Friday, May 14, 2010

What did we actually get at Sinai?

Shavuot is coming, and along with the annual confusion regarding the actual day of the revelation (see the Talmud or this post or this one) I, and like minded friends, are wondering what precisely was handed to Moshe at the mountain top.

For starters, it wasn't the whole entire Pentateuch, as we have it now.  Chazal knew that errors had crept in(1), and they allowed for scribal additions, and subtractions(2). They also entertained the possibility that Joshua wrote the last few verses, and that events such as the Wilderness Tales, Farewell Address, and Account of the Last Days of Moshe's Life were added by Moshe as they happened  (Some later authorities allow that the Patriarchal Narratives were also written as they occurred, and passed on until Moshe eventually incorporated them into the Pentateuch.)  Ezra is identified by some midrashim as author of the 15 stigmatized, or dotted passages(3).  Razal made additional allowances for possible corruptions to the text (3), and modem scholarship, drawing on the testimony of textual witness such as the various Targumim, has suggested a plethora of other scribal errors.

And what do we mean when we say that Torah She B'al Peh was given at Sinai? Also a puzzlement. One aggadah says Moshe received it all, up to and including the questions a smart student will one day ask. Another (following the interpretation of Tosfot Yom Tov) says Moshe received all of it, but only shared some of it. (Rashi disagrees)  Another says he only received the arguments - 49 in favor, and 49 against  for every halachic issue - but that man, is entitled to reach his own final conclusions.

All of the approaches have their problems. For instance, if there is one right answer to every problem, and Moshe received it at Sinai why are there arguments on every page of the Talmud? And if we say, as some do, that arguments started only after laws were forgotten, or after the Sages were reduced in status, or after the students of Hilel and Shamai started acting disrespectfully, why are the defeated, by which we mean non-Sinatic conclusions recorded in the Mishna and Gemarah? And why are pages and pages of the Talmud dedicated to the determining the basis of defeated, and therefore presumably not-from-Sinai- ideas?  On the other hand, if we say that Moshe received only the arguments, and that God has no stake in the conclusions we reach, why are there agadot in which God is said to take a side, for instance the famous story of R. Eliezer ben Hyrkunus? If God is neutral, so long as some correct process is followed, why did he send a bas kol to defend R. Eliezer? Why - and how(!) - does yet another aggada depict Him as being defeated by the Heavenly Academy? If God's seal is truth how did he lose an argument to his own ministering angels?

An answer, given by David Weiss Halivny, is that the law and reality are pluralistic. God is absolute, and entirely True, but man with his limitations and perceptual shortcomings can receive th Truth only partially. So, continues Halivny, the revelation at Sinai was arguments, and deductive principles only. As long as we stay within those perimeters any outcome is kosher - God doesn't care, for instance,  if shma is said standing or reclining, or what material we use to make a kohen's belt. The bas kol came to defend R. Eliezer because his answer was True, but his opponents were allowed to carry the day because the goal isn't something impossible and unknowable like Truth, but to conduct legitimate arguments.

(1) Specifically regarding plene and defective spellings
(2) They identify between 7 and 18 tikunei sofrim (scribal corrections) and 5 ittur sofrim (scribal omissions). See this.
(3) Avot d'rabi Nathan and the Midrash Rabba
(4) Abridged list here 

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