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Special Shavuot – Ten Commandments: Standing Up for Faith

Iyar 5783 | May 2023

Should we stand for the Ten Commandments? Philosophical vs. experiential faith

The Ten Commandments are read three times a year – on the Shabbat we read Parshat Yitro containing the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, Shabbat Parshat Va’Etchanan when we read Moshe’s retelling of the story forty years later, and on Shavuot when we read from Parshat Yitro and celebrate the giving of the Torah. In many congregations each occasion has people questioning whether to sit or stand for this section.

The debate centers around two Talmudic sources. One relates that the Ten Commandments were an original part of the daily prayers the Kohanim (Priests) said, but when heretics claimed that this was the only truly Divine section of the Torah the Sages abolished the custom.[1] Based on this several rabbinic authorities such as Rambam forbid standing for the Ten Commandments; he claims that if parts of the Torah are treated differently this could lead to people thinking some parts have a unique status – which may lead to misunderstandings or outright heresy.[2]

On the other hand, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, an early midrash on Torah and Haftorah readings on festivals and special occasions, relates that God told Israel if we read this section every year in the third month (Sivan), when the Torah was given, “I will consider it as though you are standing before me on Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah.”[3] Some understand that the reading on Shavuot is different than the reading on Shabbat Parshat Yitro, because it’s less of an intellectual reading and more of a reenactment on the anniversary of the event – like the difference between mentioning the exodus from Egypt daily in Shema and reenacting it on the night of the Pesach Seder. This may be why many congregations have a tradition to use different cantillation marks when reading on Shavuot; instead of the usual “lower cantillation” that is based on the division of verses, they use the “upper cantillation” which punctuates according to each commandment.[4]

When viewed in this light, those who stand do so for an experiential reason, while those who sit do so for a philosophical reason. Who should we follow?

Experience vs. knowledge

In this postmodern age it is hard to know what to rely on. For generations people learned most of what they knew from their family and community. Most people didn’t study halakha, they practiced it. As Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik describes, the law manifested itself in two forms – as it was written in Talmud and halakhic works, and as it was practiced by the people. Rabbis would often go to great lengths to justify widespread practice that seemed to contradict what was written because custom was seen as a source of truth as well – “a dual tradition of intellectual and mimetic law.”[5]

This type of Jewish practice and identity is mostly gone – gradually eroding from the beginning of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) until its near-extinction in the avalanche of the Holocaust’s destruction and displacement. Authentic Judaism was no longer what one’s parents practiced, but rather what was written.

Who is reliable?

With the loss of tradition comes a loss of definitive answers. The disputes in the books aren’t an issue when you do what your parents did and what everyone else in your shtetl does. But when the previous generation is dead or non-observant and communities are an amalgam of traditions, we learn from books. The books contain different opinions and disputes. You end up with some people in shul standing, some sitting, and some looking confused in between.

“Performance is no longer, as in a traditional society, replication of what one has seen, but implementation of what one knows. Seeking to mirror the norm, religious observance is subordinated to it. In a text culture, behavior becomes, inevitably, a function of the ideas it consciously seeks to realize.”[6]

Ultimately what remains is a Judaism where custom and practice – experience – is no longer reliable, texts are the “sole-source” of authenticity and authority. Faith is no longer based on feeling, but on rational proofs and knowledge. And we have lost the feeling that God is with us. “To what extent is there an ongoing experience of His natural involvement in the mundane round of everyday affairs?”

This version of Rupture and Reconstruction was originally published almost thirty years ago; the confusion of the modern world and loss of spiritual connection have only become more acute. We still insist on knowledge and proof and books, and piles of each grow almost exponentially, as the people who deem them authoritative proportionately shrinks; there’s more we know and less we agree on. Furthermore, we hunger for convincing logical proofs that can feed our minds, but we ignore the increasingly unquenched thirst of our souls.

Supposing we had managed to retain our mimetic tradition, would that matter today? Would we be willing to trust our elders to lead us faithfully, rely on their practice and experience rather than our text studies?

Faith in an invisible God when we can no longer believe our eyes

Seeing used to be believing, but anyone who has tried a selective attention test knows all too well that we often see what we want to see, not what truly is.[7] Since the advent of Photoshop a picture’s worth has plunged from a thousand words to barely a murmur. There are many seemingly intelligent people who think that our existence is a computer simulation. Our minds play tricks on us. Our hearts deceive us. Statistics lie. Fake news. We don’t know who or what to believe anymore.

We have lost our faith in people. It’s no wonder it’s difficult to have faith in God. If we can’t even believe our eyes and ears, how can we trust in an entity we’ve never heard or seen? If anything, agnosticism seems the most rational attitude.

And yet, according to many halakhic authorities, we are commanded to have faith in God. The first mitzvah Rambam counts is the mitzvah to “Have faith in God, which is to believe that there is an origin and cause that activates all that exists, as He said, ‘I am the Lord, your God.’”[8] Rambam continues to list more faith-based mitzvot: to believe in the unity of God and the yoke of Heaven, to Love God, to revere God  – by constantly being in fear and awe of our Creator, to serve our Creator- which he interprets as prayer, and a prohibition against faith in any other god.

In my teens and twenties, I looked for logical proof for God’s existence. I found powerful arguments, but nothing definitive. For every argument for,  there was an argument against. No definitive philosophical proof.

If we are commanded to have faith, shouldn’t there be a firm basis for it?

Forms of this question have been asked for centuries. Some answer that there is logical proof, others disagree but argue that we aren’t commanded to have faith but to act as though we do; some teach that faith doesn’t necessarily mean there can’t be doubt, others tell us to leap over doubt into certainty. On and on it goes. But many of these modern and logical proofs ignore what seems to be the most traditional proof of all. One that seems to have been misplaced during the rupture Rav Haym spoke of – experience.

Knowing without knowing

According to Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi in his book, the Kuzari, experience is the basis of the faith of the Jewish people. We don’t believe in God because He created the world, because someone proved it to us logically. As the scholar explains, such a “logic based religion, arrived at through study, has many doubts. If you ask the philosophers you will not find them in agreement about one act or one opinion, because they are all arguments, some of them can be proven and some of them will remain in doubt…”[9]

According to Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the Jewish faith is experience based. The people met God, they heard Him speak and experienced a revelation – the smells, sights and sounds. These experiences did not begin with the exodus from Egypt and end at the foot of Mount Sinai. They began with our forebearers Avraham and Sarah and continued throughout hundreds of years. Some generations may not have had their own experience, but they could hold on to the experience of their parents and grandparents. As Eli Weisel said almost a thousand years later, “Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness.”

Unfortunately, many people misconstrue Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s teachings and convert them to another hollow logical proof – if so many people claimed to experience revelation at Mount Sinai and generations didn’t question it, it must be true. It’s a nice claim. It’s not what Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi said, as he himself dismissed any attempt to logically prove faith as futile.

Instead he tells us it’s about our individual and collective experience – not the history in a book but what we have lived. For well over two millennia the Jewish people have not had any direct interactions with God, but we have all met someone who met someone who met someone and on and on, who met God. There’s a theory that all people on earth are connected by at most six degrees of separation; Judaism at this point has about 40 degrees to Mount Sinai.

And according to Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi this is not only how we know God exists but how we KNOW God. We interact with a personal God, not some abstract truth or logical argument. We don’t talk to a transcendent, removed Creator, but to an imminent Father and Master who is a part of our lives and our reality – who has saved us and given things to us and commanded us.  Faith is not knowledge, it is feeling.

If asked to prove you are loved by another, you wouldn’t give a philosophical treatise, you’d list the interactions that made you feel loved and known and cared for. When generation after generation wants to hand down their faith they do not do so by relating facts, they tell a personal story that includes feelings. We embellish while reading from a book. And just like all good books, The Good Book is meant not just to be read, but to be experienced, because it is the story of our lives. So on the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt we tell our story in the first person, beginning with our father the wandering Aramean. We eat the same food, we praise God as if we were just saved – we reenact the experience.

And on Shavuot – the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, when Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and trembled in awe as God reintroduced Himself: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt” – we stand as those same words are read from the Torah Scroll. God is not the only one who is supposed to feel as though we are standing at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah.

This is not an encouragement to break with the tradition of your congregation if they sit. That would be ironic. But in the absence of tradition, perhaps it’s appropriate that experience trump philosophy.[10]

Embodying Torah

Just as faith can’t survive if it is divorced from human experience and limited to logical proofs, neither can halakha or Jewish practice. One argument against sitting during the Ten Commandments is that the reason Rambam opposed standing was because there were many Jews claiming that the Ten Commandments were the only Divine part of Torah. While his concern remains written in thousands of books around the world, it has ceased to be a current challenge to Judaism. This is one of the downsides of writing the Oral Torah; the upside looks the same – preservation of knowledge in the absence of mimetic tradition.

As the chain of our traditions grows stronger and longer will custom and practice keep it together or will we continue to turn to books instead of people? And perhaps more troubling, will feeling and experience continue to diminish as knowledge and practice grow?

Our experience, knowledge, faith, and practice must be integrated. Our actions must be dictated by more than words in books; it must be imbued by faith and reinforced by our interactions with the wider world around us and our deep inner world. This is one of the reasons the Written Torah is just the tip of the iceberg of Torah, the vast body of the Oral Torah unwritten and largely unmapped below the surface. Neither God nor the sages ever expected us to learn Torah from books, Torah was never meant to be divorced from human connection. It is meant to grow from a connection to others and connect to all aspects of ourselves. As Beit HaLevi explains:

“By giving them the Oral Torah after [the giving of the ten commandments] Israel was raised to a higher level. Beforehand the tablets alluded to the entire Torah, and Israel and the Torah were two separate entities – Israel was to observe the Torah and safeguard it like a vessel within which the Torah was placed, like the Holy Ark with the Torah within, which is tashmishei kedusha – an instrument in service of something sanctified. But afterward when they were given the Oral Torah Israel became like the parchment for the Oral Torah, as is written, ‘write them on the slate of your heart.’ And just like the parchment of the Torah scroll is the essence of the sanctity and not an instrument, because both the parchment and the writing written upon it together are the Torah scroll, so to the Torah and Israel are one.”[11]

The Torah is not meant to be words written on skins of dead animals and pulp of dead trees, it is meant to be inscribed on our hearts and embodied in our actions. Faith is not removed from human experience; it only exists because of human experience. The same goes for Torah and halakha.

My experience

When people ask me to explain my faith I no longer bother with philosophical arguments. I tell them I have a relationship with God and I experience Torah as truth. I still question and I still struggle. But I trust what I feel. Unfortunately, I can’t give someone that feeling. It must be lived. As Sefer HaChinuch teaches, “Hearts are led by actions.” Shabbat can’t be understood intellectually, it has to be kept as a day of rest in the company of family, friends, and our Creator. The awe of God that I feel standing alone looking out at the expanse of the ocean feeling the waves crashing against my body is different from the awe I feel standing with hundreds of fellow congregants as we cry out to our Father, our King on the High Holidays. The connection I feel when I sit at the Seder and hear the stories of the exodus is different from the connection I feel when I sit in a Beit Midrash and follow generations of disputes. They are different, but they are all moments and feelings that connect me to the Jewish People, the Torah, and my Creator. They combine with other moments and feelings to shape my experience of who I am, and who I am is a person with experiences of Divinity.

For generations Jewish people have embodied the Torah and written it on their hearts even though they had never opened a book. Book learning is nice, but if I want to be a walking, breathing Torah I must experience life and connect it to faith and practice, self and community. No book or class has established my faith anywhere close to those rare but sacred moments when I feel myself reaching through those connections to experience a small but incredibly powerful contact with the Divine.

[1] Mishnah Tamid 5:1; TB Berakhot 12a and Rashi

[2] Responsa Rambam 268

[3] Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 12:1

[4] Beiur Halacha on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 494:1

[5] Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” pg. 3-4

[6] ibid pg. 8

[7] Devarim 11 – faith is based on experience and specifically eyes and sight, words repeated throughout the chapter.

[8] Sefer HaMitzvot Mitzvat Aseh 1

[9] Sefer HaKuzari Book I paragraph 13

[10] In addition to Rambam several notable rabbinic authorities say to sit, such as Rav Ovadia Yosef in Yechave Da’at 1:29. On the other hand there are also many who encourage standing: Chida Ayin Tov 11; Yaskil Avdi 2:1; Igros Moshe OC IV 22

[11] Drosh 18

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.