Tamar Ross is developing a theory of revelation in which she wants to maintain the full drama of Torah life with its total devotion to living the Torah life yet at the same time to allow for the possibility of accepting the findings of Biblical criticism.
We have been working on this interview since January. Her approach uses an internal dialogue with other positions so neither the questions nor the answers in this post reflect my thinking in any way.
Ross’s theory is developed through her rejection of what she sees as a widespread but inadequate solution. The rejected solution is to live with consciousness of the fall from naiveté, continuing to live as if the Torah and Torah from Sinai are true, without any change in the conception of God and revelation. Ross finds the self-aware “as if” solution problematic, because such self -consciousness may cool our devotion and commitment. Secondly, we are living the falsehood of maintaining an inadequate and wholly supernatural metaphysics.
Ross’s solution is an understanding of revelation that blurs the line between God and human input, or the natural and the supernatural. If we accept the allegorical interpretation of tzimzum as a paradigm, as presented in works like Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh Hahayim and the writings of R. Shneur Zalman of Ladi, God is from His perspective (mitzido) an all-embracing monolithic unity. Hence revelation as an act of communication between two entities is, for Ross, entirely from our perspective (mizidanu). She is attracted to Rav Kook’s model of God and creation that strives to meld the two perspectives by suggesting that from our point of view, God without creation, lacks the virtue of lack, which allows for dynamism, free will and the striving for perfection; He therefore requires creation and its upward striving in order to add the virtue of perfectibility (Hishtalmut) to the quality of perfection. This is the basis for Rav Kook’s interest in the evolution of human understanding and the universe at large as progressing to ever more sublime divine heights.
What is your approach to resolving the issues raised by Biblical Criticism?
I contend that it is still possible to maintain belief in the divinity of the Torah despite the modern critiques by breaking down the strict dichotomy between divine speech and natural historic process. This task is facilitated by re-appropriating three assumptions that already have their basis in tradition.
The first assumption I draw upon is that if the Torah is to bear a message for all generations, its revelation must be a cumulative process: a dynamic unfolding that reveals its ultimate significance only through time.
The second assumption is that God’s message is not expressed through the reverberation of vocal chords (not His, nor those of a “created voice” as some medieval commentators suggested in order to avoid the problem of anthropomorphic visions of God), but rather through the rabbinical interpretation of the texts, which may or may not be accompanied by an evolution in human understanding, and through the mouthpiece of history, a form of ongoing revelation.
The third assumption (supported by contemporary hermeneutic theory) is that although successive hearings of God’s Torah sometimes appear to contradict His original message, that message is never totally replaced, because on a formal level the original Sinaitic revelation always remains the primary cultural-linguistic filter through which these new deviations are received and understood. By blurring distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, the finite and the infinite, I contended that it is possible to relate to the Torah as a divine document without being bound to untenable notions regarding the nature of God and His methods of communication, or denying the role of human involvement and of historical process. Such an understanding allows the religiously committed to understand that the Torah can be totally human and totally divine at one and the same time.
The upshot is a process theology which allows for an ever evolving human view of the Divine. This approach, according to Ross, need not cool religious passion because there is no bifurcation of secular and religious understandings of the Torah. All striving for perfection is part of the unfolding of God’s will. In addition, since human activity is God’s instrument then there is no need for problematic supernatural metaphysics.
[AB- I am not sure to whom this theory would appeal. If one accepts the kabbalah as a solution, then one is Haredi and if one treats it as naturalistic metaphor then one is quite liberal. I am more than uncomfortable. Is it just reinventing the liberal solution with a Kabbalistic divine?]
1] What should I do after learning about Biblical Criticism? Biblical criticism forces us to evolve and understand revelation in a more nuanced fashion. We don’t necessarily negate biblical criticism but neither do we substitute it for Talmud Torah. We continue teaching Torah in the traditional manner but with a greater appreciation for its open-ended character, in accordance with a more refined understanding of revelation.
2] What is this refined understanding of revelation? Accepting a natural sense of God and revelation. God is not merely transcendent but also immanent in the interpretive responses of humanity.
3] Isn’t this subjective? No, because it rejects the sharp distinction between God and human perception, between mitzideinu and mitzido.
4] How is this different from Mordechai Kaplan’s naturalism? It preserves the idea of a supernatural metaphysical God, and the notion of divine perfectibility. The more naturalistic aspects of my view of revelation also draw much more solidly on traditional Jewish sources from Rabbinics until today. [AB- that’s it?]
5] How can we still accept a metaphysical God? How can we still have metaphysics after the naturalistic critiques? By blurring the line between God and the universe and understanding the term “God” as ultimately striving to capture that monolithic unity which is beyond definition.
6] How is this better than the liberal supernaturalism of Louis Jacobs? Jacobs may well have been groping towards a theology of the sort I am suggesting. In the epilogue to his 4th edition of We have Reason to Believe he contends that people have been mistaken when they understood him as suggesting that we can naively mark some passages in the Torah as divine and others as human. Nevertheless he did regard some passages as more noble than others, so that he did not see all as equally binding. My approach accepts the Torah in its entirety as the expression of God’s unfolding in history, and revelation as immanent in human activity. Even passages in the Torah which appear problematic to us today, and the historical context which triggers our discontent and moves us to seek new interpretations, are part of that process.
7] If the Torah was not given in the traditional way, then why choose Torah over Shakespeare or Buddhism? This is the cultural-linguistic system into which we were born and were educated. In light of its remarkable spiritual legacy and resilience, we view it as offering a compelling prescription for life, ethics, and recognition of a spiritual dimension of reality beyond the everyday.
8] Isn’t your approach close to Spinoza with an immanent deity and a naturalistic revelation? Yes, in some respects. But it allows me to still maintain the value of a theistic perception as an indispensable “chamber and reception hall” (as R. Kook puts it) to Spinoza’s vision of ultimate unity, along with the traditional understanding of Torah practice and study based on the halakhic model of avodat Hashem.
9] What is the role of history as a process? God from His perspective (mitzido) is an eternal undifferentiated unity, but from our perspective (mitzidenu) He unfolds immanently in time through historical development and human agency. The world is evolutionary and embellishes upon God’s infinity in the never-ending unfolding of a more intricate and particularized reality.
10] What do you think of the various non-foundational solutions for the problem of revelation including treating it as myth or treating the text “as if” true, or Wittgenstein’s linguistic understanding of religious belief?
Treating the traditional account of biblical revelation as a foundational myth can justly be taken as the apologetic of all apologetics, a type of meta-solution broad enough to cover even the most general and all-pervasive critique regarding the “truth” of Jewish dogma. Since the function of myths is not strictly cognitive, but rather to create a more elusive sensibility or way of relating to the world, it is far more important to live your life “as if” they are true than to uphold their propositional content. However, people adopting the “myth” approach have generally also been associated with the approach of liberal-supernatural theology (the Torah is part human and part divine) and so they tend to see this solution as a license for picking and choosing which elements to take and which to reject.
Jews who relate to traditional accounts of revelation and other biblical content in a cultural-linguistic context don’t ask what such statements convey or how factually accurate they are in mirroring our common-sense view of reality, but rather what is their function in the activities and world view of the speaker. Their function is primarily to act as props for the ritual practice and speech of a particular religion. Any weakening of arguments that link the authority of the halakhah with infallible doctrinal claims would appear to lead to an ultimate breakdown of the halakhah itself. As Judaic scholar Martin Jaffee has aptly phrased it: “Jewish practice without grounding in the divine has no more compelling a claim to the religious attention of Jews than the Code of Hammurabi.”
11] Instead of the misleading undertone of myth as something possibly false, you propose that assertion of faith is commitment to a particular language game. What do you mean by this?
The process of converting an unbeliever into a believer on this view resembles the teaching of a language, not because religion itself is a language, but because it functions as one, in helping us internalize views and acquire skills which have already been formulated and developed by others. When we acquire the knack for its conceptual syntax, we begin to intuitively know how to use its symbols in a manner that suits its internal logic. The final product of the religious learning process is not meant to be an authoritative list of religious dogmas or an ideal moral system, but rather implied or suggestive directives as to how to think about God and to conduct one’s life in accordance with these thoughts.
In a best case scenario, cultural-linguistic directives become second nature, and fulfill an essential role in fashioning the life of the believer. The purpose of religious discourse is not substantive (referring to a particular truth) but rather constitutive or regulative – offering us an entire universe of discourse, within which to live the life of faith.
Wittgenstein’s basic premise at his later linguistic stage was to regard all linguistic statements as acquiring meaning only by virtue of their use in a particular context. To illustrate the diversity of contextual discourse, Wittgenstein introduced the concepts of “language games” and “forms of life”. The different functions or substructures of language comprise different “language games” – i.e., goal-directed social activities for which words are just so many tools to get things done in accordance with the “grammar” of their distinctive context. Each language game does a particular job, conveying certain meanings to those who participate in its particular discourse. Justification is internal to the activity or “form of life” concerned.
12] Why is this useful? A cultural-linguistic approach to religious discourse seems particularly suitable for modern Orthodox sensibilities because of the rare mix of intellectual liberty and fidelity to tradition that it supports, allowing us to absorb and combine various and even opposing points of view. It tones down the idea that religion must correspond to some predefined external foundational truth, which exists “out there.” Therefore, we can reject the notion of biblical inerrancy (i.e., that Scripture is completely accurate in all matters of history and science) because the bible is not about external truth. Even in matters of faith and practice, the rationality and relevance or “truth” of religious tradition is maintained not by appeal to external evidence, but rather by skillfully using the internal grammar of religious discourse to provide an intelligible interpretation on its own terms. As against this, however, subscribers to this approach appear almost reactionary and fundamentalist in their absolute commitment to abide by the constitutive guidelines of their religious tradition and to submit to its internal authority. In this they differ from those who feel that abandoning a fundamentalist understanding to religious truth claims leaves room for selectivity.
13] Doesn’t deliberate assumption of religion as a language game nevertheless interfere with “simple belief”?
The self-aware cultural-linguist can travel hand in hand with the naïve realist of simple belief for a very long way in preserving the psychological force of his religious commitments. So long as they are both functioning within the religious language-game itself and abide by its guidelines, the two will not differ radically for all practical purposes. The only difference between them will be the former’s consciousness of the fact that the basis for these adjustments stems from internal “form of life” rather than external truth claim considerations. This allows him to view his attempts at reconciling religious truth claims with a hypothetical objective “reality” more ironically, and to entertain the possibility that these may eventually be replaced by another more illuminating picture.
14] How does this approach help the blogger whom you cite in your extended paper who treats the service as theater? (Modern Orthoprax – July 2009, “Religion…is Tony and Tina’s wedding writ large…. If only I could forget about that damn camera man”). Won’t he just say that your approach to belief is heterodox and not a true Yeshivish belief in Torah min Hashamayim, hence you are orthoprax?
I admit that when the “as if” quality of religious belief, or its understanding as a language game supporting a particular form of life, is adopted consciously and deliberately as a blanket response to new loss of innocence, rather than as an internal solution to localized problems, conducting one’s day to day living in accordance with its guidelines could be more problematic. Someone who says he accepts Biblical criticism but lives “as if” the Torah is true simply because this is the grammar of his religious language game still experiences the conflict of two different perspectives – inside the system and outside criticizing the system. My interest is in developing a rationale that can accommodate both. This is where the contribution of modern kabbalah and its unique amalgam of realism and non-realism comes in. Meaning: that God and the world are real enough from our perspective and at the same time the world is not real, in the sense of a separate existence, from God’s perspective. In an ultimate sense, both the world and God are not real, since on that level the very distinction between the two, or between existence and non-existence is obliterated.
Were R. Hayim of Volozhin, R. Shneur Zalman of Ladi, R. Dessler or R. Kook not true believers? The divide is not between Yeshivish and non-Yeshivish, but between those who are inclined to reflect philosophically regarding the nature of their religious beliefs and those who are not.
15] Your appeal to the linguistic approach and your view of breaking down the dichotomy of human and divine speech are two positions that can be separated. Why are they connected in your mind?
Breaking down the dichotomy between human and divine speech is a response to the challenges that ubiquitous human imprints and the attribution of speech to God in the literal, verbal sense, pose to the notion of a divinely authored text. Although a cultural-linguistic approach to religious belief allows us to relate to doctrine in an “as if” manner, this does not preclude the urge to make religious belief (especially its most basic tenets) rationally intelligible. This activity is part and parcel of the religious language game itself.
16] How is this different than the position of James Kugel? Firstly – Kugel, despite his emphasis on the interpretive process which converted the bible into Scripture, still seeks to ground the authority of the Torah – at least minimally – on some objective event at Sinai. As far as I am concerned, this may have been, but I do not find it necessary. Secondly, Kugel finds it essential to believe that the core message of that event (the command/s to serve God), no matter how it was transmitted, originated in some intentional movement on God’s part which somehow got filtered down to us in words. My view of God’s “speech” is rather as illocutionary acts that trigger humans to “hear” a message, and identify this as divine revelation. The Torah surely records accounts of people believing that they had revelatory experiences, but its ultimate authority is grounded on the form of life that developed in the wake of such experiences and the strength of its grip upon us. Thirdly, Kugel sees the basic message of the Torah as saying that the way to come close to God is by “becoming His employees” and serving Him in daily life. I agree that this is the primary message of the Torah as subsequently interpreted, but my evolutionary understanding of Torah does not limit connection to God exclusively to this model.
17] What if someone does not accept kabbalah as their way to understand Torah, especially if they are not comfortable with the allegorical interpretation of Luria? The importance of the allegorical interpretation, particularly on R. Kook’s understanding, is simply in offering a multi-layered view of God and revelation. It allows us to maintain a continuum between immanence and transcendence, subjective and objective, natural and supernatural while preserving some distinction between them, and to also allow for an ultimate reality where all such distinctions are dissolved. One does not have to be bound by kabbalistic terminology and symbolism in order to accept this basic message.
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