THE BLOG
05/06/2013 06:17 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013

Shavuot: The 'I' of Sinai and the Nag Hammadi Gnostics

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which comes 50 days after the second day of Passover -- seven weeks of seven days, plus one day -- begins this year on the evening of May 14.

What does it celebrate, what does it teach?

My own sense of its meaning has been deeply transformed by an ancient teaching from the Nag Hammadi library (which has been called a "Gnostic" collection). The story of how I got there is at the end of this letter.

But first, in biblical tradition, Shavuot celebrated the spring wheat harvest, as hundreds of thousands of Israelites brought sheaves of newly sprouted wheat and two loaves of leavened bread to the Temple in Jerusalem.

As the Jewish community became more and more widely dispersed, and then when the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish community shattered by the Roman Empire, the ancient rabbis realized they could no longer celebrate Shavuot this way. Indeed, the food-offering connection with any piece of earth grew weaker.

To replace food and land, the rabbis sought to make words of prayer, words of Torah, words of reinterpretive midrash into new ways of connecting with God. They sought to create a festival when all Israel in every generation could stand at Sinai to receive the words of Torah and speak new words of Torah, just as all Israel in every generation could use Passover to become again a band of runaway slaves, newborn from Egypt's Tight and Narrow Space (Mitzrayyim).

So the rabbis transformed the Torah's earthy agro-meaning of Shavuot into the festival of Revelation.

Who spoke at Sinai? Anokhi -- a heightened form of the usual Hebrew word for "I," Ani. When the Universe calls out to us, the "I" Who calls is Anokhi. Some say it was not only the first word at Sinai, but perhaps embodies in Itself the entire Revelation.

For if the Universe calls out "I" to us, everything else follows:
  • "Don't waste My Name by forgetting that each breath you take is the 'pronouncing' of My Name"
  • "Set aside time for you and for the Earth to rest and reflect"
  • "Don't murder a human or a species"
  • "Don't wallow in greed so as to covet," and all the rest.
"I, YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, Breath of Life and Hurricane of Change, Who brought you forth from the Tight and Narrow Place, the house of slavery...."

While the rabbis were working out this transformation of Shavuot, an unknown writer in the Semitic language Coptic was giving a different valence to that great Anokhi. The text, called "The Thunder: Perfect Mind," was stored away in the Nag Hammadi collection of religious texts written during the first two centuries of the Common Era. That library -- a collection of mostly Christian texts that the early Church refused to name as part of the sacred canon -- was unearthed by moderns only recently.

But "The Thunder" is not Christian, and its whole text is built around Anokhi Whose Divine Voice was/ is Feminine.

Its title, "The Thunder," did not describe any specific part of its content, but the whole text feels like The Thunder that spoke at Sinai.

Here are excerpts from "The Thunder," translated by Rev. Hal Taussig and published in his anthology "A New New Testament "(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 2013):

I [in Coptic, Anokhi] am the first and the last

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

I am she who is honored and she who is mocked

I am the whore and the holy woman

I am the wife and the virgin

I am the mother and the daughter

I am the limbs of my mother

I am the sterile woman and she has many children

I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn't have a husband

I am the midwife and she who hasn't given birth

I am the comfort of labor pains

I am the bride and the bridegroom

And it is my husband who gave birth to me

I am my father's mother,

My husband's sister, and he is my child

I am the slave-woman of him who served me

I am she, the lord of my child...

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

The lines of text continue in an ever more mold-breaking, paradoxical, boundary-crossing way.

Perhaps if at Sinai men were gathered on one side of the mountain and women on the other (as the Torah text hints), this is the "I" Who spoke to us all but was best received in the women's hearing. Perhaps today we will find Her as holy, as awe-inspiring, as the "I" of the other Sinai text, the one that the men heard and recorded in what we know as Torah.

Experience those two lines again, as what the "I" of Sinai spoke to us all:

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

These lines bring us back to the "Anokhi YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh," the first words the Torah heard at Sinai.

If the YHWH is a Breathing, it would indeed be what everyone can hear and no one can say.

Its letters, if we try to pronounce them, would indeed be the name of the sound and the sound of the name.

If we hear Her in the all-night Torah-learning that the mystics bequeathed us for Shavuot, could we learn to think, to feel, to commune, to be silent in a different way?

Could we hear the Shavuot of Harvest and the Shavuot of Sinai as one:

"I am the earthy food that goes into your mouth, and I am the airy words that come forth from your mouth."

Could The Thunder teach us that Earth and Torah are one, The One?

* * *

Here is the story of this discovery:

Last year, Rabbis Phyllis Berman, Nancy Fuchs Kreimer and I were invited by Methodist minister and scholar Hal Taussig to take part along with about 15 Christian scholars and spiritual teachers in a discussion of a number of religious texts written in the first two centuries of the Common Era. Most were clearly Christian, but the early Church had not included them in what became known to Christians as the "New Testament." Should they have been? Should they, even now?

Rev. Taussig was in fact asking us to VOTE on which of about 20 texts should be included in a book he was editing to be called A New New Testament. We did vote, and the book has now been published, and is causing a considerable stir.

When Rev. Taussig shared with us "The Thunder: Perfect Mind," he said this title had been appended much later, and that it had no connection with the content.

When I read it, however, I felt and said that its title, "The Thunder," was precisely about its content -- for the whole text felt like The Thunder that spoke at Sinai. Someone asked whether I meant it was/is a midrash on Sinai. "No!" I said, "It IS Sinai." My passion helped convince the Christians to vote for it, and it is included in the (heretical? transformative?) book of "A New New Testament."

The full text of the "I" Who Spoke in The Thunder is available at the Shalom Center site.

In the same post is the story of my own direct, unmediated experience of the Anokhi of the Torah text.