Agnon’s “Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law

Seventeen years ago, Agnon’ s classic work on the giving of the Torah was finally translated into English.
S. Y. Agnon, Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law translated by Michael Swirsky (Jewish Publication Society, 1994). Originally published in Hebrew as “Atem Re’item” by Schocken Books, 1959

But it is out of print and sold few copies. In another month, there will be more copies of my recent book floating around that this classic.

I wonder why?

Is it just a bad marketing job by JPS?

Agnon’s Days of Awe for the high holy days remains in print and widely used. Is it that American Jewry cares about the High Holidays and not Shavuot?

Is it that American Jews have no interest in rabbinics that emphasized the event of Sinai? Is it because Agnon is not liberal or Orthodox? Is it because Modernity and Orthodoxy have each eroded our attitude to reading the Sages? The Sages cared about the event of Sinai where the earth shook, mountains flew, and eyesight was given to the blind more than infallibly, reliability or relevance. Does concern with contemporary doctrinal formulation overturn the very words of the Rabbis?

As the introduction by Judah Goldin put it, Agnon was concerned with “Geist not Zeitgeist,” he wanted to capture the spirit of the Rabbis not to contextualize them historically. (That is the same way the Hebrew reviews are treating Benny Lau’s works).

The book is not arranged chronologically rather by the unfolding of the event, eyesight to the blind, synesthesia, our eternal love relationship with God, and how everyone understood the revelation according to their capacity- separate understandings for young & old, wise & foolish, pregnant & infirm. (The insane were healed.)

The Hebrew title of the book is Atem Reitem –You saw! You saw, you were eyewitnesses, for Agnon all Jews have an immediacy of Sinai For him, Jewish thinking about God must include a discussion of the experience of Sinai (not the reliability).

In the author’s “The making of this book,” he describes that the book is based on the four levels of meaning” “The words of the Torah are both revealed and hidden, and however much one examines them one never penetrates more than a small part of their mystery.”

“I have cited only the words of believers in God, concerning whom, and concerning the like of whom, it is said, “That which the veteran scholar shall someday teach… was already told to Moses at Sinai” (PT Peah 2). —Bialek was counted among the believers.

Agnon quotes approvingly the introduction to Bava Kama by Rabbi Shlomo Luria (late 16th century), the Maharasha that Sinai produces contradictory conclusions. Each person seeing and comprehending in an individualistic way.

The sages in their study of the text drew different and sometimes contradictory conclusions, either through the exercise of logic or on the basis of tradition handed down from Moses to Sinai, one to another.
All souls were at Mt Sinai and received through forty nine conduits… heavenly voices they not only heard but also saw. And all Israel saw the voices, meaning the proclamations disseminated through the conduits, each seeing through his own conduit according to his ability to comprehend and according to the capacity of his higher soul to be elevated or diminished, one widely differing from another.

The original purpose of the famous introduction was to reject the wave of codification that the Shulkhan Arukh was ushering in. Luria wanted [qualified] rabbis to go back to the text afresh and use their own logic and their won traditions because Sinai itself, with its synesthesia, fiery letters, and effects on the soul, could not be pinned down. Agnon makes it his individualistic reception of revelation, sharing the romantic and individualistic concerns of Rav Zadok, Rav Kook, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Pisetzna, Gershom Scholem, and Hillel Zeitlein.

He cites Isaiah Horowitz’s Shnei Luhot Habrit, that the Torah has 600, 000 interpretations, corresponding to the 600, 000 souls each of whom received one interpretation as his portion.

Agnon confesses that “each day, I personally fulfilled the commandment to remember the Sinai Event.”
He states that “throughout my work I kept in mind the injunction of the Guide of the Perplexed that it is not proper to break through the bounds and say too much about the secrets of Mt Sinai… for it is among the hidden aspects of the Torah.”

Maybe Agnon was not claimed because neither Orthodoxy nor Liberal positions, nor scholars emphasize Agnon’s sources? For Aggadah through living eyes, he used Damesek ELiezer 1880, Torah Temimah 1904, Torah shelemah by MM Kasher 1954, Yefeh Eynaim 1880; For collections of Aggadah he used Yalkut Reuveni 170, Yalkut Eliezer 1864-71, Bialek –Rawnitzki Sefer haAggadah 1948; and for Kabbalistic Midrash he used Mekor Hokhmah Yissakher Baer 1611, Maftekhot haZohar 1744.

The only serious review that Agnon’s book received was by a Sefardi Rabbi in LA, who also contributed to a teacher’s guide for using Agnon in day schools.

As a side point, Judah Goldin the editor of the volume notes how Agnon breaks up of verses in each section. Many years ago, Prof Zussman of Hebrew University taught an “undergraduate” class on the midrashim of Mt Sinai. Now, Zussman’s goal at the start of every semester was to have 4-5 students left in the class by scaring off all non Tal-mood-ists. He would give on the first classes major assignments like read through many Rabbinic works and check all variant versions, until the roster descended from 35 to 5 students. Anyway, one semester he offered midrashim on Mt Sinai and assigned the first class to look at a list of 30 midrash collections and find out when they thought Har Sinai ended? Exodus 20 Verse 21? The whole chapter? All of Mishpatim? Exodus 25? Beyond? It was a good lesson in method. Agnon obviously reflected his Midrashic sources.

But to return to the original question: Why did Agnon on Sinai not catch on like his work on the high holy days?

6 responses to “Agnon’s “Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law

  1. My sense is that Yamim Noraim was much more successful than atem reitem in the original Hebrew as well. I am not sure this is just a question of the works American reception.

  2. Your question could be answered in terms of marketing. If American Jews mostly ignore Shavuot, a Shavuot book isn’t likely to sell well in America. And if the subset of people more likely to celebrate Shavuot are also less likely to be favorably disposed towards this particular author, sales will be doubly impaired.

    It is telling that the non-profit JPS published it. A for-profit publisher probably would have passed.

  3. The High Holidays provide a captive market for Jewish publishers: Many Jews consider themselves chained to the pews, and are looking for something acceptably holy to read. Note that Jewish Lights has begun publishing a series of volumes, each explicating a single High Holiday prayer. Last year was Untaneh Tokef; this year it’s Kol Nidrei.

  4. Interesting … this (last) Shavuot I gave a Tikkun Leil in Palm Beach shul based entirely on texts from Agnon’s anthology. I agree it is a massively under-appreciated and little-known work, both in Hebrew and English. Why? I think the answers are as suggested (Shavuot is not a high-profile holiday, RH/YK worshippers are looking for something to read etc). But I would add that aggadic dimensions of Sinai are probably considered dangerous if not heretical by today’s Orthodox world, which is also closed to scholars and scholarship of the genre represented by Agnon. Interestingly, one or two Israelis/former Israelis present at the shiur expressed astonishment that Agnon was “also” a talmid chacham and personally observant.

  5. I would add that aggadic dimensions of Sinai are probably considered dangerous if not heretical by today’s Orthodox world,

    Paul,
    Are there any specific aggadic dimensions that you can identify as most problematic? How do you explain today’s Orthodox world rejecting explicit Midrash and Aggadah about Sinai? They obviously dont think Hazal were heretics.

  6. Oy! Regrettably, your interesting question(s) would take more time to properly respond to than I have available at the moment. But what prompted my remark was that the radicalism of many aggadic passages, reflectiing or demonstrating the radicalism of Chazal themselves, is ignored/suppressed in today’s religious world. Anything that does not conform to a very narrow perspective on lore and law … just is ‘airbrushed’ out of the picture. On the matter of Sinai – the mystery of Sinai is abandoned in favour of a very concrete narrative. Many years ago, the Agudah weekly in London ran an article by a respected maggid shiur in a Hasidic yeshivah who bemoaned the fact that a characteristic of our age was that aggadot were treated as literal truth.

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