If David Wolpe, one of America's most prominent Conservative rabbis, remains true to form this coming Sunday night, the night of Shavuot, he will break the following news to his congregants: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Shavuot holiday that begins tonight commemorates God's gift of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai. Nevertheless, honesty compels me to let you in on a little secret: It never happened. There was never a Jewish people in the Sinai Desert, and God never spoke to them. The Torah that we read is not the word of God but the product of numerous human authors."
(Actually, he has already made each of these points more or less.)
Wolpe, it will be recalled, is the Los Angeles rabbi who told his congregants on the first night of Pesach, as they prepared to go home and conduct the Seder, that the Exodus from Egypt never happened. No plagues, no splitting of the sea - all a fairy tale.
Ah, what fun to shine a little "sunlight" into the eyes of one's simple, benighted congregants. And if one becomes the momentary enfant terrible of the Jewish world and signs a few lucrative book contracts to boot, that's even better.
We owe Wolpe a debt of gratitude, however, for saying publicly what Conservative rabbis have been taught for years. (Significantly, the Conservative leadership has been almost uniformly supportive of Wolpe, and no one in that leadership has stepped forward to repudiate him or his words.)
Wolpe has made clear precisely why the Conservative movement has proven incapable of inspiring its adherents with fealty to Halacha, and continues to move inexorably further from tradition: It has reduced the Torah to another variant of ancient wisdom literature.
The Iliad and Odyssey continue to be read today, but no one looks to them as a complete guide to life or studies them in order to determine how to conduct themselves on a day-to-day basis. Beautiful, interesting, even inspiring - yes; a guide to life - no.
Wolpe, of course, will deny that he has reduced the Torah to the level of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It doesn't really matter that the Torah's claim to be the word of God to man is false, he says, for the Torah is nevertheless "divinely inspired" and embodies important "spiritual values," such as the belief in God.
But Judaism is far more than a vague ethical monotheism. The Torah's central claim is to be a Divine blueprint for how God wants His chosen people to conduct their lives.
Without the Law, Judaism becomes nothing more or less than Christianity without Jesus.
If God never spoke to the Jewish people, how would finite man have any idea of what He wants from us? And why would we subject ourselves to the rigors of the Law if that Law is not His will, but rather the contrivance of a set of human authors?
The response that God somehow "inspired" the authors of the Torah is inadequate. At best, the Torah is thereby reduced to a metaphor. That impulse to reduce the Torah to metaphor - a repository of spiritual truths - fails utterly when it comes to Halacha.
The rules of behavior embodied in the Halacha cannot be so reinterpreted. They are either objective rules of behavior or they are nothing.
By Wolpe's own account, the nature of the Divine inspiration to be found in the Torah renders the Torah a highly unreliable guide. The first thing that God inspired the Jewish people to do, according to Wolpe, was to invent some really huge whoppers - the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the stories of the alleged Patriarchs. Not exactly a great recommendation for the quality of moral instruction we can expect to find in the Torah.
This process of "Divine inspiration," it turns out, is also far from perfect. A great deal of human chaff inevitably creeps in. The entire book of Leviticus, for instance, with its "massive minutiae of the construction of the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system," was recently dismissed by Ismar Schorsch, president of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, as having being superseded by our "modern sensibility."
Schorsch proudly points to the dropping of any prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple from the Conservative movement's liturgy.
Given the time-bound, fallible nature of the Torah's human authors, in Conservative eyes, how is a Jew today supposed to know what to keep and what to drop?
And therefore each individual is left to pick and choose for himself guided by his "modern sensibility."
A binding mitzva is whatever a particular individual chooses to recognize as binding at a given moment. We are bound by what we choose to be bound by is the way Conservative theologian Neil Gilman puts it. Everything boils down to a matter of personal taste. Halacha, as the mantra goes, gets no more than a vote, not a veto.
If we are the final arbiters, however, ultimately Judaism becomes nothing more than self-worship rather than the means for entering into a profound relationship with the Creator.
How far that is from the traditional view that the entire world was created only for that dramatic moment when God spoke to the entire Jewish people at Sinai and proclaimed Himself as the "The Lord, your God, Who brought you out of Egypt."
Had the Jewish people not accepted the Torah at Sinai, say our Sages, the world would have returned to its original void. It is that dramatic encounter - never to be repeated, but whose reverberations continue to be felt every moment - that we celebrate this coming Shavuot.