Sermon delivered at the New London Synagogue, probably around 1964.
The New London Synagogue came into being as the result of a dispute concerning revelation. But revelation is a theological concept and theology is notoriously elusive. While I am more grateful than I can express in words to the members of my Synagogue for their personal loyalty, it must be obvious that the formation of a new congregation has to be based on something more than friendship to an individual rabbi. Our members see this and are aware of the wider implications of our stand. Yet some of them would be hard put to formulate the difference between the New London Synagogue and other traditional congregations in Anglo-Jewry. Our services are not different in essence from those of the United Synagogue. Wherein then lies the difference and what is the theological justification for the existence of yet another synagogue group? The simple answer is that there is a need for a movement in Anglo-Jewry which bases its adherence to traditional Judaism on a non-fundamentalist approach to the idea of revelation. To make this issue clearer is the purpose of this pamphlet.
We begin with the views of those who disagree with us. If our opponents were a few insignificant fanatics with neither power, nor influence in the community they could safely be ignored. They are, however, the acknowledged, leaders of Orthodoxy in this country with a claim they zealously guard of being the only representatives of what they are fond of referring to as authentic Judaism. They number in their ranks the present Chief Rabbi and his predecessor, the London Beth Din and Batei Din in the provincial centres, as well as practically all the Orthodox rabbis and ministers, who have either stated explicitly their belief in verbal inspiration or have acquiesced in it by their silence when the question was raised. A formidable array, so that the poor layman finds it hard to believe that all these can be wrong. Yet in our view they are wrong and hopelessly wrong at that.
In a statement issued to the press (Jewish Chronicle, February 2nd, 1962) the Dayanim of the London Beth Din reject all higher criticism of the Bible and all textual criticism and they affirm their belief in verbal inspiration. What does this mean? It means that the following sixteenth century formulation of Maimonides’ eighth principle of the Jewish faith must be accepted in toto: ‘I believe with perfect faith that the whole law, now in our possession, is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be unto him’ (Singer’s Prayer Book, new edition, page 94). In the Hebrew the word translated as ‘law’ is Torah. This refers in the first instance to the Pentateuch and then by extension to all the elaborations and expositions of the Pentateuch found in the Rabbinic literature. All this was given to Moses either at Sinai or during the forty years journey through the wilderness about three thousand years ago.
To appreciate what such a belief entails it is necessary to spell it out in some detail. It involves the acceptance of the following propositions: The Author of the Pentateuch is God Himself. He conveyed to Moses every word and every letter of the Five Books exactly as they are in the Scroll in the Ark today. All that Moses did was to write it all down. Moses was a passive scribe who simply recorded the information given to him. This divine text was handed down from generation to generation with a built-in guarantee against the slightest error creeping in. If any of the ancient versions such as the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, have different readings from our present text, no matter how convincing these may appear, they are all wrong and our text invariably and infallibly right. The words of the Torah now in our possession are quite literally the words of God. And this means, again quite literally, every single word of the five Books, so that the frequently occurring words: ‘And the Lord spoke unto Moses’ were themselves spoken by the Lord to Moses. The Torah has no history. There is no question of any development under the influence of changing conditions. The precepts are exactly as we keep them today. David wore tefillin, for example, exactly the same in shape, size and form as our tefillin, and there were separate utensils for meat and milk in his palace. All the prophets kept all the rules found in the Shulhan Arukh, the standard Code of Jewish observance compiled in the 16th century, with the exception of those such as the kindling of the Hanukkah lights which avowedly did not come into existence until after their day. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Methuselah and Noah, are historical figures. The account of the flood and Noah’s Ark is a factual description of events which really happened in the way they are said to have happened in the book of Genesis. It is strange that Hebrew shows striking affinities with Arabic and other Semitic languages but Hebrew is not really a human language at all but was conveyed by God as the mystical vehicle for the transmission of divine truth. Even those institutions which are of Rabbinic origin, such as the daily prayers, are really the result of a kind of divine revelation, albeit of a weaker order. The Men of the Great Synagogue composed the Amidah, for example, under the influence of the holy spirit so that these words and letters, too, are a divine communication which can never be altered in any way. These views are binding upon all Jews. Anyone who does not accept them is a heretic and has no share in the World to Come.
The conclusions to be drawn from these views are as follows. Much of what is taught in the Hebrew and Semitics departments of the world’s universities is heresy and completely untrue. All Biblical criticism is taboo whether the higher criticism, textual criticism or the researches of the Scandinavian school. Practically every modern Jewish Biblical scholar of note is a heretic—Cassuto, M. H. Segal, Y. Kaufmann, Harry Orlinsky, H. L. Ginzberg, E. Speiser and all the teachers of Bible at the Hebrew University. All modern Jewish scholarship in the field of Rabbinics is heresy because it is based on the idea of development. The vast majority of religious Jews today, including most members of the United Synagogue, are heretics in that they reject some of the above-mentioned propositions, though they are probably unaware that this is what Judaism demands they believe and they are consequently more or less blameless. The passages in the Talmud and in Maimonides’ writings which formulate what revelation means, even though they were drawn up centuries before the rise of modern historical scholarship, are to be accepted without question as permanent and binding upon the faithful Jew for all time. If a student persists in utilizing the methods of the great modern practitioners of the art of Jewish scholarship such as Zunz, Rapoport, Steinschneider, Z. Erankel, Krochmal, I. H. Weiss and Geiger and in our own day Baer, Scholem, Wolfson and Baron, to name just a few, he must do so only in order to know the views of the ‘other side’ for the purposes of refutation. Every modern religious thinker of note, no matter how committed he may be to belief in God and to Judaism as a religious faith, was or is a teacher of heresy, Claude Montefiore to be sure, Martin Buber of a certainty, but also Rosenzweig, Leo Baeck, Solomon Schechter, Ernst Simon, Heschel, Finkelstein and Herberg. The only one who appears to emerge unscathed is Samson Raphael Hirsch and he lived in the last century and, it is claimed, never intended whatever concessions he made to modern thought to be understood as anything more than temporary measures introduced in order to stem the tide of apostasy.
Very many intelligent Jews today find these views incredibly crude and unacceptable. It seems overwhelmingly probable that the Pentateuch, for example, is a composite work, that is to say, it contains material coming from diverse sources compiled at different times, some of it, at the very least, dating from long after Moses. The Pentateuch, it should be noted, does not itself make the claim that it was written by Moses and there are many statements in it (some of them detected by great Jewish teachers in the Middle Ages like Abraham Ibn Ezra) which are anachronistic if the work in its entirety was written down in Moses’ day. When Biblical criticism and historical scholarship generally have done their work the picture which emerges with the greatest clarity is of a human work, produced as all other human works are produced and thus amenable to literary analysis and philological investigation, which does not impart anything like infallible information. To quote only the best-known example, according to Genesis chapter 1 the world was created in six days. Brave fundamentalists still hold, on the basis of Genesis and Jewish tradition, that the world was created just over five thousand seven hundred years ago. On the more sophisticated level attempts are made to demonstrate that Genesis does not mean what it appears to mean, that a ‘day’, for example, in the creation narrative means a very long period of time so as to correspond with the geological ages discovered by science. But apart from the contradiction in the order of Genesis and the scientific picture and, contrary to Genesis, the age of man on earth is something like half a million years, it is impossible to maintain that a ‘day’ divided into evening and morning can mean a geological period. Most educated people today are ready to acknowledge that the value of the creation narrative is in its marvellous description of God as Creator of all, in the revelation of a new and eternal insight into the significance of human life, not in the information it conveys about the physical world, the Biblical writers having only the science of their own day and expressing their thoughts in the language of that far-off age.
What becomes, then, of revelation? The answer many of us feel to be the most satisfactory one is that revelation should be seen less in terms of infallible propositions dictated by God than of God revealing Himself to man in a series of encounters. The Pentateuch and the other parts of the Bible are the human record of these encounters, the record of man’s search for God and of God allowing Himself to be found, together with the resulting demands for man to come nearer to His Creator by leading a life of justice, righteousness, compassion and holiness. To be sure much more is now in a state of flux than on the so-called traditional view but there are gains for religious faith in the new picture. The Torah is no longer seen as a magical book with a fairy-tale quality which removes it from the living concerns of men and women in the world as we know it. Belief in the impossible is not demanded as the price of faith and man can allow his faith to cohere with the rest of his knowledge. He can be a man of the profoundest religious faith without having either to remain in ignorance or to be intellectually dishonest.
The two views of revelation we have sketched might be described as the static versus the dynamic. They might also be called, as they have been in the New London Synagogue controversy, the fundamentalist versus the modernist, although these terms are taken from similar controversies in the Christian world at the beginning of the century. (It is painful that, we Jews have taken so long to bring the problem into the open). ‘Fundamentalist’ is no term that can really be applied to a Jew since the Torah as understood by Judaism is not the literal word of the Bible but its interpretation in the Jewish tradition. For all that the term is the best we can find to describe the position of those who believe in verbal inspiration. Even though the ‘word’ is not to be understood literally it is thought of as having been directly dictated by God. Indeed, in a sense, this type of Jewish believer is even more ‘fundamentalist’ than his Christian counterpart at the beginning of the century because he holds that the traditional interpretation, too, was given directly by God. Nor is the term ‘modernist’ entirely adequate to express our point of view since this term has come to mean in this context that one holds that the Bible is only inspired in the sense in which it can be said that Shakespeare or Beethoven are inspired whereas in our view the Bible is the unique record of the divine-human encounter. For all that the terms are useful in pinning down the differences and they are less cumbersome than ‘verbal inspirationist’ and ‘non-verbal inspirationist’. On the fundamanentalist view God gave the Torah to humans. On the modernist view He gave it through humans. The modernist holds that there is a human element in the Torah. This means on the one hand that the Bible can and should be investigated like any other human book. But on the other hand it means that the way in which the Biblical teachings became fruitful in the Jewish tradition, the way, in a word in which the Bible became the Torah, is itself the work of God. It is God who is revealed in the on-going, God-questing, dynamic process, so that the devout Jew can say, as he does, without being guilty of talking nonsense: ‘Blessed art Thou O Lord our God King of the Universe who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments and hast commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah’.
We do not believe that in stating our views and in attacking the fundamentalist view we are destroying faith. On the contrary, faith is strengthened if one refuses to invoke it to justify untenable beliefs. When a man finds himself constantly defending faith by denying his reason he comes perilously close to affirming that faith itself is really unreasonable. There is to be observed a definite tendency in Jewish thought reaching back to the Rabbis which is of importance to our discussion. (It is not, of course, suggested that the Rabbis or Maimonides held the modernist view. This would be the kind of anachronism of which we have accused the fundamentalist. The Rabbis and Maimonides lived long before the rise of the particular problems we have to face so that the really important thing is not what these teachers said long ago but what they would have said were they alive today. This can only be gauged by observing the tendency of their thought in the pre-critical age). This can be called the reductionist principle. There is a marked tendency to limit the scope of revelation while accepting revelation as the basis of the Jewish faith. (It is true that the opposite tendency can also be observed but this is what we might have expected with regard to such an intricate theme as revelation which on any showing is bound to be draught with mystery and tension since it deals with the divine break-through into the finite world.)
Here are some examples of the reductionist principle. First there is the famous sermon preached by the third century Palestinian teacher, R. Simlai, and recorded in the Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a). R. Simlai observed that 613 precepts were given to Moses but David reduced them to 11 (Psalm 15), Isaiah to 6 (Isaiah 33: 15-16), Micah to 3 (Micah 6: 8), Isaiah again to 2 (Isaiah 56: 1), and, finally, Habakkuk to 1: ‘But the righteous shall live by his faith’ (Habakkuk 2: 4). R. Simlai did not intend his sermon to convey the thought of an actual reduction (the Hebrew heemidan means literally ‘to make them stand’ i.e. to reduce them to fewer general principles so as to sum them all up in simpler form from which the rest would all follow) but was thinking of certain great ideas taught by the later heroes of the Bible as principles from which everything else could be derived. In this passage it is stated, too, that only the first two of the ten commandments were uttered by God Himself, the rest being conveyed to the people by Moses. Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed II: 33) is of the opinion that the people only heard a voice without articulation and it was Moses who articulated the words for the people. The Hasidic master R. Mendel of Rymanov (d. 1814) writes that only the first letter of the ten commandments, the letter alef, was actually heard by the people. Professor Scholem notes that the letter alef is represents the position taken by the larynx when a word begins with a vowel. It can he said to be the basis of all articulate sound but is itself next to nothing. ‘Thus with his daring statement that the actual revelation to Israel consisted only of the alef, Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with infinite meaning, hut without specific meaning. In order to become a foundation of religious authority, it had to be translated into human language, and that is what Moses did. In this light every statement on which authority is grounded would become a human interpretation, however valid and exalted, of something that transcends it’. Scholem goes on to remark that Franz Rosenzweig sought to convey a similar idea when he said: ‘The only immediate content of revelation is revelation itself; with va-yered (He came down, Exodus 19: 20) it is essentially complete, with va-yedabber (He spoke, Exodus 20: 1) interpretation sets in, and all the more so with anokhi (the ‘I’ at the beginning of the Decalogue)’.
We repeat that one must not look for a solution to our kind of problem in any direct sense in the ancient sources. The Rabbis certainly held what is now considered to be the fundamentalist view but in their day there was no reason for them not to hold it. Even the non-believer was a believer that the Pentateuch was written by Moses only he held that Moses made it all up out of his own head and it was the character of the Torah as divine that the Rabbis were concerned to uphold. But from the reductionist principle we can learn for our own situation that revelation is the great mystery at the heart of the Jewish faith, that once it is affirmed that God and man have met and the record of that meeting is found in the Torah one has said a great deal, and that, in our age, to be too clinical and too definite about the scope of revelation is calculated to hinder faith instead of promoting it.
But is all this the Orthodox view? How does it differ from Reform? Orthodoxy is a question-begging term. If by it fundamentalism is intended the New London Synagogue is not Orthodox and does not wish to be Orthodox. But the New London Synagogue is traditional in its services, in its attitude towards the Sabbath and the dietary laws, in its general respect for the values of the past (though it must be said that once the dynamic principle is acceded to it must follows that Jewish law and practice should not be allowed to stagnate). Some Reform congregations today tend to hold similar views and insofar as they do are very close to our position. In the United States we would belong in the ranks of the Conservatives. What it amounts to is that in the Jewish world of today there are large numbers of traditionally minded Jews who love the traditional Jewish way of war life and see in it something more than folk-ways. They see the tradition as providing the Jew with his vocabulary of worship, with the road to his God. But they cannot in honesty share the fundamentalist view and believe that modernism within the tradition is today the best way of furthering the tradition.
If the reader of this pamphlet is a traditionalist let him study the two views carefully and test them against what he himself really believes in his heart of hearts. If he comes to the conclusion that there is no intellectual objection to Jewish fundamentalism he can join an organisation like the United Synagogue, or remain within it if he is already a member, without being false to himself, but if he comes to the conclusion that the modernist version is the only satisfactory one intellectually then his place is with us in the New London Synagogue or in other bodies we hope will be formed to further the same ideas.
 The two main passages in the classical sources in which the doctrine of verbal inspiration is taught are the following: ‘Because he hath despised the word of the Lord’ (Numbers 15: 31). This verse refers to one who maintains that the Torah is not from heaven. And even if he maintains that the whole Torah is from heaven but that a certain verse was not dictated by the Holy One, blessed be He, but is from Moses himself, he is included under ‘Because he hath despised the word of the Lord’. And even if he admits that the whole Torah is from heaven with the exception of a single point, a particular argument from minor to major (kal va-homer), or a certain analogy (gezerah shavah), he is still included in ‘Because he hath despised the word of the Lord’ (Sanhedrin 99a).
‘The eight principle of faith. That the Torah has been revealed from heaven. This implies our belief that the whole of this Torah found in our hands this day is the Torah that was handed down by Moses and that it is all of divine origin. By this I mean that the whole of the Torah came unto him from God in a manner that is metaphorically called “speaking”; but the real nature of that communication is unknown to everybody except Moses (peace to him!) to whom it came. In handing down the Torah, Moses was like a scribe writing from dictation the whole of it, its chronicles, its narratives and its precepts. It is in this sense that he is called mehokek (=copyist). And there is no difference between verses like “And the sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim, Phut and Canaan” (Genesis 10: 6), or “And his wife’s name was Mehetabel, daughter of Matred” (Genesis 36: 39), or “And Timna was concubine” (Genesis 36: 12), and verses like “I am the Lord thy God” (Exodus 20: 2), and “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6: 4). They are all equally of divine origin and all belong to “The Law of God which is perfect, pure, holy and true” . . . . The interpretation of traditional law is in like manner of divine origin. And that which we know today of the nature of Sukkah, Lulab, Shofar, Tzitzit and Tefillin is essentially the same as that which God commanded Moses, and which the latter told us . . .’ (Maimonides: Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin chapter Helek). But from the historical point of view the doctrine of Torah from heaven in this sense did not itself drop down from heaven. The doctrine itself has a history. It is not found, for example, in the Pentateuch, indeed, historically considered the whole concept of the Torah is only found in the later books of the Bible (2 Chronicles 23: 18 and 30: 16; Daniel 9: 11-13). In the Pentateuch there are many references to torot i.e. particular laws or groups of laws, but not to the Pentateuch itself as the Torah. For a very helpful discussion of this theme see E. Speiser’s Introduction to his Genesis in The Anchor Bible, Doubleday, New York, 1964, pages xviii-xx. It is highly probable that the extreme emphasis on the particular doctrine of Torah from heaven in both the Talmud and in Maimonides has to be seen against the background of attack on the Torah by dissident groups and by Christianity and later by Islam so that a marked reaction was called for. But the validity of the historical approach is precisely what is at issue here.
 Abraham Ibn Ezra’s remarks in this connection are very well known, see his Commentary to Deuteronomy 1: 2 and to 34: 1. The literature on Biblical criticism is immense but a useful survey of all that has been written on Pentateuchal criticism is provided, with a full bibliography, in Otto Eissfeldt’s The Old Testament: An Introduction, translated by Peter R. Ackroyd, Blackwell, Oxford, 1966, pages 158-241. This careful and very comprehensive account by one of the leading Biblical scholars shows how ridiculous is the suggestion sometimes put forward in our fundamentalist circles that modern scholarship has nowadays returned to the traditional view.
 For a fuller discussion of the non-fundamentalist approach and a bibliography of works in this vein see my We Have Reason to Believe (3rd revised edition, Vallentine, Mitchell, London, 1965, pages 57-105 and the Epilogue pages 138-151) and Principles of the Jewish Faith (Vallentine, Mitchell, London, 1964, pages 216-301).
 For all this see Gershom G. Scholem: On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, translated by Ralph Manheim, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1955, pages 29-31.