Back to Orthodoxy and Contemporary Thought. Is revelation ineffable or in words? Kant, Schopenhauer, and Otto thought the natural experience of the sublime stood alone, Barth and Rav Soloveitchik both said that there is no meaningful numinous with the kerygmatic.
Sam Fleischacker in this guest post, criticizes the positions of Martin Buber, Louis Jacobs and even Michael Fishbane by arguing that for a Jewish theology, revelation must come in words. (James Kugel agrees that it is words) In Part One of the essay-here, Fleischacker argues that the idea of an ineffable revelation does not solve modern philosophic or historic problems. For him, it is not a Jewish understanding. In Part II, he will offer his own theory of revelation in words.
Sam Fleischacker is Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago and, in 2013-14, a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. His most recent books include What is Enlightenment? (Routledge, 2013) and Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011). He is working on a manuscript on contemporary thought and revelation. We have already presented his view on revelation, he has already written elsewhere on Maimonides on revelation and models of revelation.
Jewish theology – never a thriving business – seems to be undergoing something of a revival in recent years. The Bible and midrash scholar, Michael Fishbane, published an influential exploration of theological issues in 2007. Rabbi Zev Farber helped initiate the website TheTorah.com with a passionate manifesto on how one might reconcile historical scholarship with a commitment to the Torah in 2013. Sam Fleischacker worries here that both of these scholars are, like their predecessors in 20th century Jewish thought, giving up too easily on the idea that the Torah is God’s word.
Words of the Living God
Towards A Progressive and Traditional Jewish Theology
Words are human, God is beyond words, and the Torah is a human attempt to grasp what an encounter with God might be like. That’s the view held by practically all progressive Jewish Bible scholars and theologians today, even ones in the Conservative movement, or on the liberal end of Orthodoxy. The view is also widely represented as characteristic of sophisticated, modern Jews, as opposed to the naïve traditionalists who treat the Torah as God’s word. Staking his ground as the founder of Britain’s Masorti movement, Rabbi Louis Jacobs wrote, “The believer in verbal inspiration believes that he has in the Bible … the ipssissima verba of the prophets, indeed, of God Himself. The more sophisticated believer, nowadays, cannot accept this for the soundest reasons.” (For references, see the full version of this piece.) These “more sophisticated believers” instead see revelation as a non-verbal encounter with God and Scripture as a humanly-composed attempt to describe that encounter.
Before Jacobs, Abraham Joshua Heschel had written, famously, that “As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash.” “The nature of revelation is ineffable,” said Heschel and “human language will never be able to portray” it. “Any genuine encounter with reality,” so certainly any genuine encounter with God, takes place at an “immediate, preconceptual, and presymbolic” level: a level that lies below language. And in his recent Sacred Attunement, Michael Fishbane echoes Heschel, characterizing language as a human tool that “carve[s] a sphere of sense out of the limitless ‘whole’ [of the universe],” while God appears to us in moments that “rupture” the spheres we carve, allowing a ”vastness” beyond language to break in on us. “Human speaking brings something of the ineffable divine truth to expression,” says Fishbane: the Torah, and other Scriptures, are a human-all-too-human attempt to capture a divinity who transcends language.
At the origin of this sort of theology stands of course Martin Buber, whose I-You encounter — the core of all revelation, for Buber — is widely understood to be pre-linguistic: “Only silence toward the You, the silence of all tongues, the taciturn waiting in the unformed, undifferentiated, prelinguistic word leaves the You free.”
All this sounds very beautiful. But it is unclear what it amounts to. And it is yet more unclear how any halachic form of Judaism — any form of Judaism committed to the wordy Torah, and its even wordier rabbinic commentaries — can be squared with such a view. That might not have been a worry for Buber, whose Judaism was mystical, anti-rabbinic, and dismissive of halacha, but it should be a worry for Jacobs and Heschel and Fishbane. If there is no good way of squaring wordless encounter theology with halachic Judaism, we should also wonder whether halachic Jews who uphold it are really so “sophisticated.”
In any case, most of those who draw on wordless encounter theology treat it as a dogma; instead of examining it, they take it to be obvious. I try here to begin the process of shaking up this dogma — and to offer an alternative to it: a theology that blends a traditional respect for the Torah as God’s word with a progressivist approach to history.
Selections from the Essay:
We might want to endorse wordless encounter theology if we think it is coherent, spiritually attractive, and a helpful way of framing our Jewish commitments. It is none of these things, however.
a) Wordless encounter theology is unsuited to Judaism, a supremely wordy religious tradition. The God of the Torah creates the universe with words and inaugurates our role in the world by giving us the power of naming. Taking a cue from these sources, perhaps, the rabbis argue endlessly over how best to interpret all these stories and commands and aphorisms, delighting in every fine detail of their linguistic embodiment, and using those details as the ground for their claims.
b) Wordless encounter theology is unsuited to monotheism. Wordless encounter theologians may protest that they are not talking about a direct experience of God — just having a sense of “wonder and awe,” in response to various limited experiences, that opens us up to an awareness of the limitless whole underlying all experience. A deity we encounter just at special moments of natural grandeur would be a limited deity who belongs in a polytheistic pantheon, or collection of animist spirits, not a force or principle of goodness underlying or pervading the universe.
c) Wordless encounter theology is based on a philosophically untenable conception of language. Wordless encounter theologians draw a sharp distinction between language and reality. Reality, including the reality of God, lies according to them beyond language; language is a human tool that only partially grasps, and bends to human use, what is out there. But from a philosophical perspective, this picture raises a number of questions.
Why suppose that language is merely a human construct, a set of tools to make bits of reality usable for us? If we know so little about reality in itself, how do we know so much about the reality of language? So language masters us at least as much as we master it: the full meaning of our words always lies somewhat beyond us, claimed by emotional valences, and sociological and historical processes, beyond our control. More fundamental than any of these points is the simple fact that our intentions themselves are always linguistic, so language is always prior to our attempts to control the world, not a mere means for that control. Language is also prior to our attempts to find out what is in the world: it provides us with our modes of seeing and hearing, and interpreting what we see and hear, as well as the distinction between reality and illusion by which we determine which of our sensations are veridical.