of the Hebrew Bible suggests the opposite view: instead of being about revelation, Sinai can be read as a story of anti-revelation, a stark warning of the dangers of subordinating our moral imagination to divine decree.

Daniel is a doctor, researcher and educator. He is interested in the origins of human morality and passionate about opening up conversations across disciplines and denominations. A past programming co-chair of Limmud Conference and Limmud Fest, he currently chairs the board of Yachad.

I’d like to start with a true story. A 30 year old woman, a mother of two, arrived one night at the emergency department at University Hospital, London. She was bleeding internally from an infection in her abdomen and it was clear that she needed surgery immediately. As I, a junior member of the medical team, took her blood, she told me that she was a Jehovah’s Witness, and as such she would refuse any blood transfusions under any circumstances. She explained that the Bible was central to her life. I told her it was central to mine too. However, it was clear that we meant different things. For her, certain passages in the Hebrew Bible – Genesis 9, Leviticus 17 – which prohibit the ingestion of blood, required of her, somehow, the ultimate sacrifice. More than believing in the Bible, she had been taught some kind of dogma that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had constructed around scripture. I remember wanting to run home and get my copy of the Talmud and show her how our sages interpret these passages in a hundred different ways.

Several members of the medical team tried, over the next few days, to persuade her otherwise, to reason with her, but there was nothing we could do. And we had to watch, powerless, as this young woman’s life expired.

Everywhere we look there are people who claim to know the mind of God and who base their assertions and assumptions on the Bible. This kind of literalist thinking, which is troubling to everyone, should be especially troubling to us as Jews, because the Jewish tradition contains the most radical, the most profound story of anti-revelation in all of religious literature and somehow that idea has gotten lost. You might say that if Christianity was born in an act of Immaculate Conception, Judaism was born in an act of immaculate misconception because revelation in Judaism is not what it seems.

So let’s tell the story. The story that the bible tells is that the children of Israel were freed from slavery and they arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law of God. Let’s imagine what Moses must have felt like at this point. He has freed the Israelites from slavery; they’ve all seen the signs and wonders. He has now in his hands the most valuable, the most urgent, the most needed object in all of human history. Imagine then his astonishment when he arrives at the foot of the mountains. Instead of finding the Israelites ready to receive the revealed moral code, he finds them dancing in reverence and awe around the golden calf, the idol that they have created.

Now, what would you expect Moses to have done at that point? After all, God’s first commandment is if you have other Gods than I you’re in all sorts of trouble. What you might have expected Moses to do was to appeal to God and ask God to smite the undeserving Israelites. Instead, Moses does something quite extraordinary. He takes the tablets of the law, the precious tablets, and he smashes them on the ground. What does that mean? It means that Moses realises that revelation is not the answer. It means that Moses understands that if we had to live our lives based on revealed morality, it would somehow infantilise us. Given the credulity of the human creature, divine law itself would have become an idol, an excuse to relinquish that which is most precious to us, our own moral autonomy.

What we have here is not a story of revelation. It is the story of the dangers of revelation and the dangers of revealed law. Moses understood that the human weakness for dogmatic thinking, the same weakness and flaw that led them to the golden calf in the first place, would always hinder the flourishing of society. By breaking the tablets Moses showed them and us that nothing is more sacred than human freedom, and nothing is so sacred that it cannot be tested by human experience. What was needed was not to exchange the slavery of the body to a slavery of the mind but instead to create a tradition that is alive with questions and debate and glorious difference of opinion.

Following this audacious act, Moses then ascends the mountain again. And after what I’ve always thought must have been an awkward conversation, God allows Moses to write his own tablets. These human–wrought tablets become the law that forms the heart of the Hebrew bible.

After Moses dies in the valley of Moab, the people of Israel mourn his passing. In the final line of the Bible we read: “No-one has ever performed the awesome deeds that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Which awesome deeds? The text doesn’t say. However, the medieval commentator Rashi, basing his commentary on earlier sources states: “This refers to the fact that Moses’ heart inspired him to break the tablets, and the Holy Blessed One concurred.”

Of all of Moses’ achievements, releasing the Israelites from slavery, splitting the Red Sea, bringing them to the foot of the mountain, and leading them to the very edge of the Promised Land, his greatest was the breaking of the tablets. This is of profound relevance to today because, if the law of God is not beyond questioning, then all the more so are man-made laws. Paradoxically, in Judaism, you might say that the moment of revelation coincides with something akin to enlightenment. Right from the beginning, even God agrees that truth means to question authority. Quite literally, it means to break the rules.

To some people, however, morality being nothing more than a set of laws devised by fallible humans seems insufficient. Even dangerous. And yet, to such a worry modern science, modern psychology and especially modern neuroscience have found some striking and I believe, potentially reassuring answers. Neuroscience has shown, that every mental state, every thought and feeling has a physical representation in the brain. The mind is what the brain does. Furthermore, the human brain is composed of numerous interconnected circuits, partly hard–wired, meaning encoded through genetics, and partly soft–wired, through learning and memory. These modular networks enable us to navigate our complex social world. At the most basic level, human morality is grounded in our ability to feel empathy. The physical substrates of empathy reside deep within the emotional part of the human brain, in a circuit of brain structures that includes the amygdala. Studies have shown that a persons’ ability to empathise directly correlates with their amygdala activity.

However, empathy is not merely genetic. The values we grew up with and the culture in which we live crucially add colour to our emotions. On a larger level, society influences who we feel empathic towards and in what way. To understand how morality is simultaneously in-built and learnt, consider language. People used to think of language as something completely cultural. We now know that human beings have a specific language ability. With minimal input children are able to pick up language at an astonishing speed. In the same way, children intuitively understand moral questions. If you doubt this try, as I have done, to break a promise you’ve made to a three year old. You will find that the mind of a three year old is nothing like a blank slate, it is more similar to a Swiss army knife, with fixed mental modules, predictable patterns of response and a sharp sense of fairness. Honesty and deception, obedience and rebellion, fairness and injustice: this is part of every three year old’s day. The role of parents and teachers and more broadly speaking, the role of culture, is to sustain that innate ability. The early years are crucial. As in the case of language, there may well be a window of opportunity after which the mastering of moral questions becomes like learning a foreign language.

What modern neuroscience suggests is that the Bible had it right. We must cultivate moral maturity without the resort to revelation. Blindly trusting in authority is a barrier to human freedom. It is the spell that must be broken for society to become whole. Where the Hebrew Bible ends is only the beginning of the story. The Talmud recounts that the Israelites carry the Ark of the Covenant with them throughout their wanderings. Later, when they rested in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, they placed the broken divine law alongside the tablets of Moses.

As humans we carry within us both tablets, the fallible human laws and the fragments of our shared humanity. In his greatest hour, Moses showed us we have nothing to fear. The tablets were broken, but we remain intact. Our task, sadly too late for my patient, but perhaps not too late for us, is to break the spell of Sinai. Only then, following Moses’ example, can we begin the real work of hammering out what a moral society could look like.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
Connect