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Interpret Torah not literally but as living text | Worship


Last updated 4/26/2017 at Noon

The Torah, also known as the Old Testament and the Five Books of Moses, is a very personal text shared by millions.

On the holiday of Shavuot – starting at sunset on May 30 – Jews will mark the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The Torah itself recounts the story of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. After seven weeks – Shavuot literally means weeks – of wandering in the desert, the community stops at the base of Mount Sinai, which Moses then ascends, leaving them alone to contemplate their future.

After many days pass, Moses returns to deliver the Torah to the Israelites as a Divine gift.

As Jews, we are taught that every Jewish soul is present during the revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai.

Some question whether this dramatic event really happens as described. In fact, whether the Torah, Old Testament, Bible, or whatever you choose to call this ancient text, actually describes physical reality is a question wrestled with by those millions who read and try to understand it.

In a recent New York Times interview of President Jimmy Carter, columnist Nicholas Kristof asked Carter, “How literally do you take the Bible?”

Carter responded saying because of his scientific background he does not believe in a six-day creation of the world. However, he went on to say he accepts the overall message of the Bible as true and also accepts the miracles described in the New Testament. He said this acceptance comes from his Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof.

While I don’t share Carter’s Christian faith, accepting the overall message of the Torah is a belief I do share.

But, if I don’t believe Moses was literally handed two tablets on Mount Sinai, how does that affect my understanding of receiving Torah?

There is no single answer to this. There’s not even a single Jewish answer.

Rabbi Allen Selis, in an article titled “Jewish Denominations on Revelation” at, asks, “What does Sinai look like for Reform Jews?”

He answers the question by saying, “Sinai [is] a re-occurring process, not a fixed encounter.”

This point-of-view, as Selis puts it, is consistent with the belief the Torah is a depository of Biblical Israel’s consciousness of God, but is not the last word in our ongoing dialogue with God.

Selis says, “Revelation is a continuous process… As such, Sinai is constantly taking place, and the role of the individual is to listen closely to what God is saying.”

In other words, the Torah is a living document with stated values and ethics. As individuals, we must decide how to apply those values and ethics in our day-to-day decisions.

For those who believe this is the case, then it doesn’t really matter what physically happened on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.

Today, Shavuot is a celebration of Torah, education, and one’s personal choice to be Jewish.

I use Shavuot to try and understand what I think actually happened on Mount Sinai and what I think the Torah is trying to teach me in recalling this story every year.

Glen Pickus is a member of Temple Beth Or, the Jewish synagogue serving Snohomish County. The synagogue is at 3215 Lombard Ave. For more information, visit


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