I would like to thank readers for their thoughtful comments.
- The initial problem I seek to resolve is how to defend the traditional Jewish belief in TMS (Torah min haShamayim), when faced with evidence that appears to contradict it. Beyond the usual difficulties (challenges to the notion of divine authorship on grounds of erroneous content, questionable morality, and a complicated literary genesis which testifies to evolutionary historical development), I am especially troubled by the very notion of divine revelation as verbal communication – given that language is a distinctly human activity, inevitably rooted in a particular perspective and cultural bias. My solution is to regard belief in revelation as an “as if” statement, a useful fiction (or, in Maimondian terminology, a “necessary truth”) whose purpose is to represent and engender certain attitudes rather than to describe an objective occurrence. I see this understanding as closely related to views of religion as commitment to a range of doctrines and norms which serve as a cultural-linguistic filter constructing the way we view the world, rather than as an objective account of reality – metaphysical or otherwise.
- I think that most believers in the past adopted such an attitude unreflectively, understanding belief in TMS simply as loyalty to the Torah and to the way of life that it propagates, without delving into overmuch detail regarding its doctrinal content. However, when such an attitude is adopted consciously as a blanket response to new loss of innocence, conducting day to day life according to its guidelines could be more problematic. This has driven me to develop a theory of revelation (as unfolding through time and the development of human understanding) and a picture of God (as both immanent and transcendent) that might counteract such difficulties, by conflating the dichotomy between divine reality and human input.
- In such a view, questions such as that of Joebug (“why would God structure aII world with ongoing revelation based on an imperfect morality? Why not just start with good ethics to begin with?”) are inappropriate. The whole picture of God is of process, rather than personalist, so that questions of intent and motive are out of place, except when speaking on a certain level of mitzidenu.
- As I see it, the main critique of my position, expressed by a variety of posters, is that I am trying to dance at too many weddings at once. In the eyes of such critics, I would do far better adopting an approach of bifurcation, as represented by the later Wittgenstein’s language game theory, recognizing that religious discourse has its own rules, and is therefore immune to questions raised by scientific inquiry.
- The truth of the matter is that I start out with this position. The sub-title of the paper I am writing on the topic (“Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Modern Biblical Criticism”) is: “Some Notes on the Importance of Asking the Right Question”. This is because I begin with the same position as Brian Klug, who – in the wake of the later Wittgenstein – seeks to emphasize that the meaning of belief in a scientific and religious context is not the same. In the first instance, it is a statement based on empiric evidence. In the second, it is a profession of allegiance and commitment.
But, as opposed to Evanston Jew’s analogy, I do not see the two realms as separate, self-contained locations speaking different languages, with only high traveling costs as the problem. A more appropriate analogy is a Jewish ghetto, situated alongside other distinctive communities, within a larger municipal framework. Ghetto members speak their own language amongst themselves, but are often called upon to adopt a more universal tongue when engaging with their neighbors. The language of the neighbors also seeps into ghetto territory and infiltrates their native tongue. Because of such overlaps, which intensify considerably in an age of increased mobility and globalization, Evanston Jew’s (and Josh Stadlan’s?) suggestion that we “try to patch together an overriding picture that will clarify our frequently conflicting intuitions” into some form of “reflective equilibrium” simply by adopting different rules of inference for religious and secular worlds can only go so far. (And as an aside to Josh Stadlan: I have no more problem than you do with “suggesting that certain parts of the Bible were originally political polemics, etc.”, and only retroactively appropriated as d’var Hashem, but I would certainly be interested in hearing more of your take on the matter).
- Another recurring criticism of my views is their impenetrability. I sympathize with objections to use of jargon, and must admit that I found similar difficulty in deciphering the meaning of some of my critics, so I apologize if I have fallen into the same trap. I also realize the limits of an over-sophisticated theology. But although philosophical speculation is not the religious bread and butter of most believers, I do believe that its general thrust is being developed intuitively on the ground, where the true destiny of any theology is really determined. This can be discerned, for example, in an increased interest in mysticism, in the interconnected nature of all that exists, and in a variety of spirituality that is unmediated by reason and more formal institutional structures.
- In response to Chavrusamatch – my decision whether to interpret revelation, as well as other miraculous events of the exodus literally or metaphorically is one that is determined exclusively by scientific evidence and not by doctrine. This policy is close to that of the medieval rationalists, who – in the words of Maimonides – “try to reconcile the Law and reason, and wherever possible consider all things as of the natural order” – succumbing “only when something is explicitly identified as a miracle, and reinterpretation of it cannot be accommodated” (Ma-amar tehiyat hametim). But I am even more sympathetic with the approach of R. Kook who contends that as the world progresses, what was previously defined as miracle now becomes nature, with new miraculous horizons taking their place, and his rather casual response to the question of limits. When asked just how far non literal interpretations can be extended, he suggests leaving the answer to this question to the “clear sense of the nation” which “finds its paths not in isolated bits of evidence, but in general impressions”.
- As for objections to the claim that my theological approach relies only on later thinkers, I disagree. True, the allegorical interpretation to the doctrine of Tzimtzum is a recent development from the 17th century onwards, but suggestions regarding the fluid nature of Torah, the subjectivity of human perceptions of God and His word (including that of Moshe Rabbenu), the attunement of Torah to history, and even cognizance of the constructive nature of religious belief, can be traced from Hazal onwards (for more detailed discussion, see chapter 10 of my book: Expanding the Palace of Torah). But I also do not believe that we are utterly bound by precedent in developing new ideas. As I have already stated, reference to Tzimtzum shelo k’peshuto does not mandate acceptance of kabbalistic metaphysics lock, stock and barrel. Issues of realism versus non-realism are a perennial philosophical theme, and have assumed many forms. Nevertheless, the Misnagdic and Hassidic concept of layered levels of consciousness that indicate layered levels of reality is instructive.
- Questions were raised regarding the repercussions of a cumulative view of revelation on traditional Talmud Torah. I contend that accepting the revelation at Sinai as a foundational myth rather than a historical fact does nothing to diminish its formal role as the foundation for any subsequent interpretive activity. I admit that a cumulative view is more hospitable to innovation, rejecting positivist efforts to establish THE definitive view of Torah on any particular issue. But such open-endedness is still committed to the centrality of the Torah text and to working with the traditional categories and methods of the past, even as these are altered by new contexts.
- Another serious question raised by a view of revelation as humanly determined (i.e., as dependent upon human recognition rather than a divine bang on the head) is that of criteria – i.e., how do I adjudicate between competing truth claims? Ostensibly, a simple believer can rely on the unequivocal truth of his religious tradition as the direct word of God, whereas I can only appeal to the grip that its picture has upon me and my identity. But I must point out that even the simple believer’s identification of TMS as an inescapable truth is a subjective one that could have been otherwise. The only solution to relativism or subjectivism, as has been suggested, is pragmatic – but a pragmatism that is informed by a willingness to learn from other points of view and to incorporate these, when necessary, into one’s own perspective.
- In response to SK, I daresay the willingness of most baalei Teshuva to change their pre-Orthodox personal convictions regarding ethical behavior has more to do with an attraction to the Orthodox lifestyle and what it offers than with any purportedly objective argument, and it is this that leads them to view Torah as truth.