Prof Brian Klug on Revelation and Torah from Heaven

Brian Klug is a Senior Research Fellow & Tutor in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford and a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University. Many years ago he attended Hasmonean and after the Jacobs crisis his family switched congregations from the New West End Synagogue to the New London synagogue to follow Jacobs.

Nevertheless, Klug rejects Jacobs as having his wires crossed for asking what: Do we have Reason to Believe? Reason and belief are two separate categories. Alternately, scientific belief is based on evidence and religious belief is based on the role it has in my life. (This approach of two separate realms used to be fairly common in Orthodox circles, see the followers of Rabbi Isaac Breuer, or more recently Rabbis Sol Roth or Prof Shalom Rosenberg.)

The evidence based fields of science and history have nothing in common with an affirmation of faith. The problem of the fundamentalist is not that he won’t use modern science to understand sacred texts but that they think the texts are scientific and offer scientific truth. In Klug’s approach based on Wittgenstein, religious statements are entirely outside the realm of evidence. (There are grey cases beyond the scope of this paper. Klug’s approach should not be confused with the Wittgenstein Fideism of thinkers such as D. Z. Phillips. For those seeking introductions to the topic see here and here.)

Is Torah from Heaven like crediting God with the naturalistic production of bread in hamotzei or is it like the miraculous manna? Do we focus on the “from” in the phrase and try and figure out a more naturalistic process of the Divine entering the human, or do we focus on “heaven” and ask what Heaven means in our lives?

GRAMMAR FROM HEAVEN: THE LANGUAGE OF REVELATION IN LIGHT OF WITTGENSTEIN (Selected paragraphs from paper)
Brian Klug  St Benet’s Hall Oxford

The Section Heading are not in the Original and were added to aid in mobile reading.

Reason and Belief –Empirical questions or grandeur and power

But when [Jacobs] avers that “belief in God is entirely reasonable”, I feel as if wires are being crossed. ‘Reasonable’ and ‘belief in God’ are not, for me, phrases that can be uttered in the same  breath. If it were a matter of reasonableness, then belief in God would be hostage to ‘the facts’; for what appears reasonable at one time can seem unreasonable at another in the light of new information. It would be like believing that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. Given our current state of knowledge, rational people disagree about this: some find the idea plausible, some think it is ridiculous and some suspend judgment. If  one day a space probe discovered a washing machine on another planet, then the question  would have to be revisited. And if belief in God were on the same footing it would, as it were, extinguish the fire of belief. (Instead of fire, belief would be like a pair of scales, for reasonableness is about the balance of probabilities.) By the same token, if belief in  revelation – in the doctrine of Torah from heaven – is held to be merely ‘reasonable’,  then eo ipso it loses its grandeur and does not retain its ‘ancient vigour and power’.

I am with Jacobs completely when he says boldly: “We refuse to accept that the only choice  before us is the stark one of either rejecting all modern knowledge and scholarship or rejecting belief. We believe that we can have both.” But on what terms? What are the terms of this accommodation?

If Torah had this ‘meaning and resonance’ for [Jacobs], it implies that the doctrine retained its grandeur, its ‘ancient vigour and power’, for him too. In which case the question becomes this: Does his own solution to his own conundrum – his reinterpretation of the doctrine – possess these qualities of grandeur, vigour and power? I am not convinced that it can. Not that I speak as a ‘fundamentalist’ – as someone  with a ‘pre-scientific attitude’.

Location of the Solution

[Louis] Jacobs’ solution is to reinterpret the preposition: he homes in on the ‘min’ or ‘from’: “In the light of modern knowledge,” he says, “the ‘from’ in the doctrine that the Torah is from Heaven … has to be understood in terms of divine-human co-operation”. Citing the late American Jewish scholar Jakob Petuchowski, he draws a parallel with hamotzi, the blessing over bread: when we say that God ‘brings forth bread from the earth’, we do not mean “that God brings bread ready-made or ready-sliced from the ground, but that He does so through the labours of the farmers, the bakers, and the distributors”. Similarly, to say that Torah is from Heaven is to say that God reveals himself through the labours of the prophets, the rabbis and the Jewish people as a whole. In short: “The Torah is still God-given if the ‘giving’ is seen to take place through the historical experiences of the Jewish people in its long quest for God.”

If [many focus on]  on ‘Torah’ and Jacobs on ‘from’, it is ‘heaven’ that catches my ear. What does it mean to attribute a book or text to heaven? What sense does it make? What difference does it make to the status of a piece of writing on earth when we ascribe it to heaven? Of course, to put the question this way is already to have in hand a distinction between heaven and earth. It therefore presupposes another question: How does the word ‘heavenly’ inflect the word ‘earthly’? What does it do to our sense of the mundane when we see the world as sublunary? For suddenly our whole point of view has changed. Wittgenstein touches on this change of point of view when he reflects on the difficulty  he has in believing in the resurrection of Christ. “I cannot call him Lord,” he says. Why not? Because, he says, “I do not believe that he will come to judge me; because that says nothing to me”. Then what would it take to enable him to believe in the resurrection? His answer is complex but I shall cut to the quick. “[T]his can only come about,” he says, “if you no longer support yourself on this earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything is changed and it is ‘no wonder’ if you can then do what now you cannot do”.

It might seem paradoxical to refer to the resurrection of Christ at a seminar in Jewish Studies and in the context of a discussion of Torah min HaShamayim. But Wittgenstein’s reflection is as good an entrée as I can think of to the body of my paper. For what I would like to suggest, in a similar vein to Wittgenstein, is this: everything is changed when you see Torah not as the product of earth but of heaven. And this is where or why the analogy with hamotzi breaks down. It is one thing for bread to be brought forth from the earth, another for Torah to be given from heaven. The shift of location changes everything; and this change is as great as the difference between a merely reasonable belief and a belief that possesses the grandeur, the vigour and the power required for ‘a basic article of Jewish faith’.

What is Belief? What is the Difference between Scientific and Religious Belief?

Take the word ‘belief’. Belief in Torah from heaven is a belief. So is belief in the ‘big bang’. But does ‘belief’ operate in the same way in both cases? (Are the language games the same?) “In a religious discourse,” said Wittgenstein in the first of three lectures on religious belief that he gave in 1938, “we use such expressions as: ‘I believe that so and so will happen,’ and use them differently to the way in which we use them in science.” The example he discusses is belief in the Last Judgment:

Suppose, for instance, we knew people who foresaw the future; make forecasts for years and years ahead; and they described some sort of a Judgement Day. Queerly enough, even if there were such a thing, and even if it were more convincing than I have described, belief in this happening wouldn’t be at all a religious belief.

Similarly, suppose Apple invented an electronic device for ‘post-seeing’ the past, giving access to events that took place years and years ago… And suppose someone using this device sets the dial for the 6th of Sivan in the year 2448 from the day of creation (1313 BCE), seven weeks after the Children of Israel left Egypt.

On the monitor of this device, after a degree of  crackling that sounds like thunder and looks like lightening, a scene comes into focus of an entire people gathered at the base of a mountain in the wilderness of Sinai. A dark cloud sits on the summit and a booming voice can be heard from on high, enunciating commandments. Strangely enough (Wittgenstein would say), even if there were such a device, and even if the images on the screen were more  convincing than I have described, belief in this epiphany – belief that Torah was given from heaven – would not be a religious belief.

Then what makes a belief religious? “It appears to me,” wrote Wittgenstein in 1947, “as though a religious belief could only be something like passionately committing oneself to a system of coordinates. Hence, although it’s belief, it is really a way of living, or a way of judging life.” The point is that this is what the word ‘belief’ does when the context of its use is religious rather than scientific or Wissenschaftlich. It does not  indicate a process of weighing evidence and drawing a conclusion. What it indicates is a commitment, a commitment that shows in the life of the believer: in the way they think and in their whole approach to life. So, getting back to the example of the Last Judgment, Wittgenstein imagines someone who has “what you might call an unshakeable belief” and comments: “It will show not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for all in his life.”

In this sense of ‘belief’, what Wittgenstein says about Christianity applies equally to Judaism: Christianity is not based on a historical truth, but presents us with a (historical) narrative & says: now believe! But not believe this report with the belief that is appropriate to a historical report, – but rather: believe, through thick & thin & you can do this only as the outcome of a life. Here you have a message! – don’t treat it as you would another historical message! Make a quite different place for it in your life. – There is no paradox about that! By the same token, there is nothing paradoxical about disbelieving the historical claim that the Torah was given to Moses from heaven – what would it even mean to believe this? – and believing it as a point of faith. This is a measure of the difference in meaning between ‘believe’ and ‘believe’ – a difference in the work being done – when the same word is used in these two different contexts. In light of Wittgenstein, we can say that the doctrine of Torah from heaven makes the following demand on us: embrace the idea with a passion – ‘believe, through thick & thin’ – or leave it be, but don’t ask for the evidence. It is not a hypothesis or theory.

Louis Jacob’s Mistake as Shatnez

Which brings me back to the question that I posed in the first section of the paper:  What are the terms of accommodation between the demands of Wissenschaft and faith?  Jacobs rejects the ‘traditional view’ of the doctrine of Torah from heaven on the grounds  that it is “contrary to the facts of history”. His new interpretation is intended to allow for the selfsame facts. But, if we approach this in light of the passage I have just quoted from Wittgenstein, we can say that the trouble with the ‘fundamentalist’ view is that it puts the doctrine in the wrong place. It puts it in the same place as a historical claim. Having done this, it then compounds the felony by refusing to let the doctrine be judged by historical criteria.

This is irrational and indefensible: Jacobs is quite right about this. But recall his definition of a fundamentalist in the Jewish context: a “Jew who persists in maintaining a pre-scientific attitude”. This suggests that the fundamental error of the fundamentalist lies in the second false move: rejecting the established criteria for judging claims about history. Whereas, in light of Wittgenstein, we can say that the fundamental error of the fundamentalist lies in the first: putting the doctrine of Torah from heaven into the box called ‘history’. For this is the wrong place for it. The way to correct this error is not to apply historical criteria in reinterpreting the doctrine – Jacobs’ approach – but to make quite a different place for it in the life of the believer. It is tempting (though too glib) to say that the trouble with the ‘traditional view’ is not that it is pre-scientific but that it is not post-scientific. But I did not say that.

“The Torah did not simply drop down from heaven” says Jacobs. He adds: “it has had  a history.”What I feel about this statement is that it is a hybrid, a kind of conceptual shatnez (a garment woven from wool and linen (Deut. 22:11)). No doubt, the text of the  book or books that we call ‘the Torah’ has been written over time (though the precise story of their writing is a matter of scholarly dispute). But viewed as the word of God, the Torah is eternal and cannot have a history.

How to view the traditional picture of Torah from Heaven

As I mentioned at the beginning of the paper, Jacobs recognises that “the traditional picture”, in which the Torah did, more or less, drop from heaven into Moses’ lap, “has grandeur and power”. But he thinks it has to go. But does it? “What am I believing in when I believe that men have souls?” asks Wittgenstein in the Investigations. There is, he says, “a picture in the foreground, but the sense lies far in the background; that is, the application of the picture is not easy to survey” (par. 422). He does not take issue with the picture per se; the issue he raises is about its sense, its use. As he remarks two paragraphs later: “The picture is there; and I do not dispute its correctness. But what is its application?” (par. 424).

When I read Jacobs, when I consider his trenchant critique of the position that he calls fundamentalist, the position that digs its heels in when confronted with ‘the facts of history’, I find that this is the question that arises for me. Not: Is the picture (the traditional picture of Torah given from on high) correct? But: What is its application? This means: How does it manifest itself in the life of the believer? For it is there, in the fray of life, that it gets its sense. And there might not be any other way of expressing what it expresses.

I shall conclude with a brief remark about the other side of the doctrine of Torah from heaven: Torah to earth; in other words, what it means to receive it from heaven. Earlier, I mentioned that Jacobs draws a parallel with hamotzi, the blessing over bread, which God ‘brings forth from the earth’. But I prefer a parallel with manna, the mysterious substance that sustained the Israelites in their wanderings through the wilderness, the food that fell from the skies. Manna was from heaven but the people had to gather it. The difference being that with the Torah there is no end to gathering its meaning. This, when you stop to think about it, is part of the weight of the doctrine of Torah min HaShamayim. (Words from heaven never settle on the page.) Which is why no thoughtful believer – no one who embraces the ‘traditional picture’ in all its majesty – could possibly be a fundamentalist.

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12 responses to “Prof Brian Klug on Revelation and Torah from Heaven

  1. In the interest of clarify of thinking about Torah and about its history (and in the interest of saving a lot of ink and trees), wouldn’t it be simpler for Mr. Klug to just write something like:
    1. The notion that the Pentateuch was given at Sinai is conradicted by historical facts and I therefore reject it.
    2. In this I agree with Rabbi Jacobs and the scholarly consensus.
    3. The Pentateuch is considered a primary sacred text in Judaism and I embrace the Jewish religion for reasons unrelated to the Pentateuch’s historical origins.

    • No, because he would not agree with your first line. Religion and history are fundamentally two separate realms.

      The first half is an intro to his life and the second half starting at 12 minutes explain his views. The video does a great job. Dont assume that Prof. Krug as a specialist on Wittgenstein agrees with all the details of the film. The film is more agnostic, Krug in this paper is more theist.

      • From the section “What is Belief? What is the Difference between Scientific and Religious Belief?”: “…there is nothing paradoxical about disbelieving the historical claim that the Torah was given to Moses from heaven – what would it even mean to believe this? – and believing it as a point of faith. This is a measure of the difference in meaning between ‘believe’ and ‘believe’ – a difference in the work being done – when the same word is used in these two different contexts.”

        So Klug appears to acknowledge that as a historical matter, in the world of facts, the Torah was not given at Sinai. (“what would it even mean to believe this?”) But then he re-interprets the word “belief” when used in a religious context to mean something like “commitment” or “alignment.” With this interpretation of “belief” he then affirms his commitment of Torah MinHashamayim. Am I understanding him correctly?

      • No, Klug did not say anything about the historic matter at Sinai. That is the work of historian or the hypothetical video camera. In this approach, any statement of evidence based history is not belief. Historical language and religious language are two separate realms, separate language games with separate rules. One cannot use the rules of checkers in playing chess.
        For Klug, the problem of fundamentalism is not the ignoring of historical and scientific evidence by the religious, rather the thinking that religious language is of the same game as history and science. Read the short introductions that I linked to.

  2. “religious statements are entirely outside the realm of evidence”
    is torah min hashamayim a religious statement or an historical fact (or belief in that fact) that his religious implications? or are we really reinterpreting what the misnah originally meant to make it acceptable to what we think we know or suspect today?

    do not understand how this helps religious jews:
    “we can say that the doctrine of Torah from heaven makes the following demand on us: embrace the idea with a passion – ‘believe, through thick & thin’ – or leave it be, but don’t ask for the evidence. It is not a hypothesis or theory.” if you don’t believe God’s involvement or of an historical fact(possibility) then how do you get to the vigor stuff?

    this post reminds of the saying: its not that i believe in God and go to church but i go to church therefore i believe in God.

    like the concluding remark. for whatever reason i believe he is on the right road.

    • Joshua Skootsky

      Ruvie, Ma’amad Har Sinai is not a historical fact that we can prove to people who don’t believe it. If it was, we would have done that, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. So, we have a situation where we, believers, believe 100% that it occurred, but we can’t prove it to other people. A “historical fact” would be something that we could know and prove to other people, because it is objectively demonstrable to be true. There are very few historical facts.

      I also think Prof. Klug is expressing a belief that Heavenly Torah can come from heaven to earth, so it isn’t proper to accuse him of not believing in the possibility of God revealing Himself to humans.

      Quite right that we believe in God and the Torah for reasons unrelated to history. We believe because of our mesorah, which is our story of how things happened, and it is to our mesorah that we commit ourselves.

  3. “Reason and belief are two separate categories. Alternately, scientific belief is based on evidence and religious belief is based on the role it has in my life…In this sense of ‘belief’, what Wittgenstein says about Christianity applies equally to Judaism: Christianity is not based on a historical truth, but presents us with a (historical) narrative & says: now believe! But not believe this report with the belief that is appropriate to a historical report, – but rather: believe, through thick & thin & you can do this only as the outcome of a life. ” —

    While a common classical Christian approach was to treat revelation as separate from reason, a common medieval Jewish approach was to state that both reason and revelation have their roots in the Divine and must be made to agree with each other. In this case, Prof. Klug jumps straight from Wittgenstein, who came from a Christian cultural background, into Judaism, but, to use a term he himself used, the jump is “glib” – partly because he fails to ground Wittgenstein’s theories in classical Jewish sources. What Jewish sources does he have to back up his interpretation of Torah min-ha-Shamayim?

    • I emailed your question to Prof. Klug and he graciously replied. Everything below is from him.

      Which brings me to the interesting comment and thoughtful question posed by your commentator. Here is my (rather hurried) response. It is not so much my intention to draw a line between reason and revelation as to distinguish between the kind of reasoning employed for the purposes of scientific discourse and the kind that enters into thinking about about God, the soul and so on (in a religious idiom). I accept that this is not made clear enough in the paper and it is certainly not developed there.

      On the other hand, I hope that at no point do I suggest that reason is all of a piece and that it is categorically different from revelation, since that is not what I think. The commentator observes that “a common medieval Jewish approach was to state that both reason and revelation have their roots in the Divine and must be made to agree with each other”. Yes, but the crucial question here (as I say in both the first and third sections of the paper) is this: how should the ‘agreement’ or accommodation be made between the kind of ‘reason’ that we find in science and the language of revelation?
      As I read Wittgenstein, light on this question is shed by his thought — and that is what I set out to show in the paper. I do not think that Wittgenstein’s approach lends itself more to elucidating Christianity rather than Judaism, since the argument in the paper goes via considerations of the very logic of religious language rather than the doctrines of any particular faith. (This is not reflected in the extracts on the blog but I think it is clear in the paper.) It does not go via “Jewish sources”; the final question is asking for a different paper, with a different aim, from the one I wrote.

  4. Thank you, Prof. Brill, for graciously forwarding my question, and Prof. Klug, for your taking the time to provide a very thoughtful response.

  5. Here are three applications of the use of religious language. The first is by Father Guido Sarducci and involves answers to the question of the immortality of the soul, aliyas neshamot, reward and punishment and gilgulim. I understand these ideas, or I think I do, as did the audience. No deep background picture here, no special use of religious language but a calculation any storekeeper would understand. No one believes this in the sense of a life commitment, but the story lingers and becomes part of other such ideas that influence our behavior in part, even when we know it is not true in a literal way. What choice is there but to understand these sentences in a fundamentalist way? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zp3aAvorZcw
    The second example is an impromptu remark using religious language by the Lubavitcher Rebbe that is unsettling, yet simple to understand, not exactly empirical though there might be neurological empirical traces that would support his claim. I can’t speak for others but this idea will remain with me, but there is no particular need to embrace this idea with a passion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBjUmj95r6g
    And finally a nigun combined with body language, again involving the Lubavitcher but there are many such examples. Here we have some form of religious communication, but not using a full blown language. There is nothing to believe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=EW6cTS2XrV8&feature=endscreen

    How would Wittgenstein’s approach to the “logic of religious questions” understand these three examples?

  6. This is all very well if you accept Wittgenstein and his idea of language games, or perhaps similarly if you accept post-structuralism. Then I think Prof Klug has a reasonable and in many ways attractive argument.
    However, the point of all of this, and of similar discussions on the blog such as Prof Ross’ recent post is that modernity presents a huge challenge to belief. Twisting the argument, people live their lives in that language game.
    Or more seriously, they don’t accept Wittgenstein’s ideas, they sit with a common sense or modernist or positivist (increasingly the dominant language game, discourse..) conception of the world. They don’t see languages as incommensurable as Prof Klug suggests, they see them as having independent meaning and the capacity for translation and cognitive understanding and discussion – and of course many philosophers agree with them and not Wittgenstein (ask Daniel Dennet for example).
    Prof Klug writes “There is no paradox about that! By the same token, there is nothing paradoxical about disbelieving the historical claim that the Torah was given to Moses from heaven – what would it even mean to believe this? – and believing it as a point of faith. ” Fine for Wittgenstein, but not very persuasive for most moderns. It’s fine if you want to be regarded as obscurantist and don’t care – that’s the argument after all, but most people do care, and I doubt your argument will persuade them otherwise – and after all, isn’t that the point – to find a resolution of the clash with modernity? But really you should give more cognizance to the fact that it’s not working for anyone apart from a few selected people in the academy.
    And further, isn’t the problem as well that the Torah and the Mesorah actively proclaim themselves as being within a scientific world view – that’s what I picked up very clearly at Hasmonean :) – we proclaim a faith based on history – much much more so than Christianity or any other religion…and that’s part of the problem I think for Prof Klug and Wittgenstein as well.

  7. George Brieger

    Professor, I watched the video you linked about Wittgenstein, and believe I understand generally the later Wittgenstein’s understanding of words playing a role, particularly words in a religious context. The short piece I quoted from Prof. Klug appears to state that the word “belief” in a religious context works differently from the way it works in most every day speech. In this he is following Wittgenstein.

    Where I think you are incorrect is when you write that Klug (or Wittgenstein) would disagree with the statement that as a historical matter, in the world of facts, the Pentateuch is most unlikely to have been given at Sinai. Unless you are saying that the philosopher is like an ostrich, who is ignorant of the field of Bible studies or rejects the scholarly consensus in the field, or is incapable occasionally of playing a game of checkers (in addition to the game of the philosophy of religion). Or is he like an intellectual plumber, totally unconcerned with the actual history of the primary sacred text at the center of his religion? Notice I did not use the term “belief” in the previous three sentences.

    Then, as I think we agree, when considering the word “belief” (and its synonyms) in the religious sense, he can decide to play the religious language game, in which historical facts (and metaphysical reality) are deemed irrelevant.

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