Sam Fleischacker, Words of the Living God- Part II

Here is the second installment of Sam Fleischacker, Words of a Living God -Part II continued from Part One here. Download the whole essay and get back with comments.
In this part, Fleischacker argues for a Divine revelation in words. Torah should not be less than a poem and therefore subject to the full scrutiny of the midrashic process.“Language is the house of Being,” says the later Heidegger;The Torah is the house of God for us.”

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Words of the Living God:Towards A Progressive and Traditional Jewish Theology(Author’s Abstract)
Sam Fleischacker, Philosophy Department, University of Illinois-Chicago

Part II: Sharing Language With God

In Part I of this essay, I criticized the idea — found in progressive Jewish theologians from Martin Buber to Michael Fishbane — that we encounter God outside language and our sacred Scriptures merely approximate what happened in that encounter. Among other things, this view misconstrues language as a purely human tool, under our control and used to manipulate a reality beyond itself for our everyday purposes. I argued that it is hard to make sense of this view of language, and pointed out how badly it fits poetry, in particular.

Part II begins by suggesting that poets exemplify how much language controls us rather than the other way around — they are vessels through whom the spiritual mysteries with which we struggle can be disclosed to us: who bring out the mystery that is in language itself, among other things. I take a particular Celan poem as an example, and propose that we can see it as a revelation.

But if a Celan poem can be a revelation, surely the Torah can be as well. It too is a great poem, brimming with power and mystery. Which brings us to the alternative to wordless encounter theology that endorse. God encounters us, if at all, in language — not, and certainly not just, wordlessly. The aspects of language that are beyond our control can of course be explained naturalistically; social scientists can and do put forward plausible explanations of the emotional, sociological, and historical factors about language that prevent individual speakers from fully mastering what they say. But a religious believer has reason also to take these factors of language as ways by which God shapes our world and destiny: vehicles through which God works. If God shapes nature and history, as the Jewish tradition believes, then God surely shapes language. And if God can be present in trees and waterfalls and horses, as Buber and his followers suggest, then God can also be present in language. God can speak.

What remains is to locate the linguistic site or sites in which we think God speaks pre-eminently. And for Jews, there is one obvious such site: the Torah. Even modern Jews, renouncing the theologically and historically implausible story of God literally speaking to Moses on Sinai, must recognize the fact that the canonization of the Torah was basic to the formation of our tradition. Perhaps that canonization reflects the traces of a powerful historical event, dimly recalled in the Sinai story; perhaps it came about because the Sinai story fit well with the experience of Jews returning from Babylonian exile, as described in Ezra-Nehemiah; perhaps it came about because the Sinai story simply spoke strongly to the ethical and spiritual imagination of Second Temple Jews. Whatever the reason, the text was canonized, and that set the stage for all the midrashim, ritual practices, legal codes and theology that have defined our tradition for over two millennia. I propose that we embrace this canonization as the means by which we have let God speak to us — have created a space in which we can share language with God. In the remainder of the essay, I sketch out what “sharing language with God” might look like.

Selected Passages (they are not consecutive)

God encounters us, if at all, in language — not, and certainly not just, wordlessly. If God shapes nature and history, as the Jewish tradition believes, then God surely shapes language. And if God can be present in trees and waterfalls and horses, then God can also be present in language: God can speak.

The first thing we need to do in order to recognize such a mystery in language is step back from the attempt to control some bit of language, to be sure we know what it means or implies. Which is to say: we need to humble ourselves to it, to let it guide or direct us, let it have authority over us. We need to allow God into our language if God is to speak to us, and we do that by giving some bit of language authority, directive power, over us.

The text was canonized, and that set the stage for all the midrashim, ritual practices, legal codes and theology that have defined the Jewish tradition for over two millennia. By embracing this canonization, we (re-)join our tradition’s particular form of humbling oneself before God. Jews encounter God, first and foremost, in the Torah. If we can’t encounter God there, we have no reason to expect such an encounter elsewhere.

What exactly God might mean by way of these things is a separate question. If, by hypothesis, they reflect something endlessly mysterious, beyond our grasp, then what we take them to mean should be constantly in flux: they will require endless midrash, and endless re-interpretation of the directives they seem to give us. What an all-good being, who loves all human beings and whom we can love, might mean by an expression or command is quite different from what a scribe or priest in ancient Israel might have meant, even if that scribe or priest is the immediate source of these words. Once we ascribe the Torah to God, we have ipso facto stripped it of its most straightforward meaning: we have opened it up to midrash. Taking the Torah’s words to be divine rather than human is precisely an invitation to a fluid, ever-changing process of interpreting them.

But the essential step is for us to take the Torah to be divine; we cannot hear a bit of language as spoken by God unless we invest it with the capacity to be that. We sanctify texts and only then can God speak to us through them. We may compare this process to what happens, according to the Torah itself, when we build a tabernacle for the worship of God. We build it, we sanctify it, and only then can God dwell in it. Exactly the same is true of the language of the Torah. “Language is the house of Being,” says the later Heidegger, and there could be no better metaphor for the Torah. The Torah is the house of God for us, but it becomes that if and only if we make it holy — if we invest it with sanctity, regard it as a way for God to address us. The sanctification of the tabernacle, in the Torah, requires us to treat all its parts with reverence, and never to use the whole for profane, daily purposes, let along to mock or trample it. Only then does it become a home of God, a space we can share with God.

Sanctifying the Torah itself is similarly to treat all its words with reverence, and to avoid employing it for our profane, daily purposes: to try always to learn from it rather than reading into it what we find it convenient to do, let alone mocking it or trampling on its demands. We make the Torah holy — we recognize and thereby establish its sanctity — but it then becomes speech that God can inhabit, speech we can share with God. Once we invest the Torah with authority, we can encounter God in it. On the literalist views common in many traditional Jewish communities, the Torah derives its authority from the fact that we long ago witnessed God speaking it. I am suggesting instead that if we invest the Torah with authority, God can today speak to us. The Torah is not authoritative because it is divine; it is divine because it is authoritative.

In short, the view I am recommending would return us to the traditional Jewish idea that the Torah is God’s word but not out of any historically naïve belief that God literally spoke it to Moses at Sinai. Rather, the view reflects an understanding of language as bearing God’s presence in its mystery, as a meeting place for God and humanity rather than a purely human product. This is a view that fits far better with the Jewish tradition, with personalist monotheism, and with philosophical understandings of the relationship between language and reality, than does wordless encounter theology. The central object of Jewish faith is that God speaks our language — dibra Torah k’lashon bnei Adam. This is what Christians would call a “mystery,” to be sure: a paradox as great and of much the same kind as the Incarnation. But it is mysteries that distinguish revealed religions from the rational theology of philosophers. There is an irremediable paradox or mystery in the idea that an infinite, perfect being can enter our finite, highly imperfect lives — but without that paradox, there can be no personal God, and certainly not the personal God of Judaism.

In a robust sense, then, we can emphatically say that Oral Torah was “given” at Sinai alongside Written Torah. But it was given as free will was given: as a fluid, ever-changing method or set of methods of interpretation, perhaps even just a call to autonomous interpretation on our part, not as a fixed set of meanings for the divine words to which it is directed. And if “Sinai” is, as I have been suggesting, a metaphor for a process that took place historically when we canonized the Torah, we can translate this point about oral Torah by noting that canonization of the written Torah went inextricably along with the rise of oral modes of interpretation. Fixing the written Torah as the word of God freed up its meaning to range widely, and to change over time. What God might plausibly mean by a set of words is after all very different from what a human author might mean by those same words. It is implausible to think that a 5th-century BCE Israelite priest or scribe might intend his words to be read in the light of modern liberalism, but it is not implausible to think that God might intend for us, today, to read them that way: God’s communication is not circumscribed by place and time.

But as long as we realize that attributing the Torah to God should make us more vigilant, not less, about seeking admirable meanings for it, I see no reason — no moral reason, no philosophical reason, and no historical reason — not to attribute the whole Torah to God: every sentence and word of it, as Maimonides admonished us to do.

We may be elated at the burning bush, bemused by the lists in Numbers, and horrified by the stubborn and rebellious son, but we can find religiously valuable meanings in all these passages: as our tradition has in fact long done. And anything less than this holistic reverence for the Torah, anything that splits it into more and less acceptable bits, takes away from its ability to teach us, to humble and thereby enrich the ethical and spiritual sensibilities we bring to it. The Torah becomes less than a Celan poem, and far less than an object of sanctity, a space for encountering God. We preserve the sanctity of the Torah by preserving it whole. “These and these” — all the sentences of the Torah — are the words of the living God. I know no more powerful way of encountering that God.

Full Version of Part II – here

5 responses to “Sam Fleischacker, Words of the Living God- Part II

  1. I am very sympathetic to the Fleischacker reconstruction of Orthodox theology. It will take some time to understand how the different parts fit together, and there will certainly be objections to giving up the dictation model of revelation. But in the end there will not be many plausible models left standing, and my guess is that Fleischacker’s variation, with its emphasis on the priority of objective moral principles will be one of the leading candidates.
    Prof. Fleischacker’s philosophy makes much more sense to me than the lebensphilosophie and vitalism we find in the work of Green and Fishbane .

  2. Should we also “invest” with authority and divinity every verse and word, even those passages in Joshua describing herem for populations conquered, those commanding wiping out Amalek, etc.?

  3. It would appear that the author fails to take into account the Hasidic sources which most of these theologians are indebted to and their kabbalistic origins. Using the work of Elliot R. Wolfson to understand the kabbalsitic terminology in contemporary jargon, it would be more appropriate to say that God is beyond language, but we can only encounter God paradoxically through the overcoming of language through language.
    The other gist of his argument is completely in line with many post-modern understandings of history, view Jaffe on Gadammarrian hermeneutics in regard to Halacha.
    All in all his critique against modernist historical criticism is well placed, but the “wordless”theologies he attacks shows a lack of grasping the source material of these theologies in the Kabbalah, which may even show a hyperlinguilistic understanding of existence.

    • I’m not sure what Elliot Wolfson cites as the basis for this premise.
      Here are a couple of primary sources amongst many more from Hasidic teachings that would imply the contrary:

      ‘…Each word encompasses Worlds, Souls and Divinity…The words that you speak should have this intention that each word embodies all three levels.’ (Baal Shem Al HaTorah; 17)

      ‘The letters are vessels and garments and one needs to draw into them while pronouncing them, the spiritual flow within them and the presence of the Ein Sof who gives life to all things.’ (Toldot Ya’akov Yosef, v,3a)

      It appears that rather than overcoming language to achieve divine encounter, one is expected to merge with the body of language in order to behold the divine luminescence latent within.

  4. I don’t see the contradiction,for the Toldot Yaakov Yosef source, for instance, one draws into the letters in order to encounter the Ein Sof, which is beyond them. In mystical thought many times the transcendent reality is not only to be found “out there”, but in “here”. However, both terms represent an unpresentable reality. For in the Ein Sof there is no language, there is only the Ein Sof, which is already too much to say and better to be silent.

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