Analyzing the passages in the book of Exodus describing Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai, Yoram Hazony constructs a philosophical account of the doctrine known in rabbinic literature as “Torah from Heaven.” His argument hinges on the idea that Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai serves as a metaphor for the “ascent toward knowledge—and more precisely, toward knowledge of God’s nature and His will.” Hazony contrasts this image to Plato’s allegory of the cave:
In Exodus, fire descends upon the mountain from the sky even as man ascends the mountain, moving upward in the direction of the fire. This framing raises the possibility that in the story of Israel at Sinai, the fire that descends from the sky and strikes the earth is itself a representation of the knowledge that man seeks. Moses brings the people to the mountain precisely so that they may approach God’s fire, bearing its presence and permitting it into their own breasts and lives.
This reading is especially difficult for us because the biblical scheme in which knowledge is regarded as a fire striking the mountain is so very different from that of later Western tradition, in which knowledge is usually compared to a serene light. Plato, for example, describes the attainment of knowledge as the eye of the soul gazing quietly at something fixed, eternal, and immutable, something bathed in a peaceful, gentle light. In the Exodus account, . . . the fire that descends from the sky strikes the earth with great violence, causing the mountain to quake and smolder, . . . frightening [the Israelites] into a retreat from the mountain.
[Moreover], Plato’s account is explicitly and emphatically dualistic. Human beings live out their lives in the cave, but they have the ability to free themselves and escape into the outside world, into a world flooded with sunlight, which represents the realm of ideas or forms, the realm of “true being.” Exodus suggests no such dualism. Moses climbs the mountain in order to reach God, but the mountain is still in and of this world. Moses cannot use it to free himself from this world and reach the sky. . . . [And] while Plato believes men will experience an intense desire to remain in the world of true being, Exodus suggests nothing of the sort. Moses’ ascent to the summit of Sinai does not offer him an escape to any other world, nor does he want any such thing. He wishes to descend again to this life, to bring the knowledge he has gained back into this world, which is for him the realm of true being.