Professor Tamar Ross
Moses Maimonides’s eighth principle of faith emphasizes belief in a divine Torah, entailing the notion that the biblical text in our hands today was transmitted by God to Moses, that every word of this text is equally divine and laden with meaning, and that this written text was simultaneously accompanied by an oral commentary. Critical approaches to the biblical text that pose problems for this formulation are not a modern invention, but there is no denying that the scope and intensity of such questions have deepened considerably in the past century. Beyond the usual difficulties (erroneous or fallible content, questionable morality and textual evidence of evolutionary historical development), the feminist critique has most recently problematized the very notion of divine revelation as verbal communication – given that language itself now appears so pervasively rooted in a particular perspective and cultural bias.
One heterodox response to such difficulties has been to abandon the notion of divine revelation altogether. Thus, Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, rejects any appeal to metaphysics and transcendence in describing the origins of the Torah. Instead, he prefers to view revelation naturalistically, as the human ‘discovery’ of how to live religiously. Other non-Orthodox responses, as represented in the writings of Franz Rosenzweig, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Louis Jacobs, all appear to be variations on Martin Buber’s attempt to promote a more nuanced understanding of revelation that does not reject biblical claims to metaphysics altogether. This more complex approach to the biblical text, which has come to be known as ‘dialectical theology’, understands everything in the Torah that is said about God as a human effort to convey or recapture certain genuine meetings with the divine. Because such meetings were inevitably experienced in a particular linguistic and cultural context that structured the nature of the experience and its interpretation, and no written or oral report can totally successfully convey these encounters in terms that are entirely free of the influence of historical context, the argument now consists of just how much was revealed in that meeting. Differences of opinion range from the notion that the divine element consisted merely in the meeting itself, with all resultant texts a human response, to the belief that a complete text was given but necessarily distorted because every human ‘hearing’ involves re-interpretation, or to some in-between suggestion of a more minimalistic linguistic message that was relayed and left for humans to fill in over time. At any rate, what is left for us is to extract the eternal illuminations that the Torah communicates to us from those trappings that are the fruit of passing human experience.
Viewing revelation as a dialogic encounter which entails both human and divine elements appears more satisfactory than Kaplan’s reductionism. Instead of understanding the religious experience as merely the product of innately human impulses, this approach acknowledges biblical claims to a supernatural source. However, such a theology does not satisfy the traditional requirement that the entire Torah be viewed as the word of God and that all its details be regarded as equally authoritative and binding. And so the question remains: Can a document so thoroughly riddled with identifiably dated and partisan human perspectives truly be divine? Can traditionalists develop an approach to the Torah that acknowledges the naturalist explanations of Mordecai Kaplan without his reductionism, and appropriates the metaphysical claims of dialectical theology without succumbing to its selectivity?
An increasing number of Orthodox Jews are recognizing that biblical criticism is not a theory that they can accept or reject at will. Contemporary scholars may argue regarding this or that particular version of the documentaryhypothesis, such as whether there was one final redactor or many, or the exact dates involved, but there is no way that empiric evidence will leave the traditional picture intact. Until recently, however, the traditionalist response to such conclusions has largely been simply to ignore or avoid them. To the extent that Orthodox thinkers have attended at all to the challenges of higher criticism, they have generally adopted a modernist approach associated with the slogan Torah u-madda (‘Torah and science’), which regards both sources of knowledge as valuable avenues to Truth. Such an approach addresses any possible discrepancies between them as localized controversies regarding ‘the facts of the matter’. Under such circumstances, the validity of the Torah’s rendition will always be maintained.
Proponents of this approach often enlist the tools of science itself in order to defend the accuracy of traditional accounts on science’s own grounds. Alternatively, difficulties are resolved by appeal to Maimonides’s classic statement that ‘the gates of interpretation are never sealed’, intimating that whenever the literal meaning of the Torah can be incontrovertibly refuted, thisshould be taken as clear indication that the text was meant to be understood allegorically, with deeper meanings to be extracted by the more philosophically inclined. Questionable features of biblical morality are resolved in a similarly ad-hoc manner, drawing on various apologetic arguments in order to defend their underlying values and conclusions. Rabbi Mordechai Breuer’s understanding of biblical contradictions as planted deliberately by God for educational reasons, or Professor David Weiss Halivni’s suggestion of a perfect Torah corrupted during a period of halakhic negligence (whose practical consequences are corrected through authoritative midrashic interpretation), offer more striking and ingenuous theories as justification for what on first blush appear to be perplexing anomalies in the text. However, there is no denying that the entire battery of tactics which still links the sanctity of the Torah to the authenticity of an original revelatory event at Sinai, and to the unique status of Moses as prophet, loses its persuasiveness when the various difficulties it purports to address can be far more simply and elegantly explained by reference to their historical setting and the development of human understanding.
In line with the observation of Edward de Bono, an authority on creative thinking, who states that ‘asking the right question may be the most important part of thinking’, I believe that the key to an Orthodox resolution of this dilemma involves a radical departure from the Torah u-madda approach, which relates to all truth claims of religion cognitively, as simple statements of fact. Instead of questioning whether the doctrine of Torah from Heaven is true empirically, Orthodox believers must rather ask: what is its function in the context of their religious lives. Is its primary concern to discuss history or to fulfil purposes of another sort?
A notable passage from The Lonely Man of Faith, in which Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, revered leader of American Modern Orthodoxy, states that he has ‘not been perplexed by the impossibility of fitting the mystery of revelation into the framework of historical empiricism’, might be construed as a first step in this new direction. While asserting that we ‘unreservedly accept the unity and integrity of the Scriptures and their divine character’, Soloveitchik declares that he is untroubled by ‘theories of Biblical criticism which contradict the very foundations upon which the sanctity and integrity of the Scriptures rest’, on the strength of a distinction he makes between factual and non-factual biblical to the original text that the two views mandate. Because Leibowitz still appeals to a form of reasoning beyond religious discourse in stipulating the existence of a God whose nature transcends human understanding, and is not revealed in history, he is driven to demythologize the ‘religious facts’ described in the Torah which purport to talk about God and His relationship with the world. Instead of taking such descriptive statements at face value, he must relate to them as value judgments and directives for practical behaviour, so that they will not clash with his pre-conceived theological views. Solomon’s understanding, by contrast, allows him to accept the mythic formulation unconditionally, with no theological strings attached.
Irrespective of questions regarding their original intent and context, Solomon’s point is that it is only when biblical narratives are treated strictly as history that questions of ‘accuracy’ become appropriate, and the need to formulate apologetic resolutions with contemporary sensibilities arises. When treated as a myth of origin, the traditional account of revelation – even if it appears today as entirely fictitious or overwhelmingly inaccurate – can still bear theological validity as it stands. Its rationality or ‘truth’ is maintained not by appeal to external evidence or re-interpretation, but in its ability to discharge its mythic function, imbuing those who appropriate it with a sense of responsibility to the past and inducing them to relate to the received text of
Scripture as sacrosanct.
In elucidating this view of revelation as myth, Solomon alludes in passing to some measure of affinity with the concept of ‘narrative theology’ now fashionable in some Christian circles identified as ‘post-liberal’. Indeed, the appeal to the role of myth in religious life in both cases joins forces with a broader interest on the part of various contemporary philosophers in highlighting the place of ‘as if’ beliefs in all aspects of our cognitive activity. Contrary to what many non-scientists tend to assume, even such partial truths as protons and electrons, waves of light, gravity as distortions of space, are not things that anyone has seen or proven to exist. Nevertheless, because they are useful constructs that work for the moment, we relate to these convenient fictions ‘as if’ they were true, hoping that they will lead us to better, more useful understandings that can reflect as well as contribute to how we conduct our day to day living.
In a religious context, the primary function of such beliefs is to generate a stock of suggestive images and associations that tacitly direct the way we experience and deal with the more spiritually challenging aspects of human existence, preserving a sense of wonder and awareness of the mysterious boundary conditions of our experience that exceed rational comprehension. At other times ‘as if’ beliefs function more politically, structuring verbal or nonverbal behaviours that define the community of the faithful and establish group membership. Professing ‘belief’ in Torah from Heaven, for example, might serve – among other functions – to signal to other Orthodox Jews that the speaker is a member of their group. In this context the doctrine of Torah from Heaven is part of a vocabulary of Jewish religious identity, a ‘rule of thumb’ with which to approach the world in company with fellow religionists, rather than a fully informed judgment about history or metaphysics.
From the point of view of Orthodox Judaism, another significant point of similarity between defining Torah from Heaven as a foundational myth and post-liberal theology (beyond a loose understanding of doctrine) is the unusual combination of radical post-modernism and nearly fundamentalist traditionalism that both positions afford. Despite the extreme liberty that they display in divorcing the meaning of religious statements from the manner in which they are formulated, Christian post-liberals nevertheless insist on absolute commitment to abide by the formal guidelines of the religious system within which they function, and to submit to their internal authority. Transposing this approach to Orthodox Judaism, accepting Torah from Heaven as a myth of origin rather than an accurate historical account frees the religious believer to relate to each and every word of the Torah ‘as if’ it were literally dictated by God and to embrace the written along with the Oral Torah as ‘a unified whole’. As Solomon puts it: ‘The narrative of Torah from Heaven presents the Torah as a timeless whole, revealed by God and managed by the rabbis. … Since myth is impervious to historical evidence, moral questioning, and the like, we do not have to “pick and choose” which bits of tradition to regard as “Torah from Heaven”; we simply tell the story.’
In a sense, a constructivist approach to divine revelation (viewing it as a type of ‘placeholder’ necessary for sustaining routine religious behaviour), can 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 this Jewish dogma. Indeed, it would be fair to say that most believers in the past assumed such an attitude unreflectively, simply allowing the concrete experience of their everyday lives to be shaped by this traditional religious claim, without dwelling overmuch on its precise doctrinal content. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that when this approach is adopted consciously and deliberately as a blanket response to newfound awareness that the doctrine of Torah from Heaven may not be literally ‘real’ or ‘true’ in any common-sense understanding of these terms, conducting one’s day to day living in accordance with its guidelines could be more problematic. Conveying reasonable import may not be the main function of religious truth claims, but a strong sense that they are unreasonable might well render them ineffective in accomplishing the regulative function for which they are meant: i.e. to compose the ‘picture’ that stands behind the religious form of life. Surely the fact that myths of origin in all religions present themselves as historical accounts, imposing an aura of objectivity, has something to do with their staying power.
A telling remark of the biblical scholar James Kugel illustrates this point. Although unencumbered by Leibowitz’s philosophical baggage regarding God’s utter transcendence, Kugel’s scholarly findings regarding the history of the transformation of the Bible into Scripture similarly preclude relating to traditional accounts of revelation as strictly factual descriptions. This leads Kugel to share much of Leibowitz’s ‘no-nonsense’ approach to Torah, regarding belief in its divinity primarily as affirmation of the rabbinic understanding that the true way to approach God is by submitting to His commands as explicated by the Oral Law. Nevertheless, in expanding on this notion in a theological epilogue to what is essentially a scientific work in biblical scholarship, Kugel confesses that he ‘could not be involved in a religion that was entirely a human artefact’ (How to Read the Bible, p. 689). For all his awareness of the decidedly human origins of the biblical text, an entirely man-made religion is not for him. Some appeal to the supernatural that extends beyond human initiative is still required in order to render compelling the rabbinic understanding of Torah as a by-product of Israel’s acceptance of ‘the supreme mission of serving God’, and their fleshing out of this perception in a myriad of legal particulars. The inherent inability of a constructivist approach to provide a patent objectivity, that is at any point guaranteed by reference to some factor that exceeds the limits and biases of human experience, inevitably leads all who struggle with this psychological obstacle to a more philosophical one: Can we know or experience a God that is by definition beyond definition and beyond our grasp? Changing the status of the doctrine of Torah from Heaven from historical truth to foundational myth may by-pass many specific questions arising out of the clash between scientific and religious world-views, thereby counteracting the dialectical theologians’ basis for selectivity. Nevertheless, due to its centrality to the religious way of life, its metaphysical claims are sui generis, a special case. Simply assuming the conceptual coherence of a God that can communicate with man, while ignoring the dubious ontological status of such talk is insufficient when conducted from within an ‘as if’ framework that has lost its pre-modern innocence. In order to accomplish its psychological task, a constructivist understanding of divine communication must also engage in serious examination of what ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses’ might possibly mean even beyond its self-certifying justification as the linchpin for a spiritually meaningful way of life.
I believe that the solution to this philosophical dilemma lies in developing a concept of God that breaks down the sharp dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, and between God’s existence and human initiative. This mode of response is arguably already being developed intuitively on the ground, where the true destiny of any theology is really determined – in an increased interest in mysticism and the interconnected nature of all that exists. But this is an issue which deserves further treatment on a more philosophically rigorous plane. It is to this vista that the future of Orthodox theology beckons.