Do you believe the Torah is true? Did the Jews really encounter G-d some 3,330 years ago at Mt. Sinai and give them the Torah. It’s the central question of Judaism. It’s the core of the theological divisions between the more traditional and liberal Jews. For those who are fully observant, it’s the prime pillar of Jewish theology. Others argue that it was “Divinely Inspired” or a compilation of teachings of wise Jews. Some secular historians theorize that the Torah was compiled by multiple authors during the Babylonian Exile, a thousand years after the Exodus. They say that it was a quest to bind together Jewish exiles living in a foreign land.
Belief is accepting something we cannot prove historically or understand with our logic. Is accepting the idea that G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people a belief or a question of history?
How do we know that Alexander the Great conquered the ancient world, that George Washington was the first president of the United States or that Neal Armstrong walked on the moon? There are written records, people who were there told the next generation, at times archeological proof and, in modern times, images and pictures.
What about the Torah? First, we have the document itself. There are Torahs that date back over two thousand years; they are identical to those that we use today. We have archaeological proof to the time from the First Temple; recent digs in Israel have uncovered what looks like King David’s palace, even a royal seal with names of individuals mentioned in the book in Jeremiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls point to the development of Jewish law 400 years before the Mishnah was edited. The documents speak of the traditions observed by Jews in Jerusalem. Similar to a conversation today “you know those religious guys in Jerusalem do this and this.” Revealing to us that the laws kept then were the same as outlined in the Mishna centuries later.
There is one missing link that modern science has not yet found, actual archaeological proof of the encounter between the man and the Creator at Mount Sinai. But there is another proof, the narrative we tell ourselves. In the year 770 CE, the King of the Khazars had an encounter with a rabbi. When asked by the King if the Torah was true, the rabbi answered “we know it from history. Our parents told us, their parents told them, all the way back to Mt. Sinai when the Jews received the Torah.” Eventually he converted as many of his people, and until the late 10th century there was a Jewish country in southern Russia.
Acceptance of the fact that the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai is a not one of belief. It’s like any other historical event. Other major religions began with the revelations that an individual had, and he convinced others of the truth of their teachings. Judaism was a collective experience of millions of people, who told their descendants, who told the next generation until modern times.
Why do we resist the acceptance of this fact? Alexander the Great’s military achievements have no bearing on our lives today, so it’s easy to acknowledge them as history. If we recognize the fact that the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, then the next logical step is to observe its commandments. This can be daunting, so it’s easy to just dismiss it and say, “you know, I don’t really know if I believe it.”
This month we observe the holiday of Shavuot. It marks the date of the encounter between G-d and man that changed the destiny of the mankind, when G-d presented a system of laws, beliefs and ideals we should aspire to emulate. Our observance of this holiday links us back to this historical turning point.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. More on Shavous at OCJewish.com/holidays. More on the Khazars on Khazaria.com