restricted access The Voice of God on Mount Sinai: Rabbinic Commentaries on Exodus 20:1 in Light of Sufi and Zen-Buddhist Texts (review)
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Buddhist-Christian Studies 24.1 (2004) 278-283

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The Voice of God on Mount Sinai. Rabbinic Commentaries on Exodus 20:1 In Light of Sufi and Zen-Buddhist Texts. By Reinhard Neudecker. Rome: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2002. 157 pp.

Reinhard Neudecker's study of the central event of the first five books of the Bible, namely the revelation of God on Mount Sinai to Moses and the Israelites, is an important contribution to interfaith studies that should be of interest to both the scholar and layperson alike. The clarity of purpose and treatment makes this study very accessible; each chapter is thoughtfully structured, with rich footnotes that provide documentation, further explanation, and information. The appendixes contain the relevant rabbinic texts in the original Hebrew; indices of terms, subjects, and Bible citations; as well as a helpful list of consulted works.

The stated purpose of the study is to shed light on enigmatic rabbinical interpretations of Exodus 20:1, the verse that introduces the TenWords (commandments) [End Page 278] that form the basis of the complete Torah by taking into consideration analogous passages from the Sufi and Zen Buddhist traditions. In explaining his methodology, the author makes three important distinctions. First, Neudecker is "not dealing with Judaism, Islam and Zen Buddhism as such, but with the views and experiences of some rabbinic Jews, some Sufi Muslims and some Zen Buddhists" (p. x). Second, the chosen texts are offered for their spiritual and mystical insight, not for their historical context or content, because "the mystic has learned to convert the great events recorded by tradition into symbols which express the ongoing inner revelation to which he has been exposed" (p. 6). Because spiritual and mystical writers generally refrain from explaining deep experiences openly (especially because of the impossibility of putting them into words), the author refrains from adding his own interpretations and instead invites the reader to a meditative encounter with the texts. Third, the author does not intend to offer simple parallels or to readily claim correspondences between the rabbinic, Sufi, and Zen texts, but leaves it up to the reader to judge what the "different traditions may have in common and to what degree and where one tradition may go a step further than the others (p. 11, n. 30). His main purpose, as stated above, is to understand the rabbinic comments better by using the method of "intercultural reading" in drawing upon Sufi and Zen Buddhist texts.

After the introductory chapter, which offers the methodological considerations and basic information about the Rabbinic sources and Buddhist terminology, the author presents Exod. 20:1 in its rabbinic translation: "And God spoke all these words to say." This short verse has become the stumbling block for the rabbinic interpreter, just as much as a Zen koan becomes a stumbling block for the Zen student or an obscure verse in the Koran for the Sufi. What these stumbling blocks have in common is that they open up a new way of nondiscursive understanding of the text that leads to profound insights and a deep spiritual experience.

Chapters 4-9 of the book are devoted to unraveling the mysteries of these insights. The reader is drawn into an engaging process that opens up layer upon layer of meaning, comparable to the peeling of an onion. A short exposition of the themes of each chapter as introduction to the texts proves very helpful for orientation in this process. Chapter 4 addresses the question of how the people at Sinai heard the Ten Words. The rabbis differ on whether the people heard all of the commandments or only the first two of them, but the important point of comparison is the enigmatic statement that God pronounced all the Ten Words, including the entire Torah, "in one single sound, as the (human) mouth cannot speak and the (human) ear cannot hear" (p. 35). This statement implies that God's revelation exceeds the limits of human speaking and hearing, and that God communicates in...