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Lifting Up the Mountain: Sinai in Rabbinic Narratives

Associate Professor Gwynn Kessler
Associate Professor Gwynn Kessler

Associate Professor Gwynn Kessler was awarded a James Michener Faculty Fellowship the project Lifting Up the Mountain: Sinai in Rabbinic Narratives. She has spent most of the 2012-13 academic year in Israel working on her Michener project.

The text that follows is an excerpt from her proposal.

Sinai in Rabbinic Narratives

"Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently" (Ex. 19:18).

Revelation at Mt. Sinai is a spectacular event in the Hebrew Bible—an epic and constitutional event ushering into existence the (idea of an) ancient Israelite "nation," or people. This monograph examines how the rabbis of the 3rd through 8th centuries of the Common Era, interpret, reinterpret, adapt, elevate, and subvert this striking biblical story, making it speak not only to their time and thus reflect their own specific late antique zeitgeist but also to continue to speak to and reach across generations.

Lifting Up the Mountain focuses on how revelation recounted in Exodus 19-20 (and other relevant biblical passages) has been imagined in foundational texts of Judaism. It explores what these literary depictions of Sinai teach about rabbinic conceptions of God and of "God-appearances" (theophanies). It examines what rabbinic traditions about Sinai reveal about rabbinic constructions of the self—both on individual and collective levels. It asks how central is biblical Israel's covenant at Sinai, indeed the concept of covenant itself, to rabbinic self-fashioning—both nominally and substantively. It inquires after the uniqueness of Mount Sinai-if any-according to the rabbis. It also asks whether notions of "the sacred" permeate these traditions, and if so, in what ways, as well as what is the relevance of the mountain's liminal place, and what this might reflect about late antique concepts of (sacred) space.

Finally, Lifting Up the Mountain explores how, given that rabbinic literature does not suggest physical pilgrimage to Sinai, Sinai nevertheless becomes—be it explicitly or implicitly—a site of spiritual or imagined pilgrimage that the rabbis undergo repeatedly in their houses of study.