Ask most Jews–layperson and scholar alike–what happened on Mount Sinai, and the response is usually something to the effect of “Moses was given the Ten Commandments.”
Heston as Moses
I have often wondered whether this mistake comes from Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie The Ten Commandments. If you remember, Charlton Heston, with brown robe and staff in hand, makes his way up the mountain and reappears, not too long after, with that “spiritual glow” only old Charlton could have after having a conversation with the Supreme Creator of the Universe.
The Torah’s version however is distinctly different. In a number of places, the Torah mentions that it wasn’t only Moses who heard God speak. The entire Jewish people–man, woman, and child–experienced a direct communication from God at Mount Sinai.
“Moses called all of Israel and said to them: ‘Hear, O Israel, the decrees and the ordinances that I speak in your ears today–learn them, and be careful to perform them. The Lord your God sealed a covenant with us at Horev [Mount Sinai]. Not with our forefathers did God seal this covenant, but with us–we who are here, all of us alive today. Face to face did God speak with you on the mountain from amid the fire.’ (Deuteronomy 5:1-4)”
The question you may be asking yourself is: What’s the difference? So what if only Moses heard God speak at Sinai, or whether it was three million men, women, and children?
The issue has relevance for two areas:
The Power of Mass Revelation
Let’s begin with believability. No other religion sect or cult, from the beginning of time until the present day, has even made the claim that the Torah makes: that more than one person heard God give them their divine mission here on earth.
Whether it be Guru Nanak (Sikhism), Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism), Mohammad (Islam), Joseph Smith (The Mormons) they all “heard” God tell them that they were the “chosen” to deliver God’s message when they were alone. They then spent the rest of their lives convincing others that God had actually spoken the true gospel to them.
Judaism has never taken such a claim seriously.
If I told you right now that last night God spoke to me, and anointed me as His chosen prophet here on earth, and abiding by my word would give you access to the world to come, would you believe me? You may think not, but if you look at the birth of every religion, people have accepted such claims of authenticity.
But not Judaism. Our claim does not come from one man, or fifty men, or even a thousand. It comes from an entire nation hearing God speaking to them, and that same God appointing Moses as their prophet and giving them the Torah en masse.
Let me give you another analogy.
Imagine for a moment that you read in the paper this morning that a tradition has been passed down claiming that one hundred years ago, in San Francisco, gold trees covered the landscape for one day, and this incredible phenomenon was witnessed by three million people. Would you believe it? I would assume not. Why? Because even though you were not alive then, if such a wondrous event were to have occurred, you and everybody else would have heard about it.
How could such an event have occurred without anybody ever having mentioned it? If I told you that the story is false, and only one person, my Aunt Sheila, saw a single gold tree appear in her back yard, could you ever deny it? Who knows? There were no witnesses.
The Jewish Claim
We the Jewish people make such a claim: Millions heard God speak. How could such a claim ever be accepted if it did not occur? At what point in history could any person ever come forward and say, “Hey, Jews your ancestors heard God speak!”
Our national response would have been: “I think we would have heard about it had it really occurred.”
This is true whether it happened a hundred, five hundred, or three thousand years ago. The claim is too strong–which may explain why no other religion has ever even attempted to make such a claim of the truth.
If you’re suspicious of this argument, and feel as though such a claim could be made by any person in history at any time, you’re not alone. The Torah itself is worried about charlatans coming along and making false claims about having spoken to God.
“Ask now regarding the early days that preceded you, from the day that God created man on earth, and from one end of the heaven to the other end of the heaven: Has there ever been anything like this great thing, or has anything like it ever been heard? Have a people ever heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire as you have heard, and survived? Or has any god ever miraculously come to take for himself a nation from amidst a nation, with challenges, with signs, with wonders, with war, with a strong hand, and with greatly awesome deeds, such as Hashem your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? You have been shown in order to know that Hashem, He is God! There is none other beside Him (Deuteronomy 4:32-35).”
What’s incredible about these words is that God is saying: “If you ever find anybody who makes such a claim that they also heard God speak to them, then our claim is obsolete.”
Let’s say for a moment that the Torah is just a cute collection of stories written down by humans, with one of those stories being that this book is written by God. Who in their right mind would ever be foolish enough to add that if this claim is made again, the original claim is obsolete? If the human authors fooled so many people, what makes them think that in a few years somebody else wouldn’t come along and do the same, thereby making their original claim worthless?
Revelation Implies Responsibility
Now we have another issue to negotiate: responsibility. If the Torah has no divine imprint, then I, as a Jew, have no metaphysical responsibility to perform its laws. Why should I? If the Torah, however, was given by God to the Jewish people, then I as a Jew am responsible to uphold its laws and precepts as I am best able. If God gave it to us, it must be true.
Interestingly, for thousands of years it was accepted in every biblical religion and culture that God, indeed, gave the Torah to the Jewish people. It is only in the last several hundred years that people began claiming that the Torah was really written by humans.
For many Jews, this has directly impacted the sense of what responsibility to God’s commandments means and entails, and unfortunately, for these Jews, mitzvah observance has taken on much less significance because the commandments are not seen as deriving from a God-given Torah.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.