Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg speaks at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
“Then went up Moses and Aaron and Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel, and under the feet of that Presence the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and like the very essence of the heavens in brightness … and they beheld God, and ate and drank.” (Exodus 24:9-10)
In terms of the Jewish cycle of readings from our scriptures, we are right up on Mount Sinai.
Which is to say – just now, in synagogues all throughout the world Jewish communities are reading of Israel’s sojourn at the Mountain, of the Ten Commandments, and the Tablets of the Law, and the giving of the Torah.
On the one hand, it is an overwhelming moment, an encounter with the ineffable so awe-striking that the people fear for their lives. “You speak with us,” say the Children of Israel to Moses, “but let not God speak with us, lest we perish” (Exodus 20:19).
And Moses, at the foot of Sinai, instructs, “Set boundaries for the people round about, saying, take heed that you not go up to the mountain or touch the borders of it, whosoever touches the mountain surely is to die.” (Exodus 19:12)
And the thunder, and the lightning, and the resounding voice; and, in the midst of all that, up go seventy elders, with Moses, and Aaron and his sons, seemingly right up to the very firmament beneath God’s feet, if such a thing were thinkable – and they seem quite comfortable there.
“When you arrive at the pure shining stones,” says Rabbi Akiva in the Babylonian Talmud (Chagigah 14b), in what seems to be a related albeit quite mysterious instruction to mystical adepts attempting perilous experiences of heavenly ascent, “do not cry out ‘Water, water!’” And the trepidation of the Talmud at the thought of venturing to tread upon celestial territory is well illustrated by its story of a child who once was perusing the Book of Ezekiel and suddenly grasped what was meant in that prophet’s celestial visions by the word “electrum,” whereupon, says the Talmud, “immediately a flash of fire shot forth from the heavenly electrum and consumed that child.” (Chagigah 13a)
“Trespassers W.” – to quote A. A. Milne.
But then the very next line in the Talmud – in a perfect example of its intrepidity (or, perhaps better said, its chutzpah) – somewhat impishly inquires: “Now, what exactly is meant by ‘electrum?'"
Those who seek learning, in the spirit of the Talmud, apparently are not meant to be timid or put off – even by awe – from their questing.
Perhaps Harvard College intends to impart something of a similar ethos by having its first year students eat and drink under something very much like the ‘enchanted ceiling’ of the Hogwarts dining hall as imagined by J. K. Rowling – I mean, of course, the soaring vaults of the Annenberg Freshman Dining Commons in Memorial Hall. It is a somewhat odd setting for the tables and the trays of a refectory; but then so is the summit of Mount Sinai – and yet, there the seventy selectmen of Israel sit, in our scripture, eating and drinking.
University of Chicago historian of science Lorraine Daston, reviewing Harvard Professor Philip Fisher’s Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, says: “philosophers have long since forgotten the Platonic maxim, famously repeated by Aristotle, that wonder is the beginning of philosophy.”
“Philosophy may begin in wonder,” she agrees, “but does it then kill wonder off,” she asks, “in an oedipal act of explanation?” And she notes: “The downward slide [of wonder] from first of the passions to ignominious neglect had already begun in the 18th century: Fontenelle, Hume and other philosophes regarded wonder as a bumptious passion, associated with children, gawking peasants and backward civilisations.”
Were the seventy elders of Israel backward? Are Harvard freshmen backward when they are somewhat awe-struck and, more importantly, inspired by their new environs?
Professor Fisher’s resuscitation of wonder is exactly an endeavor to show how the feeling of it can endure throughout – and indeed can impel and be experienced as the consummation of – the learning process.
But speaking of bumptious passions, and of purity, and about rarified atmospheres of learning, what about all that eating and drinking in proximity to the ineffable and wondrous? Aren’t we perhaps supposed to leave such sensory and earthbound preoccupations behind in order for the World to Come to be, as the Talmud suggests, a realm in which “the righteous delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence?” (e.g. Berakhot 17a). In other words, isn’t the cafeteria, not to mention the dorm room, something of a necessary but unfortunate distraction from the classroom?
Perhaps that is too prudish and ascetic a conception of what it can mean for us to experience wonder and to be spiritual.
Talmudic tradition teaches several times over that the Torah – the highest learning and the fabric of the world, in rabbinic thought – was given to us human beings, as distinct from heaven’s angels (Berakhot 25b, Yoma 30a, Kiddushin 54a, Me’ilah 14b). Yale scholar of rabbinic literature and culture Christine Hayes aptly suggests that instead of that teaching's being an “excuse for leniency” or being meant to “discourage aspirationalism,” it rather urges us to think “about what it is to be human and what it is that humans should aspire to be.”
Let me put it this way – first as a proposition, and then as a prayer:
Perhaps it is not just the case that the experience of wonder can and should endure all the way through the learning process and be felt in learning’s moments of utmost and consummating insight. Perhaps, too – as with the seventy elders eating and drinking just below the sapphire firmament, up on Mount Sinai – the experience of being human can and should endure all the way through our most transporting and inspiring experiences of wonder. Perhaps the dimension of the spiritual need not exclude that which is most earthly about us, but instead should be a dimension of life in which we explore and express what it is to be earthly in the presence and the spirit of the Divine.
If that sounds right, perhaps you will be willing to accompany me in a corresponding prayer.
And, if so, let us pray:
That we have the courage to give ourselves to experiences of wonder—
That wonder inspire us to learn and to ascend—
That, in wonderment, we celebrate and affirm our being human—
That, as wondering human beings, we marvel, at and with one another–
And, in that wonderment, that we glimpse and honor the image of the Divine.